Sargassum invasion hits Cayman again

Several Cayman Islands beaches were blanketed in foul-smelling sargassum weed again this week, with the Department of Environment warning periodic seaweed invasions are likely to continue.

Beaches along South Sound, East End and Bodden Town were covered in sargassum at various points this week as strong winds out of the southeast pushed brown mats of the weed ashore.

Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said there had also been similar reports in Little Cayman.

He said if scientific assumptions that the abundance of sargassum in recent years was caused by ocean warming and nutrients from pollution were correct, then the trend could be expected to continue.

“There is definitely potential for it to become more and more of a problem,” he said.

He added that the Department of Environment, the Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit, Department of Tourism and others had established a sargassum task force to ensure beaches could be cleared quickly without impacting the environment.

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Anyone who wants to clear a beach using machinery needs special permission from the Department of Environment. Beach erosion is a major risk if the process is not done properly and turtle nests are also a factor during nesting season.

Mr. Austin said it was still possible to remove sargassum from a nesting beach using machinery – but the nests need to be marked first to ensure they are not impacted. He said the best and most environmentally friendly way to remove sargassum was using hand rakes.

The extent of the sargassum invasions in the Caribbean have caused problems for the tourist industry. The image of white sand beaches and clear blue seas that tourists expect from the region has been impacted. Antigua and Barbados have been the worst hit.

Barbados declared a national emergency earlier this year and called in the national Defence Force to assist with removal after mass inundations of sargassum forced the closure of some beaches.

Sargassum seaweed is spread across the ironshore at Breakers Thursday morning. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

Cayman has not been as badly hit, but is not immune to the threat.

Mr. Austin said he had heard stories of tourists checking out of hotels in Grand Cayman where the beach was impacted and going elsewhere.

He said, “People get very upset about it. I’ve heard situations where guests have seen the beach and checked out straight away. It is a significant deterrent to tourists. You can’t swim in the water, you can’t lie on the beach.”

Usually, he said, permission could be granted quite quickly to clear private beaches. However, if the prevailing winds stayed the same, there was little resorts could do, he said.

“You can clean it all you like, but if the wind is from the same direction, it will just blow back on shore.”

Fishermen walk along Frank Sound dock Thursday morning as sargassum seaweed piles up on the shore. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay