‘It keeps washing in’: Sargassum chokes beaches in wake of Irma

Cayman’s business owners are teaming up to rid the beaches of a smelly vestige of Hurricane Irma.

The Cayman Islands Tourism Association sent an advisory this week regarding the seaweed and trash that has been accumulating along Seven Mile Beach. All property owners were encouraged to responsibly remove the seaweed by rake and to respect the nesting grounds of sea turtles.

Sargassum seaweed lines a beach in West Bay Thursday. – PHOTO: TANEOS RAMSAY

“We work with property owners to make sure the removal of the seaweed is carried out in the most environmentally sound way,” said Wendy Williams, environmental assessment officer for the Department of Environment. “We factor in things like, ‘What are the wind and wave conditions doing?’ As of this week, there were continual influxes of the seaweed coming in.

“We spoke to a number of property owners, including the Kimpton and Calico Jack’s, all along the northern end of Seven Mile Beach, and they just said, ‘It keeps washing in.’ We said, ‘If you remove it, that’s fine. But if you rake it, you’re just going to continue to get more and more and more.’”

The Department of Environment issued guidelines regarding the seaweed – called pelagic sargassum – in October 2015. Sargassum, which only occurs in the Atlantic Ocean, is a free-floating plant that never attaches to the ocean floor, and provides shelter and food for sea turtles and tuna.

The sargassum travels on ocean currents and consolidates into large mats and windrows, and Ms. Williams said it had particularly plagued the northern end of Seven Mile Beach this week.

The Department of Environment guidelines note that sargassum plays a role in beach nourishment and that leaving the seaweed on the beach is perfectly healthy for the environment. That is not always feasible for beachfront property owners, so the focus shifts to making sure it is removed responsibly.

Using heavy machinery to remove the seaweed requires approval from the Department of Environment, and Ms. Williams wanted to make sure that everybody along Seven Mile Beach is aware of that.

“Some of it will naturally get blown out,” she said of the seaweed. “Some of it will be taken out by the waves and ocean currents, and then whatever’s left, the preference is to rake it, if possible. The problem with using heavy machinery on the beach is that quite often, sand gets caught up in it. It really results in erosion of the beaches.

“We encourage people to rake, and where that’s not possible, property owners can use small-scale equipment to remove the seaweed very carefully. We always have to keep in mind that it’s peak turtle-nesting season, and we have lots of nests all along Seven Mile Beach.”

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