UP TO 50 beaches along the Brittany coast have been forced to close amid growing concerns about toxic green seaweed that is washed up on the shore on a daily basis.
The death of dozens of wild boar on the northern coast has reignited safety concerns and prompted government action. Ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said: “Our priority is protection. No one should be allowed on a beach if it cannot be cleared of seaweed every 24 hours.”
Dr Claude Lesné, a specialist in the green algae, said there were 50 beaches along the Brittany coast that are not being cleared daily and that would be affected by the new measures.
He said: “The fact that the authorities have finally realised the reality and adopted measures as a result should restore people's confidence."
Test results suggest that 36 boar, found dead around Morieux and Hillion (Côtes d’Armor), were killed by fumes from the “green tides” of seaweed that are washing up on the shore in large quantities every summer.
The mayor of Morieux, Jean-Pierre Briens, said: "We are very worried. How could we not be, when animals are found dead?"
The seaweed issue first caught national attention in 2009 when a horse died and its owner fell unconscious after breathing fumes at the beach in Saint-Michel-en-Grève.
The problem appears to have spread to Normandy where officials at Grandcamp-Maisy recently collected 5,000 tonnes of seaweed, 60 per cent of which were green algae similar to those found in Brittany.
Tourism authorities in Brittany have been keen to minimise the problem, complaining about media coverage and insisting that it is limited to a small area. A Brittany tourist board spokesman said the region was paying the price for decades of intensive farming, but added: “Most of Brittany is not affected.”
Environmentalists, on the other hand, say the government has been too slow to respond and has played down the problem because it is reliant on votes from Brittany's powerful farming industry, which has been blamed for its overuse of fertilisers that make their way into the sea and help the weed develop.
Seaweed is naturally present on northern French beaches and is safe when it is freshly washed up. However, the algae on parts of the Brittany coast has mixed with nitrogen-rich waste in the sea and, when it rots in the sun, gives off hydrogen sulphide, a noxious gas with a foul smell. A spokesman for Eau et Rivières de Bretagne said:
"Everyone acknowledges that this is a public health problem."
It is a problem that pits the region’s tourist industry against its farming industry every year. Some hotels in the area have reported occupancy rates below 50% this summer, with lastminute cancellations and a serious loss of earnings after the French media reported on the dead boar. One owner has reportedly started chasing TV crews away if they try reporting nearby.
President Sarkozy visited the Côtes d’Armor this summer and praised farmers’ pledge to cut nitrate emissions by 20%. However, campaign group Halte aux Marées Vertes (Stop the Green Tides) says that is not enough and the government is focusing too much on the clean-up operation instead of properly addressing the problem at source.
The amount of weed collected has more than doubled in a year, up to 60,000m3 last year, costing €850,000.
André Ollivro, who has warned repeatedly of the dangers caused by green algae since the 1970s, said the seaweed were linked to a rise in allergies, breathing problems and irritations.
“Green tides pose a public health problem. It isn't just discomfort caused by the smell of rotting algae,” said Mr Ollivro, who says he is being targeted by locals for daring to speak out.
He added: “Local tourism and the global image of Brittany are widely harmed by this phenomenon.”
“The economic issues at stake are enormous, and there is a powerful agriculture lobby that puts pressure on politicians. We need to inform the public of the health risks and to fight on several fronts.”