Of the sea, sand, seaweed

Sand is a commodity; it has value.

After the passage of Hurricane Dean, trucks carted away at least 40 loads of sand mixed with seaweed from the Public Beach on West Bay Road to past the Courtyard Marriott.

The accounts of where this sand and seaweed mixture went actually vary. On Thursday morning it appears that some of it may have gone to the George Town Landfill and some to the site of a local contractor.

Eventually, in the afternoon, the Department of Environment stepped in and the material was stockpiled in areas where efforts may be made to recover the sand from the mix. Even with seaweed in it, beach sand has value. Put the material in water and it instantly separates.

‘It probably has a lot of uses,’ said dive operator, Peter Milburn. ‘I am sure after the rain washes the salt off it, it would make really good mulch.’

It is easy to understand the determination of business owners to get rid of the unsightly mess that washed up in front of their properties. Hoteliers and restaurateurs looked at the dark brown seaweed littering their normally beautiful white sand beach and immediately saw a problem.

The seaweed was unsightly, it smelled fishy, it attracted a lot of flies and they were naturally in a hurry to open up and get back to business.

In a day or two the seaweed, which was sitting on top of the sand and initially not mixed with it would probably have been dry and light, rather than wet and heavy and would have come up easily with a rake. Instead, bulldozers were called in. Government’s Public Works Department cleared the Public Beach area and the property next to it and a private company dealt with the beach across from Courtyard Marriott.

Inevitably, when trucks start carting away sand people in the community start asking questions: ‘Where is it going, who is benefiting?’

Gene Thompson said he was pleased that Public Works was taking care of the area in front of Calico Jack’s for exactly that reason.

‘I know if I brought in my heavy equipment, there would be all kinds of questions. Members of the public would start pointing fingers saying I was taking the sand. It is just a lot simpler this way with PWD dealing with it.’

Mr. Thompson is the landlord for Handel Whittaker’s beachfront bar, Calico Jack’s.

‘I think Arden McLean and the Public Works Department in general have done an incredible job. I have never seen the Island cleaned up so quickly after a storm.’

Mr. Whittaker agreed and also expressed his gratitude to the minister.

‘In places the seaweed was several feet thick, it was a real problem,’ he said.

In front of the Courtyard Marriott property, General Manager Daniel Watters explained he had hired private contractors.

‘We spoke to Department of Environment. They came down and took a look at the situation and agreed that it was OK for us to remove the seaweed.’

A second inspection from DoE later on Thursday resulted in some concern that too much sand was included in the material that was leaving in the trucks.

‘At first the manager said the trucks were taking the material to the landfill, but it turned out to be going to a location in the control of a local contractor,’ said Gina Ebanks-Petrie, DoE director. ‘We requested that the trucks take the sand and seaweed mix to different locations (north of the Marriott and by Public Beach), where we hope it can be used again and the sand returned to the beach after re-processing.’

Assistant Director of Department of Environment Mr. Scott Slaybaugh explained the ownership of sand is some what complicated.

‘The advice we have from the Legal Department and Lands and Survey is that the seaward boundary is flexible. If for example, a storm deposits more sand on the shore the area of the property is increased and by the same token if a storm erodes a beach then the property area decreases. The property owner has no legal right to recover eroded sand from the sea. If however the sand is deposited then it belongs to that property, even though it originated on the sea bed, which is owned by the Crown,’ he said. ‘Prior to the year 1986, Government or Crown land extended up to the vegetation line. Then the planning law changed and private land ownership now extends to the high-water mark.’

This comment from Mr. Slaybaugh that the beach zone is somewhat legally complex is further borne out by the controversy still surrounding public beach access, public rights of way and the right of the public to fish from shore along the coastline.

Clearly some public rights do exist on the beach, even though on paper it is now split up into little privately owned parcels. Seven Mile Beach is clearly a national asset; it brings in the tourists and provides enjoyment for all the people of the Cayman Islands.

The high-water mark for Grand Cayman is referenced to an elevation known as the Vidal Spot or Vidal Benchmark. This reference point was established by a British Surveying ship called the HMS Vidal back in 1954. The surveyors based their analysis on observations over a three month period. The accuracy of this point, the ‘Vidal Benchmark,’ has since been called into question in scientific journals (PE & RS Grids and Datums, November 1998). It turns out that to calculate a more accurate point for mean sea level (and high water mark) scientists now analyze data over a complete metonic (lunar) cycle, which extends over a period of 18.6 years. Clearly the surveyors on HMS Vidal were also not aware of global sea level rise and all the ramifications of that issue.

