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Intrepid beachgoers frolic as algae bloom engulfs China's coast

July 05, 2013|By Julie Makinen

BEIJING — Like a bright green shag carpet mutating uncontrollably, an algae bloom twice the area of Los Angeles County has engulfed the Chinese coast around the city of Qingdao and buried beaches knee-high in grass-like material.

Bulldozers and brigades of workers with pitchforks have been deployed to clean up the algae, called Enteromorpha prolifera, which began to appear a month ago. Though crews are hauling away hundreds of tons of the material per day, it’s unclear whether they’re even keeping pace with the growth.

The algae, known as hutai in Mandarin, is now covering an area of some 11,500 square miles. Scientists say the growth is spurred by an abundance of phosphorus and other nutrients in the water, probably from agricultural runoff, industrial pollution or even human waste.

A woman who answered the Qingdao Tourism Hotline on Friday said officials have delayed the traditional July 1 opening of the city’s designated beach swimming zone due to the algae bloom, which is 16 inches deep in some areas, though the plant poses no danger to humans.

Intrepid beachgoers have been frolicking in the green seas, lounging on plushy-looking green beds of the material on shore, even burying themselves in big green haystacks of the stuff.

This is the seventh year running that Qingdao has lived up to its name, which means “Green Island.” In 2008, when Qingdao was to host the Olympic sailing competition, the government dispatched 1,000 soldiers to the area to scoop up the algae using boats, trucks, bulldozers and nets.

Conditions for the algae growth are now ideal, with water temperatures about 68 degrees. Once temperatures rise to about 73, the algae will begin to die off naturally, experts said.

In the meantime, Chinese netizens are actively discussing how to put the mass of algae to good use. One Weibo user posted a recipe for a hutai dish that resembled guacamole.

Hutai is enjoyed as a food in southern China; dried it sells for about $6 a pound. It can be fried with peanuts or shrimp, mixed into spring rolls, and even made into pancakes with tofu, egg and flour. Low in calories and high in fiber, hutai is also said to lower cholesterol.

Some local seafood farms have been harvesting the algae, planning to dry it and use it as feed in the winter months.

Local authorities have tried to keep the algae away from the beach by installing more than seven miles of netting along the shore, but this year’s bloom has proved overwhelming.

At the Qingdao Holiday Inn, a concierge who wouldn’t give her name said Friday that some visitors were canceling their reservations due to the algae and that the water in the area was “not very clean.”

“Some people who love swimming very much are still going in,” she said. “But I wouldn’t recommend it.”

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Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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