We call it mung

By Doreen Leggett, Cape Codder (9/10/99)

When Henry David Thoreau ambled through Cape Cod in the 1800s, he wrote about the resourcefulness of its people, the beautiful and frightening power of the sea, and the shifting landscape of the dunes. He also wrote about mung. Thoreau described a seaweed he called "monkey hair." Others have called it angel hair, brown wool and "the slime." But to most hereabouts, one word will suffice; mung. For those not familiar with the local dialect, mung is that brown, thick, gloppy stuff that gathers at the waters edge (and remains after the water recedes) like a belt of porridge. It wreaks havoc with fishing line, makes the waters of Nantucket Sound and the Cape Cod National Seashore sometimes look less inviting than Boston Harbor, and when it bakes in the sun the smell can turn back even the most ardent beachgoers. Even though mung has been as much a part of Cape lore as whale strandings, there are surprisingly few studies on the plant Pylaiella, which is a common filamentous brown, or red brown algae.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the Marine Biological Laboratory, the local Sea Grant program and the state have not done a study of mung, at least not yet. "I have never heard of any particular study," said Arnold Howe, a senior marine fisheries biologist with the state. "I do know it is a hell of a problem." As a fisheries biologist, it isnít in Howeís purview to study algae, but he would be familiar with information on the topic. He remembers biologists taking a look at it at several universities, which he named, but he is familiar with it because he is also a recreational fisherman. "I donít tend to fish on the east side just because of the mung," Howe said. "It basically renders any kind of fishing effort moot. It is bad on the backside. I fish on the north and the south side and for me it was worse this spring than before." Maggie Geist, the research translator at Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, was also unaware of any body of research on Pylaiella. "To my knowledge no one has looked at it yet," she said. However, mungís days of just being written off as a nuisance may be numbered. There are some who believe its presence is increasing, and similar to the proliferation of a number of other algae, may speak, in neon colors, to some kind of imbalance in the ecosystem. Or more pointedly that the fact that the overcrowding of the peninsula, with its sandy soil, is producing too much fertilizer, in the form of nitrogen and phosphorus, and releasing it into salt, freshwater and estuarine systems causing a ripple of adverse effects. Mungís economic impacts may go beyond the tourist industry; its weight can topple fishing weirs, muck up screens in the aquaculture industry and smother shellfish beds.

The constant companion
Bill Whigham, the South District Supervisor of the Cape Cod National Seashore beaches, has been on the beaches for close to 35 years. And mung has been a fairly constant companion. He has seen it at High Head in Truro and south all the way to Nauset Inlet. It is most prevalent on seashore beaches when there is a northeast or north wind and shows up often in Wellfleet, at beaches such as Cahoons and Head of the Meadow. "Lifeguards get it in the pockets of their suits, in their hair, and it gets stuck in their Velcro (of their watches)," he said. "It stinks." Visitors arenít enamoured of it either. Ď"What is it?í" Whigham said they ask. Ď"And where we can go without it?í" "Ordinarily, it isnít really anything that has been a problem," said Dave Donovan, a lifeguard at Nauset, although there are vague memories of beaches being closed because of it. "We do get a little every summer, usually in August late July and it doesnít stay long," he said. People from New Jersey or New York ask if itís sewage or if it is from the outfall pipe. "It is just seaweed," he said. It is can be in a "slick" and can vary from 5 to 25 feet in width. Sometimes, Donovan said, people can swim underneath it and go for a swim in deeper water.

Harwich Natural Resource Officer Tom Leach said in the last year or two there has definitely been an increase in brown algae floating in Nantucket Sound, and that it seems to be denser near the mouth of channels and the Herring River. Leach is concerned about the growth of a number of algae species, took samples, and sent them up to a laboratory in Maine. Don Anderson, researcher at the laboratory, confirmed that the seaweed was Pylaiella. This June a weir fisherman in Chatham took a huge bag of brown stuff that was snapping his weirs to Robert Duncanson, Chathamís laboratory director. Duncanson said there are plans afoot to check to see if that is mung. Leach, Duncanson and Geist are all members of the Barnstable County Coastal Resources Committee and mung is on their "radar screen," Geist said. "It appears to the fishing community that it is on the increase. It would be a good study to see what the ramifications (of that increase) would be," Leach agreed. "My hunch is that it is all this nitrogen." In Waquoit Bay another type of seaweed covered the entire north shore and piled up in depths as much as a foot. This weed, Cladophora, was blamed for a lot of shellfish deaths and although its presence is inexplicable it is thought to be related to the amount of nitrogen in the bay. "It certainly seems to me that it calls for more water quality monitoring," Geist said. "It would be another warning sign to us on Cape Cod. Some of the excess nitrogen Ö is it effecting our nearshore habitats as well as (shoreline habitats)? It is certainly worth looking at."

