Tuesday, October 19, 1999 Published at 06:53 GMT 07:53 UK
By Joanne Gilhooly in the Cote d'Azur
It is caulerpa taxifolia - the so-called killer algae. This notorious seaweed is a tropical invader, an alien species which is fast carpeting the Mediterranean in a dense marine shag pile, smothering the native flora.
At least that is the theory of marine biologist Professor Meinesz.
"In 1984, one square metre; in 1990, three hectares; in 1991, 30 hectares; 1992, 400 hectares; and now we are more than 5,000-6,000 hectares more or less covered," he says.
"Every year more and more, and every year new countries, new regions are colonised, so this is only the beginning of the story."
Like other algae, it can photosynthesise but also has roots that can draw nutrients from the substrate.
If the water is warm enough, it grows just about anywhere - on rocks, sand and mud, and even 30m down. A broken off stem can rapidly grow back into dense vegetation.
It likes to cluster around sewage outlets, having a penchant for anything putrefying. And its expansion has created a scientific stink of oceanic proportions, pitching marine biologist against marine biologist and leaving the French Environment Ministry facing charges of inaction.
It has all been exaggerated according to Professor Jean Jaubert, who is using remote sensing of the seabed to check out the algae's purported invasion along a stretch of the Cote d'Azur.
He says there has been no expansion in the last two years and claims Professor Meinesz is wrong to suggest that there is an ecological disaster.
Professor Meinesz is not alone in being convinced that the situation is urgent. But he thinks he's found a solution - a slug. Asco Glossum, he says, may be able to eat its way through the problem.
But funding for Professor Meinesz's research has dried up. Now he is calling for caulerpa taxifolia-free zones to be set aside and legislation to make fishermen and sailors clean their nets and anchors to stop the spread.