DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. It looks dirty and muddy, a brown mass of weeds with gas-filled berries that allow it to float on the Gulf of Mexico s waters. Sometimes it washes ashore, getting caught in the toes of barefoot beachgoers or stuck to the bottom of flip-flops.

It appears to be just another sea plant.

But this Sargassum algae sometimes called sea holly or Gulf

weed is key to hundreds of species of marine life in the Gulf. Now, the oil is threatening to suffocate it, dealing a blow to fisheries and the ecosystem that scientists say may take years to recover. And as the algae dies in the Gulf, less of the vital plant will reach the Sargasso Sea some 3,000 miles away through the loop current potentially harming that ecosystem as well.

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