Infrastructure Minister Joey Hew is one of the key government figures charged with leading Cayman’s response to the economic and environmental threat posed by sargassum. He sat down with the Cayman Compass to talk about government’s plans.
How serious do you believe this sargassum issue is for Cayman?
We take it seriously. There is a discomfort level that affects most people. Not being able to drive with your windows open in Bodden Town and South Sound. We haven’t seen evidence of a real health threat but everyone knows the smell can be unbearable.
Earlier this year, the Department of Environmental Health tested air quality, specifically hydrogen sulphide levels, and all samples analysed were below the World Health Organization air quality threshold and slightly above the value that causes odour annoyance.
Then of course there is an economic threat when it comes to tourism. You see Miami Beach in Florida, Mexico and other Caribbean islands are having challenges with large influxes of sargassum. Thankfully, we have only had minimal influxes on Seven Mile Beach but it just takes a change in sea current and wind conditions to change the situation. We have established contacts with other regional groups with a view to share best practices and identify strategies to manage the sargassum.
How has the NiCE clean-up and the extension to that programme gone?
We collected 200 tons during the NiCE programme and probably the same again since that time. We kept a crew of six people for an additional two weeks and they used a combination of manual labour and machinery to clear several beaches across Grand Cayman.
The sargassum was backed up along South Sound. Once we started to clear it from by the boardwalk, the mound that was piled up in the bay started to come ashore, so they just kept cleaning it up.
It is a domino reaction. Once it piled up on the beach and no more could come ashore, it backed up and spread down the coast. When we cleared the beach, it washed ashore. So we know for future years that we have to clear the beach quickly and it won’t back up like that.
What is the long-term plan?
We learned a lot during the NiCE programme. It was a fantastic opportunity to see how the different sargassum management approaches worked. Now we have a better idea of what can work, how many people we need, what types of equipment we need. This gives us a lot of information which will assist us to be proactive next year. We will continue to deal with it this year as it comes along. The worst is past at the moment.
The Sargassum Task Force is working on a comprehensive plan for next year. We were behind the ball this time but we will be ready for it next year.
Is that likely to involve a full-time crew?
I think there will be a seasonal crew to deal with that. We have to get extra bodies in. That’s what they are looking at. A lot of it is machine work but once you get through that it is a case of dealing with it by hand.
Currently, the Recreation, Parks and Cemeteries Unit and Public Works Department staff are continuing the sargassum clean-up effort which involves monitoring and clean up on Crown properties.
Is there any way to forecast when sargassum will arrive?
I don’t think we can predict exactly when it will arrive. We can use drones and link with pilots to know when the mats of it are out there and if we know the wind conditions, we have a better idea of where it may come ashore. With a bit of common sense and watching the weather we can be better prepared.
Also, our Department of Environment is in communication with our regional colleagues who provide information to us on trends, projections and what to expect.
What are the impacts that you have seen so far in terms of tourism?
It has affected some popular swim sites but Seven Mile Beach, it hasn’t been affected terribly; North Sound, it has not impacted terribly. East End has had quite a bit. The hotels there have their own crews and they take care of it. The Department of Environment have been working with them on best practice and cleaning it up. One of the other unintended consequences is if you don’t do this right you remove sand and you are enabling beach erosion so we are working with those properties that have to do daily cleaning on best practice to ensure we don’t have that problem.
Is there an economic impact, too, from clearing it?
It is a huge economic impact, for those hotels, for the parks department, for government. We have had to invest in equipment and manpower. There is an environmental impact, too, on turtle nesting. In areas like South Sound the turtles can’t make it through there.
It looks like this problem will be a seasonal issue. How do you see it developing?
I think we have to look at ways to get business involved and to make use of it.
There are a couple of hotels looking at barriers and the DoE is working with them to see if that can work. There are a few private investors who have displayed an interest in harvesting at sea. What we have said is that we support any investor that goes into the business of harvesting or manufacturing anything with the sargassum, whether it’s through permit concessions or duty waivers or whatever it might be. At the end of the day you just cannot win a battle against Mother Nature; you have got to work with her and make the best of the situation.
SARGASSUM ACTION PLAN
- Sargassum Task Force established involving multiple government departments and agencies
- Department of Agriculture evaluating potential of composting sargassum
- Department of Environment advising on beach clean-up and protecting turtle nests
- Department of Environmental Health monitoring air quality impacts
- Seasonal crew to help keep beaches clear next summer