Hundreds of unemployed Caymanians will begin clearing Cayman’s beaches of sargassum from next Monday after the government’s summer work programme was brought forward to help deal with the seaweed invasion.
Beaches, particularly on the southern side of the island, have been inundated with mats of the foul-smelling brown seaweed.
Now workers in the government’s National Community Enhancement, or NiCE, programme, which provides two weeks of work cleaning up the island, will assist Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit crews in shifting the unsightly sargassum.
Around 300 people showed up to register for the twice-yearly work programme at the Lions Centre on Monday.
Minister for Commerce, Planning and Infrastructure Joey Hew said it was pleasing to see a smaller cohort than in previous years, citing a steady decline in unemployment.
He acknowledged the programme has its critics, but said it was a win-win for the country.
“If we have a need and we have people that need our help, why not put the two together and get those that need some help to help our country. It makes sense to me and I don’t understand why so many people are against it,” he told the group at the Lions Centre.
Speaking to the Compass after the event, Minister Hew acknowledged that two weeks of beach cleaning would only provide a temporary fix to the sargassum problem. Officials from various government departments have formed a task force to help deal with what is expected to be an ongoing issue on Cayman’s beaches.
If the NiCE project is successful, Hew said, it was possible that the clean-up programme could be extended.
“At the moment, it is a two-week thing,” he said. “We are going to see how effective we can be, and my ministry is working to perhaps make a proposal to the government.”
Some $700,000 has been budgeted for the NiCE programme, typically held for two to three weeks in the summer and again at Christmas. Hew said the lower numbers this summer may make it possible to add an extra week or two for those who needed work.
“The greater part of the sargassum influx will be next month and in the weeks coming, so I do foresee the need for further clean ups,” he said. “We know we have an issue. We are struggling with clearing the sargassum, especially in some of the more populated areas in South Sound and Bodden Town, where the smell is becoming overwhelming to the residents, so we have to do something now.”
Mark Bothwell, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Health, said the sargassum was so thick in some places it required heavy equipment to move it. He said new machinery had been purchased for the task and the Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit would be working throughout the summer to keep the beaches clean.
He said additional manpower from the NiCE programme would help with the manual labour required to clear the final patches of seaweed, once the machines have been through. Heavy equipment has to be used with extreme caution because of the threat of beach erosion and the potential impact on turtle nests.
Bothwell said the Department of Agriculture was looking at options for disposing of the sargassum, including giving it away to farmers to process for fertiliser.
Hew said the dwindling numbers in attendance on Monday was a positive sign for the economy.
“There may be further numbers as the day goes on,” he acknowledged, as people continued to trickle into the Lions Centre at 10am on Monday. Doors had opened at 8:30am.
“I don’t think the numbers will be anywhere near what we have in the past,” he added.
Some 460 people turned out for the same programme last summer. Previous NiCE programmes have attracted more than 600 people.
Kenneth Bryan, MLA for George Town Central, attended the opening and offered support for the sargassum clean-up, which he had also suggested in the Legislative Assembly earlier this year.
He said it was good that people got a chance to earn some money and help with a national problem. But he highlighted long-term issues with the same people remaining reliant on the NiCE programme, and urged government to look at more sustainable solutions, including investment in training and reviewing the $6-an-hour minimum wage.