Environment officials are investigating long-term solutions to the ongoing problem of regular invasions of foul smelling sargassum seaweed that have impacted Cayman’s beaches over the past few years.
Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said the issue was not going away.
“This is a problem that is here to stay,” he said.
Grand Cayman was badly hit over Easter and can expect further influxes of sargassum throughout the summer, Austin warned.
Long-term solutions including ‘sargassum boats’, which are specially designed to clear up sargassum before it hits the coast, and offshore barriers to keep it away from the islands’ beaches are being researched. Sargassum boats are specially designed vessels that can clear up sargassum before it hits the beaches.
In the interim, the Department of Environment and the Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit are on standby to assist with beach clean-ups.
Austin said the DoE had developed a “task force” with other government agencies to speed up the permission process to allow businesses to use heavy equipment to clear their beaches. And he said his staff was ready to assist and advise on the best methods to clear the seaweed, without causing beach erosion or impacting turtle nests.
Sargassum is a type of seaweed that floats on ocean currents in large mats that can stretch for miles. It often serves as a nursery for juvenile fish.
In recent years, it has bloomed in much larger quantities – a development that researchers have linked to warming ocean temperatures. That has meant a significant problem for tourism-based businesses across the region, with Mexico and the eastern Caribbean among the worst affected areas.
Some of those countries have seen their tourism industry impacted because of sargassum piling up on the beaches.
In Grand Cayman, the impacts have not been so severe, but Austin said some businesses, particularly in East End, had been seriously affected by the sporadic seaweed invasions.
He added. “It doesn’t take a lot for it to be an issue. We don’t have the problem they have in the eastern Caribbean, with huge mats of it washing up, but it only takes a relatively small amount to have a big impact on our beaches.”
He said researchers across the region were examining different methodologies, including tracking satellite imagery, to help predict when sargassum would hit.
Though this month was expected to be better than the same time last year, he said the prevailing wind conditions dictated whether Cayman got hit.
“It it like a hurricane season – it can be a lot less regionally but that is no comfort if you get hit by a category 4 storm,” he said.
His department has been asked to research more direct methods of dealing with the situation, including potentially using sargassum boats to break up the seaweed.
Some businesses are examining their own solutions, including positioning barriers that would keep the sargassum offshore.
Austin said the DoE would work with these businesses. He said Cayman’s system of ocean currents kept it protected from sargassum influxes much of the time, but strong winds can push it beyond the reef and onto the beaches.