An occasional menace in summers past, sargassum swamped Cayman’s beaches in such volumes this year, the problem became impossible to ignore.

Thick mats of the foul-smelling seaweed inundated sandy coves and lingered in once-pristine bays, sending a sulphur-tinged odour leaking out across the island.

Hoteliers were forced to invest thousands of dollars in keeping beaches clear. But the winds and the tides just brought more seaweed to their shores.

Former politician and owner of Bodden Town’s Grape Tree Cafe, Osbourne Bodden, told the Cayman Compass the influx had a huge impact on businesses in the eastern districts,

“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,” he said.

Government action

By June, the extent of the problem was becoming clear. Workers in the NICE programme – a temporary work initiative for unemployed Caymanians – were enlisted to clear the beaches. In two weeks, they removed 200 tons of sargassum from Cayman’s shoreline.

A smaller crew was kept on for several weeks to continue the job. Still, problems persisted, and government, which has established a Sargassum Task Force, is looking at longer-term solutions, one of which could involve a seasonal beach-clearing crew.

Other solutions being looked at include barriers to block the seaweed offshore.

“We were behind the ball this time, but we will be ready for it next year,” Infrastructure Minister Joey Hew told the Compass in an interview.

It’s not going away

While some of the causes of the recent sargassum invasions that have hit the Caribbean remain unclear, scientists agree the problem is here to stay.

Researchers have traced the source of the sargassum washing up on island beaches to a new aggregation zone in the mid-Atlantic. Their analysis shows that sargassum, which barely registered on satellite imagery in the central Atlantic prior to 2010, exploded to the point where an estimated 20 million tons of it, spanning 5,500 miles of ocean, were recorded in 2018. They have dubbed this the ‘Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt’.

It is the North Equatorial Current that is sweeping that biomass in great floating mats towards the Caribbean.

Warming oceans and fertiliser runoff from rivers in Africa, Brazil and the US have been highlighted as possible causes of this bloom.

“The key drivers of climate change and ocean nutrification are not going away,” University of the West Indies researcher Hazel Oxenford told the Compass earlier this year.

Regional problems

Other countries have been badly hit too. Barbados declared a national emergency in 2018, calling in the armed forces to help deal with an unprecedented influx of sargassum. The French government invested 10 million euros into researching solutions in Martinique and Guadeloupe.

Mexico was perhaps the worst hit, with its 250 miles of windward coast exposed to regular invasions of sargassum. The government of Quintana Roo on the Caribbean coast declared a state of emergency to free up funds to deal with the influx earlier this year. It described the situation as an “imminent natural disaster”.

What’s next?

In Cayman, policymakers are trying to strike a balance between dealing with the problem and not making it worse. Clearing beaches with machinery risks causing erosion and damaging turtle nests. A hotline has been set up to allow the Department of Environment to approve and monitor requests to remove sargassum from the shoreline.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture is investigating the possibility of using sargassum as fertiliser.

Elsewhere in the region, entrepreneurs have found business opportunities creating barriers to block the seaweed or removing it from the ocean in specially adapted boats.

Minister Hew has promised support to any private business looking to assist.

“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,” he told the Compass.

“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.”

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