Traditional use offers solution to modern sea lettuce problem

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In scenes reminiscent of more bygone days, workers from the Infrastructure, Housing and Environment Department are using machinery to collect the bright-green material from the beach before loading it into muck-spreader trailers for use on fields.

The drive to clear the beaches of sea lettuce has been stepped up in recent weeks amid the increase in sea temperatures which, each summer, cause the seaweed to flourish.

Bruce Labey, senior operations manager for parks, gardens and cleaning, said trials conducted using the material last year had gone well.

‘What’s collected is going straight to the fields to be used in the traditional way and it’s something I’m very pleased to see,’ he said. ‘It’s something we started in a small way last year and have now been able to expand – it’s working extremely well.’

Mr Labey said that while the total volume of sea lettuce collected was probably comparable to previous years, the agricultural use meant a smaller proportion was having to be processed at the green waste facility.

Members of Mr Labey’s team from the Infrastructure, Housing and Environment Department have also been trialling a new machine designed to help remove a significant proportion of the water content from sea lettuce that had been collected.

He said: ‘The salt causes a problem, so the more that we can take out, the better.

‘The machine is like a small car crusher and we are now making some modifications after the initial trial and hope to have further trials at the next spring tide in a couple of weeks’ time.’

Cool temperatures meant that the volume of sea lettuce was small to begin with in the early weeks of the summer, but Mr Labey said that it had started to grow once the sea temperature passed 14°C, and was now very evident as the water temperature had passed 17°C.

‘We see it in all parts of the bay, sometimes at West Park, or at St Aubin, or in mid-bay, depending on the tides and the winds. We collect more either side of a spring tide, whereas neap tides stretch across a much smaller area of sand.’ he said.

Perceptions that Jersey was contributing to the conditions in which sea lettuce thrived were inaccurate, Mr Labey said. He pointed out that the nitrate levels in water that was being discharged into St Aubin’s Bay from farming and treated effluent were lower than the average levels that were already present across St Malo Bay.

‘The nitrate levels and warm water are a perfect nursery for sea lettuce, and it’s not a situation that’s going to go away – it’s just a question of managing it,’ he said.

Although only used by a few farmers today, in times gone by, the scene of horse-pulled carts on the beach loaded up with vraic – a black-coloured weed – was once a common one.

The practice may seem simple but is in fact strictly controlled under Jersey law. According to the law books, vraic can only be gathered and taken off the beaches annually from 1 February to 30 April, between sunrise and sunset, from Monday to Saturday each week.

In 2019, new laws were drafted to allow vraic to be harvested more easily and support a number of small businesses which use the material.

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