Sand that washes up from the Crown land in the sea still sort of has the feel that it belongs to the people; especially when money is spent to re-nourish eroded beaches in the country’s annual budget.

In the days following Hurricane Ivan, there were accusations that sand was illegally removed from public roads. Government did stockpile a lot of material and this was eventually returned to the eroded southern section of Seven Mile Beach in the vicinity of the Marriott Resort Grand Cayman.

The Beach Cleaner is another business that periodically removes material from beach front land.

Operated by Mr. Joe Caputo, the Beach Cleaner clears coral rocks and debris from the beach; some of this material is thrown up in storms.

‘Mr. Caputo is very responsible and always calls us before he cleans a beach property to check for turtle nests,’ said Mr. Scott Slaybaugh.

However, Mrs. Ebanks-Petrie did say the Department of Environment may take another look at what happens to the material if it is removed from the beach area. The coral rocks, like the sand, are a valuable commodity, especially in the Cayman Islands where a lot of the land is low lying and people use fill to raise the level of their properties. The beach rubble also may help to anchor the beach and slow the pace of erosion, according to some scientific publications.

Under the CITES conventions on the trade in endangered species to which Cayman is a signatory, it is against the law to transport coral across international borders, even dead coral, without a certificate of authorization. Not too long ago, a visitor (who is related to the Royal family in Austria) was fined thousands of dollars and had the story splashed in the headlines of newspapers when customs officers in Germany found him transporting an endangered species. In actuality, he was in possession of a few small bits of dead coral, which he picked up on the beach in North Side, Grand Cayman.

The individual claimed he had absolutely no idea he was breaking any laws and this is probably true of many tourists who come Cayman and return with coral keepsakes to decorate their homes and remind themselves of their trip to Cayman.

While some might consider this an extreme act on the part of the authorities in Germany it highlights the vagaries of the law. Are people allowed to take old coral off the beach and if so how much? Is it OK to go down to the waterline and gather enough to make a wall or use it for land fill?

For a long time scientists have been aware that a few inches under the sand in the waters off Public Beach there is a layer of peat and the origins and source of this peat may be the very same algae and seaweed that washed up in Hurricane Dean. An oil and gas survey conducted many years ago in the Cayman Islands also revealed that were pockets of natural gas in areas off the Seven Mile Beach, however the gas was in too small a quantity to be commercially viable.

Hurricane Dean appears to have brought a net increase of sand to Seven Mile Beach, but what if the situation had been reversed and the hurricane eroded away large sections of the coast all the way to a sea wall?

What happens when the public can no longer enjoy their prescriptive right of passage to walk a section of beach because rising sea level or a hurricane made it disappear?

Is the Government or the landowner responsible for restoring the beach area so that right of way can continue or does the public simply lose their right of way along the coast?

In many countries these questions are not really an issue because the beach belongs to everyone. When Government gave the beach to private land owners in 1986, they probably had no idea the issues and perhaps problems that would result down the road.

When storms affect private property, landowners naturally want to fix it and they will put pressure on Government to let that happen. While the removal of the seaweed following Hurricane Dean is perhaps completely justifiable, it is seems likely with the sea level rising and heightened hurricane activity that government will get more and more requests for bulldozers on the beach, more groins and more sea walls. Some local scientists, including Mr. Slaybaugh, believe sea walls can change the dynamics of how sand is deposited on the shoreline.

‘They may even have the potential to harm a beach, because a wall can prevent a wave from running its course and dropping out the sand that is suspended in the water column,’ he said.

It is hard to imagine how any human re-engineering can improve upon a beach made by Mother Nature, but there may come a time when erosion is a serious national issue and government may be forced to engage in a major re-nourishment programme.

According to Mr. Slaybaugh, ‘this could involve skimming sand from an area of surplus in order to deposit in area that needs sand. However, this would require the consent of all the affected land owners and that makes the task significantly more complicated.’

Private land ownership extends to the high water mark, but what exactly is that? Clearly the high water mark must move and change. Lands and Survey and the Legal Department say the seaward boundary (high water mark) is flexible, any erosion or deposition of sand can alter the boundary line. So if it changes, how often does that occur: Is a new boundary line created every day, every month, every one hundred years?

In Hurricane Ivan, tidal surge and enormous waves caused the sea water to reach up pretty far in land. It is likely that one day another big storm will come and at least for a couple of hours, it could submerge everything but a few pieces of high bluff land. While this event is occurring, while the land is underwater, it appears the ownership would go through a process of transition from private to Crown, until the water once again recedes. While these properties are submerged, does government have the right to move in and do what it likes? How salty does the water have to be, can it be brackish?

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