Unsightly mats of sargassum weed have washed up in Grand Cayman, bringing with them a foul odor and potential problems for the tourism industry.
Large swathes of coastline from Bodden Town to East End, as well as smaller pockets in West Bay and North Side, have been impacted.
So far the island’s main tourist hub on Seven Mile Beach has not been affected. Parks department workers have been out in force since Thursday clearing public beaches.
“We are trying our best, but as soon as we clear the beaches, more washes ashore,” said Mark Bothwell, manager of the parks unit.
“Right now, it is a major issue because it comes in all at one time. We try to respond as quickly as possible but we can’t be in every place at once.”
Over the past five days, he said staff had been to all corners of the island, shifting the seaweed by hand or using bulldozers where possible.
“Luckily it has not impacted Seven Mile Beach as yet, which is where most of the tourists are.”
In places on the eastern side of the island, the mats of sargassum stretched for up to 50 feet out to sea.
Mr. Bothwell said they could not do much to move the masses until they washed ashore.
He said the department was fielding calls from people complaining about the smell.
“All we can say is that we are doing our best and hoping for the wind to change,” he said.
At Compass Point dive resort in East End, Steve Broadbelt, said the sargassum weed was so thick last week that guests were unable to get in the water from shore.
He said the boats could still access the dock but one suffered steering problems because of the thick weed.
“I’ve only seen it like this three times in Cayman. Last time it caused problems for a week or so and then went away overnight.
“This stuff grows out at sea. If you take a flight to the Sister Islands, you will see these huge floating islands of sargassum. It seems to have got worse and I guess it is something we are just going to have to deal with.
“Whenever the wind points in our direction, it is going to come here and sit until the wind changes.”
Sargassum weed influx can be an economic problem as well as an inconvenience.
Already this year in Antigua, at least one resort has announced a three-month shut down after its beachfront was continually overwhelmed with sargassum.
In Barbados, the situation has been declared a national emergency and the Barbados Defence Force has been called in to help keep the beaches clear.
The phenomenon of such large sargassum blooms as far south as the Caribbean is relatively new and has been puzzling scientists since 2011.
The University of South Florida, which has begun producing a “sargassum outlook bulletin,” warned earlier this year that satellite imagery suggested 2018 would be a record bloom year for the Caribbean and central west Atlantic.
Hazel Oxenford, professor of marine ecology and fisheries at the University of the West Indies, and one of the speakers at the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute conference in Cayman in 2016, told the Cayman Compass at the time that sargassum invasions could become the “new normal” for Caribbean beaches.
She said a little sargassum is a good thing for coastal ecosystems, but too much could be disastrous.
“When it starts coming ashore in massive quantities and when it gets stuck in the near-shore area and starts to give off that rotten egg smell, it becomes a real problem for tourism,” she said.