EDITORIAL – Sargassum summer: Cayman’s loyal but unpopular guest

Sargassum is piled on the Gun Bay shoreline, as the Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit works Monday to clear the beach. - Photo: Taneos Ramsay

“Fish and visitors smell after three days.”
– Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, January 1736

Since 2011, sargassum seaweed has become one of Cayman’s most faithful visitors – as reliable as the tides themselves. A few times each year, the ugly and odoriferous vegetation piles up on the beaches for all to see and smell.

This time, beaches from Bodden Town to East End are being inundated with the stinky, unsightly stuff, but sargassum invasions can affect any part of Cayman’s coastline with a simple shift of the winds.

Sargassum is more than a nuisance; the flotillas of flora pose a real threat to our tourism economy.

In terms of public health, sargassum is harmless (even delicious to some birds and invertebrates), but try telling that to tourists whose vacations are marred by the unattractive piles, pungent with the smell of decomposing fish and tiny organisms.

The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association sums up the potential economic impact of beached sargassum thusly:

“When experienced in large, continuous amounts, sargassum poses serious threats to the tourism sector when education about sargassum is lacking and limited resources for mitigation are available. This results in lack of beach access, increased cost for consistent removal, inability to operate tours and ocean-based activities near the beach shores/coastlines. In severe cases, vacation cancellations and beachfront room closures have occurred, leading to staff layoffs and reduced economic gain for the sector and communities.”

There is also concern that floating mats of sargassum may interfere with endangered sea turtle nests, disturbing young turtles on their critical, and already hazard-filled, march to the sea.

To date, the response from Cayman’s government has been anemic, relying on parks department crews, property owners and volunteers using private equipment to clean affected beaches. To stop an invasion, it takes an army – and a coordinated plan of counterattack. Removal and disposal should be carefully calculated to ensure that beaches are not damaged, which creates a longer-term problem while solving the one immediately at hand.

Luckily (well … unluckily) Cayman is not alone in dealing with this periodic natural disaster. In Bermuda, for example, they use heavy equipment to rake the beaches early in the morning, and then bury the sargassum in the sand, away from the water.

The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association offers the following tips:

We can anticipate the seaweed’s arrival by following the “Sargassum weather report” – a Sargassum Early Advisory System (SEAS) developed by the researchers at Texas A&M University.

The nutrient-rich sargassum can be used as an inexpensive, sustainable source of landfill if it is buried further up the beach, helping prevent erosion. Once the salt has been leached and the material is dried, sargassum can make excellent fertilizer and compost for landscaping and gardens.

Sargassum is even edible – provided it is clean and free from contamination or inedible debris. Apparently, cooked with a bit of lemon juice, coconut milk or soy sauce, it can be a tasty side dish. (Lionfish and sargassum stir fry, anyone? … OK, maybe not.)

The bottom line is, Cayman has no control over the arrival of this waterborne weed. But we can plan for its inevitable return, and must be prepared to meet it with a robust response. We cannot allow one obnoxious visitor to ruin the Cayman experience for everyone else.

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  1. Is there any sort of ban or limit in place to raking or heavy machinery usage for collecting the seaweed during turtle hatching season? Sargassum is a natural phenomenon so I would have thought it would be far less of a threat to hatchlings than raking the beach or heavy machinery especially at this time of year? I’d have thought that with all the eco-friendly/organic farms which are beginning to thrive on the island, that the seaweed would be in hot demand for use as both fertilizer and as animal feed? If this “nuisance” can be developed into something which can provide a sustainable an environmentally friendly revenue generator then surely this is what we should be promoting?