From the Grape Tree Café in Bodden Town, Osbourne Bodden looks out across the gleaming Caribbean Sea. The sun glints on the turquoise water and a fresh breeze brings the salty scent of the bay to the picnic tables on the beach.
“It wasn’t like this a few months ago,” Bodden reflects.
For large parts of the summer, sections of shoreline from South Sound to East End were smothered with a mass of sargassum. The only distinguishable scent was the potent sulphur-tinged odour of rotting seaweed.
Sitting outside wasn’t an option and the idea of swimming or snorkelling was unthinkable.
“It caused major issues for staff and patrons, and in the end I had to pay significant money to have my beach cleaned after months of stench,” Bodden says.
Part of the problem was that as soon as the beach cleared, more arrived on the next tide. It made no sense to keep shelling out for beach cleaning while large mats of seaweed still lingered in the shallow water inside the reef line. Like many other business owners on the east side of Grand Cayman, Bodden had to wait out a change in the weather.
A temporary reprieve
In July, reinforcements arrived in the form of government’s NiCE community clean-up programme. The beaches were cleared and the winds began to co-operate, giving the island a temporary reprieve from new inundations of sargassum.
Bodden knows it won’t last. Scientists have identified a new Atlantic spawning zone generating up to 20 million tons of the stringy seaweed annually. They expect a sizeable chunk of it to wash ashore on Caribbean beaches every year, with peak impact in the summer months.
As a former government minister, Bodden has a greater insight than most into the problems this could cause for the island’s economy.
“All the businesses on the south side have been affected; the East End bars and hotels too,” he says.
“For a long time the beach and water were simply unusable. This has an adverse impact on tourism because it’s not a few weeks, it’s a few months, and it starts in the high season.”
He believes the island’s tourism businesses and government need to come together to deal with the problem.
“This is a really serious phenomenon for us in Cayman and in the Caribbean region. It is not going away and 2019 was the worst year yet.”
Hotels count the cost
Wyndham Reef resort in East End spent $30,000 on beach cleaning in 2018. This year that number had swelled to $150,000 by July.
Next door at the Turtle Nest Inn, Marleine Gagnon says a few guests had checked out because of the sargassum earlier in the summer, but most had been empathetic.
The hotel invested in beach cleaning and tried to educate visitors about the issue, but she worries that tourists will not be so understanding if the problem continues year after year.
She adds that the NiCE programme had been a huge help. While she is interested in discussions of harvesting the seaweed, she is concerned about the impact on marine life and on the beaches that attract tourists in the first place.
She has a more holistic solution in mind.
“Stop polluting and halt global warming is really what we should do,” she says.
Along the coast at the Wyndham Reef Resort in East End, general manager Lawrence Haughton can put a rough dollar figure on the economic impact the golden tides of seaweed have had on the business.
Last year he spent $30,000 on beach cleaning. This year that number had swelled to $150,000 by July.
“At one stage we were cleaning four to six hours a day,” he says.
“We used to have two guys on the beach with forks, then we had four guys; when it got so bad that 40 guys couldn’t handle it, we got a machine.”
A handful of guests cancelled reservations because of the seaweed, despite the best efforts of maintenance crews to keep the beach clean. On some days, swimmers had to access the water from a wooden jetty that carried them over the sargassum in the shallows.
“Stop polluting and halt global warming is really what we should do,”
Marleine Gagnon, Turtle Nest Inn
The Wyndham, at least, had resources to throw at the problem. For the most part, Haughton says, they were able to keep the beach clear.
But he fears that unless everyone does the same, the seaweed will continue to be a significant problem.
At times this year, he says, mounds of beached sargassum had been left to rot on pockets of untended coastline around East End. A high tide had then swept the lifeless weed back into the ocean, turning the crystal-clear water into a murky brown soup.
Similar issues were reported at Rum Point earlier this year, where the brown water put off swimmers and snorkellers.
“We are famous for our beautiful clear water but that is going to change if we don’t do something,” Haughton says.
“This is everybody’s business and everybody needs to get involved because this could seriously affect our tourism product over the next five years.”
It’s not just hotels and restaurants that are impacted. Fishermen are feeling the effect as well.
While anglers have always appreciated a good ‘weedline’ as a magnet for marine life, including target fish like mahi, there were times this year when the thickness of the sargassum gave the ocean an unfamiliar swampy feel.
“Trolling is especially difficult and you spend a lot of time cleaning your lines of sargassum, which results in fewer fish caught,” says captain John McDow.
He says many anglers had switched their target species because of the seaweed, dropping a deep-line for snapper or swordfish. McDow says Cayman’s size means that clear fishing grounds are usually accessible even when the sargassum is thick in some parts, lessening the impact compared with other islands.
Others have it worse
In other ways, too, Cayman and other Caribbean islands have had it better than impacted communities in Central America.
The nature of islands is such that there is always at least one coast that remains clear.
According to Hazel Oxenford, a researcher at the University of the West Indies, many islands, including Cayman, have their main tourism centres on leeward coasts away from the principal sargassum impact zones.
While that provides little comfort for those who are affected, she says it gave the region’s tourism industry a critical advantage compared to Mexico, where a huge section of the tourism industry is concentrated on hundreds of miles of windward coast.
“If this is not sorted out in the next five years, it will mean big trouble for the Mexican economy,” she says.