Is it a warning, or not?
Don Cheney at Northeasternís Marine Science Center, who has studied the seaweed, said he doesnít see mung as a pollution problem. His study focused on Nahant (although he visited the Cape for research purposes) where it appears in huge quantities. "It is not a totally new phenomena," he said. "We have had the problem in Nahant for almost a 100 years. We have the granddaddy of the problems." He said that it depended on the water temperature, as well as the water current and circulation. What makes the seaweed unique is it will grow and fragment into smaller pieces and those pieces will grow and fragment as well. "You canít get rid of then by chopping it up or making it smaller," he said. Mung can grow in association with rockweed (which people are fond of popping) and can grow as spaghetti or in clumps. It also will grow as a little ball. In the laboratory some researchers looked at it and were prompted to say, "Look at that, isnít that cute," Cheney said. Cheney said it washes up on Nahantís beaches, rots and promptly smells awful. "It isnít caused by pollution per se," he said. "It becomes worse and worse throughout the summer and fall until a big storm washes it all away. It doesnít pose an environmental threat." That doesnít mean Nahant wanted it on the beaches. "It is unpleasant to swim in because it is kind of slimy," he said. Officials, he said, have been reluctant to invest too much money in removing it because it bothers a relatively small number of people on the shore. "People just put up with it," he said. Cheney said in the embayment where mung accumulates a road was built about 100 years ago. He believes that a change in the water pattern was significant enough to create the mung explosion.

James Sears, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts campus at Dartmouth, said he has never heard of mung, but has certainly heard of Pylaiella. The seaweed has shown up in long strands in Buzzardís Bay. "It takes the paint off houses it smells so bad," he laughed. Sears says he canít be sure of a nitrogen connection to the abundance, but a lot of algae respond to increased nitrogen in the water. Sears said mung often accumulates where there is a cul de sac and there is no release for the surface water. It takes the form of slurry. The mung belt can be four feet thick and 10 feet to 15 feet wide. At its worst, it is a foot and a half thick on the beach. One recent September in Nahant it covered 40,000 square meters and weighed an estimated 200 tons. It is mostly a problem in the summer and hangs around until October or November when the winter brings the first heavy wave action. "On the plus side it is great for sea birding," he said, adding that it attracts invertebrates and crustacea which in turn bring in the migratory birds. "(Birdwatchers) have started to view it as very positive thing." The National Seashoreís Whigham said that he it didnít think this year was a bad year on the Cape. He thinks the presence of mung has something to do with the sandbars because all the bars in Wellfleet were offshore, where the mung was, and the bars off of Marconi were huge, hundreds of yards long, and right on shore. He also heard that its mass was related to salinity, the amount of sunlight and the temperature in the water.

Skepticism about its Ďnaturalí causes
Fishermen are highly skeptical that the plethora of mung has nothing to do with human activity along the shore. "This subject has been the focus of a lot of discussion among all of the trap owners," said fisherman Mark Simonitsch, who plants traps, or weirs, along the coast of Nantucket Sound every year. "We are practical people, make practical observations and we are always looking for practical solutions." To that end he finds it highly unlikely that mung, or the increase of it, has nothing to do with the activities of humankind. Simonitsch said he canít be sure that the mung he is talking about is the same mung of Cheneyís or even of Leachís, but it seems likely. "We have a problem that we didnít have before. It (mung) is thriving," he said. "The way we live on Cape Cod there is strong reason to justify (the nitrate theory) Ö I donít think any board of health will be surprised." He said that if there is a heavy breeze the weight of the mung will break the wooden poles used in trap fishing. "It could be the thing that puts us out of business," Simonitsch said. A fisherman for more than 20 years, he has seen the seaweed move up the coast from Falmouth to Harwich and Chatham. In his view, that movementís imitation of denser development along that same coast is no accident. "If we keep talking about it we are going to trivialize it. There has to be a serious study done," he said.