Workers try to clear an influx of sargassum seaweed off the beach in South Sound last month - Photo: Alvaro Serey

An army of unemployed Caymanians could be put to work clearing unsightly sargassum weed from the island’s beaches.

Infrastructure Minister Joey Hew said government was considering pushing forward its National Community Enhancement programme, known as NiCE, in order to deal with influxes of the foul smelling seaweed.

From South Sound to East End, the shoreline around Grand Cayman has been clogged with sargassum for several weeks. Hew said equipment failures had prevented government from moving it as fast as he would like.

Government workers were out at Coe Wood Beach in Bodden Town on Thursday, clearing the weed by hand. Hew said specialist equipment was on order and a task force, involving public works, parks and environment officials, was responsible for managing clean-up efforts.

He said government had also sub-contracted private companies to aid the clean-up.

Asked by Kenneth Bryan, the legislator for Central George Town, if the NICE programme – which periodically recruits unemployed Caymanians for temporary work – could be mobilised, Hew said that option was under discussion.

He said officials were formulating a long-term action plan to manage the growing problem.

“We are considering moving up the ‘Pride’ clean-up to assist them once the equipment arrives and we have a comprehensive plan in place,” he said.

Increasing ocean temperatures and pollution from fertilisers have been blamed for unusually high sargassum blooms in the Atlantic in recent years. When winds and currents drive it onshore it can cause problems for Caribbean economies which depend on clean white-sand beaches for tourism.

Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, told the Cayman Compass last month the problem was likely here to stay. He said the DoE and other government agencies were able to respond quickly to provide approvals and guidance for clearing beaches.

The large influxes of sargassum can also pose a problem for turtle nesting.

Janice Blumenthal, research officer at the DoE, said, “In the open ocean, sargassum provides important habitat for baby turtles, and moderate amounts of sargassum on beaches do not interfere with turtle nesting. However, massive sargassum influxes on turtle nesting beaches can prevent female turtles from nesting, deprive turtle nests of oxygen, interfere with the emergence of baby turtles and make it more difficult for baby turtles to reach the open sea.”

The DoE’s greater concern is that clean-up efforts do not damage the beach or destroy turtle nests.

“The greatest threat to turtles is heavy equipment used indiscriminately to clear sargassum from nesting beaches,” she said.

The DoE’s Environmental Management Unit issues letters of approval for sargassum clearance on turtle nesting beaches, so that turtle nests in the area can be protected. They will advise whether the beach is a turtle nesting beach and whether there are currently any nests on the beach. They can also provide advice on how to avoid removing too much sand from the beach.

If a property owner would like to remove sargassum from the beach using mechanical equipment, the unit can be contacted at [email protected]