The stench coming from many of Cayman’s beaches these days is horrible. That was the reaction from Education Minister Juliana O’Connor-Connolly, as the stench of rotting sargassum wafted through the Cayman Islands.
The latest influx comes less than two weeks after Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said the issue was not going away.
While a potential nuisance on land when it washes up on our beaches in massive quantities, floating rafts of sargassum in the open ocean form rich ecosystems that provide critical habitats for a diversity of marine species.
But that is still not stopping locals and visitors alike from pinching their noses at the smelly, slimy problem that has government officials combing the beaches to come up with a sargassum-control plan.
Government had crews working throughout the day to try to clear the beaches, but it is a delicate task to complete.
Mark Bothwell, director of the Department Environmental Health, said the current influx is the worst he has seen. His department is assisting the Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit’s efforts to get rid of the sargassum from the South Sound and Bodden Town beaches, some of the hardest-hit areas in Grand Cayman.
The seaweed’s decay and accompanying smell has prompted many complaints from the public.
“Besides the very bad smell, there is no danger to the beach. It is a natural thing. It is just that there is some much of it – it’s the most we ever had,” Bothwell said.
The task is made more difficult as more sargassum continues to wash up as the clean-up proceeds. “We are trying our best to deal with it … I can’t say how long it will take.”
The department is using a mechanical beach cleaner and manual labour to try and get the sargassum off the beaches, Bothwell said. He recommends manual labour, as heavy equipment can destroy fragile turtle nesting areas.
“It just keeps coming in … it’s an impossible task. [As] fast as we take it up, it comes right back,” said landscaper Victor Romero, working for A-Z Garden Services to clear a beach off South Sound Road.
Just yards away, workers from the Public Works Department were diligently clearing huge piles of sargassum from the South Sound Public Beach into foul-smelling piles, as more thick rafts of the sargassum washed in with every tide.
83-year-old South Sound resident Carey Hurlstone said he has seen a lot of seaweed before, but never like this. This is the worst he has ever seen it.
Government is being strongly encouraged to address sargassum on all three islands, said Minister O’Connor-Connolly.
She said Environment Minister Dwayne Seymour has been requesting assistance from his ministry and department to come up with an effective sargassum plan.
As far as she knows, O’Connor-Connolly said, they were working on it. She said Minister Seymour had just this week increased the urgency of his requests to find appropriate methods of getting rid of the seaweed, especially in Bodden Town.
She said she drove through Bodden Town on Wednesday and the stench was horrible.
“A tremendous amount of it seems to be piling up in that district, even more than East End,” the minister said.
O’Connor-Connolly also said Minister of Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure Joey Hew is considering using the NICE work programme to assist with the clean-up.
“I fully support that because Cayman is a tourist destination, but more importantly, Caymanians are living here and we should not have to endure that,” said O’Connor-Connolly.
Growing up in Bodden Town, former minister and MLA for Bodden Town Osbourne Bodden said the problem never occurred to this extent in the past.
“To me it has reached chronic proportions, and when it stinks, it’s bad for business and for anyone to enjoy the beach or water,” Bodden said. “Government needs to act, and act now.”
Bodden said he had suggested to government they look into marine harvesters that can suck the sargassum up and store it on land, where it is washed and later sold as fertiliser.
“I believe this is doable and will pay for itself over time,” Bodden said. “This is a serious problem and it is killing marine life, and it’s horrible around all three islands.”
Sargassum has even caused dive trips in Cayman Brac to be cancelled. Jason Belport of Little Cayman Beach Resort said he has never seen it like this, with no clear end in sight.
“We do not know if it will continue to be a problem. We found that it has been impacting the guest experiences here at the resorts,” Belport said. “We got some guys that go on the beach and try to clean it up, but fast as they remove it, [it’s] floating right up behind them. It’s a terrible thing and a bit torturous in that regard,” he said.
Cesar Guierrez, of Captain’s Table Restaurant in Cayman Brac, said things are getting bad on the Brac. “I have a lot of tourist coming over here, and they are complaining they can’t go to the beach and it’s very [stinky] on the land. He said although there are official efforts to deal with the problem in Grand Cayman, on Cayman Brac they are on their own.
Seaweed is a vital ecosystem unto itself, home to many species of ocean life. Sea turtles rely on seaweed for protection from predators as they make their way through the oceans. When the seaweed washes ashore, it nourishes beaches and prevents erosion, as well as creating a food source for birds and other beach creatures.
Sargassum management briefs
The Centre for Resource Management and Environmental Management at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, along with Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Area and Wildlife, Parc National de la Guadeloupe, and the Gulf and Caribbean Fisheries Institute have issued sargassum management briefs to enable government officials, coastal managers, beach caretakers and coastal residents to get ahead of the ‘golden tides’ by providing up-to-date information.
These influxes, the centre says, have given rise to a number of serious socio-ecological and economic concerns, particularly in the hospitality and fisheries sectors.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to managing sargassum influxes. Different management approaches will work best in different situations and locations, they say, depending on factors such as the biomass of sargassum.
They also suggest letting nature run its course. Left on the beach, the sargassum will eventually wash away, be buried by the next high tide, or dry in the sun, eliminating the smell.
They suggested some dos and don’ts for dealing with Sargussum:
- Let nature run its course in inaccessible areas or when volume of weed is small;
- If removal is necessary, collect sargassum directly from the water along the shoreline to prevent it sinking and/or stranding, and to avoid removal of sand;
- Monitor removal to ensure no threat to endangered sea turtles;
- Where feasible, opt for manual removal. Get communities involved with organised beach clean-ups;
- If using machinery, consider the most appropriate types to give the least impact on beach and wildlife. Only operate machinery on wet sand in the inter-tidal zone of the beach, and minimise the manoeuvring of machinery on beaches and the removal of beach sand.
- Don’t collect sargassum out in the open sea, where it serves as a valuable ecosystem;
- Don’t use heavy tracked machinery, especially on sea turtle nesting beaches;
- Don’t use mechanical equipment without giving consideration to wildlife, beach vegetation and other beach users;
- Don’t use any equipment that causes significant removal of sand as this results in beach erosion.
What is sargassum?
Sargassum is a brown marine alga (seaweed) which is generally associated with the Sargasso Sea of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is made up of leafy appendages, branches and round, berry-like structures. These ‘berries’ are actually gas-filled bladders (mostly containing oxygen) which aid in buoyancy, allowing the sargassum to float on the ocean surface.
Scientists originally thought the sargassum influxes were coming from the Sargasso Sea, however by backtracking from the mass influx in 2011, scientists are now convinced that the recent influxes seen the Caribbean Sea and along the coast of West Africa are related to massive sargassum blooms occurring in the equatorial area of the Atlantic, where the ocean currents rotate in what oceanographers call the North Equatorial.
Sargassum becomes a problem when it impacts the catches of key fish species and disrupts coastal fishing communities, tourism activities and sea turtle nesting.
Although sargassum is generally harmless.
It can be used as fertiliser, plant tonic, compost, mulch and pest control. It is also a source of chemical compounds for pharmaceuticals/personal care products/food supplements, biofuel/biogas, chipboard biosorbent for removal of heavy metals in polluted water, and livestock and fish food.