Call it the Summer of Seaweed.

Officials in coastal towns are used to dealing with occasional gripes from tourists about traffic jams in summer, but many in southern Maine found themselves grappling with an unusual source of complaints this year: seaweed on the beaches.

At various times this summer, the beaches have been covered in thick layers of seaweed in towns usually noted for sandy expanses that are perfect for sunbathing and sand castle building. Town halls have been inundated with phone calls, emails and Facebook posts from tourists demanding the seaweed be removed.

Several towns are reviewing their beach cleaning policies to make sure they’re adequate and strike a balance between protecting the environment and keeping the sand clear for beachgoers.

“You have to have empathy for these people. They spend a lot of money to come to the beach in Maine and you want it to be a good experience for them,” said Stephen Burns, town manager in York. “But at the same time, you can’t just make the seaweed disappear. It’s a big challenge for all of the beach communities.”

A late June storm left Bathhouse Beach in Biddeford Pool covered with a blanket of brown seaweed so thick the sand was barely visible. An intense debate on Facebook pitted those who wanted the seaweed removed against others who pointed out that it is part of the ocean ecosystem. As the debate raged on, a Biddeford city councilor dubbed the situation “Seaweedgate.”

In recent weeks, Ogunquit public works crews have scrambled to remove seaweed from the town’s iconic beach, only to see it return with the next tide.

All the seaweed – and there really is more this summer, according to state officials – is riding in on a perfect storm of tides, wind and surf.

“This has been an unusual summer,” said Stephen Dickson, a marine geologist with the Maine Geological Survey. “I don’t recall in 20 years this being quite as popular a topic. There’s certainly been a lot of discussion.”

That discussion may continue well into the Labor Day weekend, traditionally the last big beach weekend in Maine.

Dickson said king tides – especially high tides, sometimes 2 or 3 feet higher than average – in the past week are remobilizing seaweed that is likely to wash ashore just in time for the holiday weekend.

REVISITING BEACH MAINTENANCE

The increase in seaweed stems from four factors: wind direction, spring tides, neap tides and surf. Spring tides – which have the largest range and occur around the full and new moons – create high water levels that can move seaweed from rocky shores, setting the wrack free to wash onto sandy beaches. There were many days in July with high water levels, Dickson said.

That seaweed is then brought ashore by summer winds, especially at beaches that face the sea breeze. Neap tides – those with the smallest range – leave the seaweed stranded on the beach, creating a wide wrack zone that doesn’t get washed away with the next high tide.

When the wrack zone dries out, it attracts insects – and lots of complaints.

Dickson said a period of moderate waves in mid-July may have aided in stranding seaweed on the beach just as the tidal range was declining, leaving seaweed lingering high on beaches for days.

In coastal sand dune systems, communities can move seaweed, but are not allowed to remove it from the beach without permission from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

In both Old Orchard Beach and Ogunquit, town crews use heavy equipment to rake the beaches on a nearly daily basis. Both towns have management plans that deal with how to clean the beach without disrupting the protected piping plovers that nest on the shore each summer.

Public works crews in Biddeford usually don’t remove seaweed, but they’ll be prepared to do that next year if needed, said Guy Casavant, director of public works. After the June storm, town officials applied for a permit from the state to remove seaweed. Crews planned to borrow beach raking equipment from Old Orchard Beach, but by the time the city had its permit, the seaweed was gone.

“The natural tides had taken it back out and moved it to other beaches apparently,” Casavant said. “It came and went as nature intended it to.”

In York, this year’s issues with seaweed paled in comparison with 2014, when more than 2 feet of seaweed covered the beach. This year, the seaweed rolled in just in time for the Fourth of July weekend.

“It was like someone had it on the calendar,” Burns, the town manager, said. “It came in on a Thursday and stayed for the Fourth of July weekend. It was gone by Tuesday.”

Burns said beachgoers – especially those who rent nearby houses for the same week each summer – were dismayed to find Long Sands Beach splattered with the seaweed.

“The waves were brown instead of blue. We even had requests to take it out of the water,” he said. “I called for high tides twice a day and eventually that worked.”

York crews currently clean the part of the beach with soft sand, but leave the hard sand alone. The Board of Selectmen will discuss possible changes to the town’s policy to allow crews to clean all of the beach.

In Scarborough, Pine Point residents are circulating a petition that asks the town to clean its beaches more than once a week. Town Manager Tom Hall said the town already rakes beaches once a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day at a cost of $25,000, but the Town Council could consider adding days during next year’s budget process.

‘SEAWEED HAPPENS’

This year, Scarborough crews modified their raking equipment to better pick up the fine seaweed that clogged the beaches, Hall said. They also worked around the tide schedule, sometimes starting as early as 3 a.m. But on occasion, the seaweed still piled up, bringing numerous complaints.

“What’s most off-putting to beachgoers is (the seaweed) gives off a fairly noxious odor,” he said.

In Wells, town officials also will consider changes to the beach management plan in response to the seaweed issue, Town Manager Jonathan Carter said. Town crews currently clean the beach every day during the workweek, but the early start times sometimes make it difficult to find volunteer piping plover spotters to walk in front of equipment. Carter said the town may consider hiring people to do the spotting.

Ogunquit officials are hoping the brouhaha over seaweed is finally dying down. Visitors seemed to be caught off guard by the piles of seaweed this summer, Town Manager Thomas Fortier said.

The town fielded dozens of online comments, phone calls and emails from people who were not pleased. One regular visitor wrote in an email to town officials that they should be ashamed of the condition of Footbridge Beach.

“My feelings are to ditch your once beautiful and clean beach and go elsewhere, but my wife, my children, and my grandkids all were in tears when I told them ‘I’m out next year,’ ” he wrote.

Fortier said he understands the frustration, but town crews are doing the best they can.

“Ogunquit is consistently named one of the best beaches,” he said. “There’s a high bar set for a beautiful, clean beach.”

And, Fortier pointed out, there are plenty of people who seem to understand that seaweed is part of life on the coast.

“It’s the beach, people,” one woman wrote on an Ogunquit town Facebook page. “Seaweed happens.”