EDITORIAL – In search of sargassum solutions

Officials are wise to seek effective solutions to deal with our islands’ least-favourite repeat visitor: sargassum.

As Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, told the Compass, “This is a problem that is here to stay.”

Since 2011, our islands have been subjected to periodic sargassum invasions. Researchers expect that will only continue, as a warming sea breeds ever-larger blooms and ocean currents steer the occasional mats of the floating seaweed to our shores.

Beached sargassum, while generally harmless to human health, clogs our clear waters and interferes with the enjoyment of our beautiful coastline. After a short time on shore, the sodden stuff begins to smell.

When inundations occur frequently, are sufficiently severe or poorly managed, the messy nuisance has been known to negatively impact tourism sectors on other islands. Last September, the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association surveyed its members about the tourism effects of sargassum. Some hotels advised the industry group that they’d been receiving questions and even some cancellations from would-be guests who did not want to risk their perfect beach vacation being sullied by a soggy and smelly blanket of brown seaweed.

So it is good to hear that the DoE and the Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit are ready and able to help clear seaweed and advise on clean-up methods that minimise damage to beaches and protect turtle nests. The DoE is working with other government agencies to expedite approval for businesses to use heavy equipment to clear beaches of sargassum. Property owners and community members also have an important role to play.

The Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association offers tips for mitigating sargassum events without causing long-term damage to fragile beaches, having published a resource guide which includes best practises for their public and private partners. In it, the association advises tracking potential inundations through the Sargassum Early Advisory System and raking the sargassum manually, whenever feasible, and disposing of it responsibly – a task that can be as simple as carting the seaweed further up the beach and covering it with a layer of sand.

It recommends community clean-up days to manage larger inundations, which help educate and empower the public and can even be used to raise money for charitable causes. They advise that some hotels and tour operators have invited guests to join clean-up efforts, too.

The association writes, “All sectors will be affected if local solution-based measures are not identified and collective efforts are not undertaken to proactively address the problem. All have a stake, so all should be involved in the cause.”

It also points to a silver lining, in the form of entrepreneurial opportunities. The nutrient-rich sargassum can be used as an inexpensive, sustainable source of landfill, helping prevent erosion. When it is rinsed of salt and dried, sargassum can make excellent fertiliser and compost for landscaping and gardens.

Cayman cannot control the ocean currents that occasionally steer sargassum in our direction, but working together, we can be prepared with a quick, efficient and effective response when it does.

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