Sargassum smothers local shores

DoE deputy director: ‘It’s going to get worse’

Cayman’s pristine shoreline is once again under attack from a familiar foe as mounds of sargassum have started washing up on local beaches.

“It’s going to get worse,” said Department of Environment Deputy Director Timothy Austin Thursday when he sat down with the Cayman Compass to discuss the perennial problem of the seaweed smothering local shores.

“Unfortunately, it’s that time of year where the sargassum stockpile, if you like, starts to build up … in the Atlantic, and then it makes its way into the Caribbean. So, it’s the seasonal beginning and it looks like we’re in for another bad year based on the predictions that we’re seeing from the satellite measuring,” he said.

While Austin said the DoE does not expect the situation to get as bad as it did in 2018, at the moment it is projected to be as damaging as last year and “also potentially [as in] 2015”.

Sargassum blooms, he said, start in the Atlantic and build up. Driven by winds and currents, the seaweed makes its way to the Caribbean.

“The Eastern Caribbean is usually affected the worst because it’s got the full brunt of the Atlantic and then it makes it way towards the Western Caribbean where we are, and we start to see it collecting on our windward coasts mainly,” he said.

Sargassum spreads along coast

Austin said at the moment the south coasts of Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac are really suffering inside the reefs.

From Bodden Town to South Sound, sargassum plumes can be seen rolling in en masse. At the Spotts and South Sound docks, the scent from the seaweed was pungent as piles littered the coastline and landing ramps.

Austin said the DoE is expecting the seaweed to build up at its usual collection points, due to “a mixture of both the wind and then the offshore wave and oceanographic conditions that allow it to concentrate in certain spots”.

The Seven Mile and West Bay beaches are not being affected, Austin said, because that is  a leeward shore and the wind is carrying debris offshore.

“Typically, it doesn’t [end up on Seven Mile Beach]; it takes a very unique set of wind conditions to impact Seven Mile Beach” such as a nor’wester or more westerly winds to bring debris onto the beach. “The good thing is that the government has been putting together a taskforce. So, we do feel prepared, people know what to do,” he said.

The taskforce was established last year under the remit of Infrastructure Minister Joey Hew.

Workers under the National Community Enhancement programme (NiCE) joined with Public Works last year to clean up the seaweed that littered local shores.

Clean-up project planned

Hew, in a written response to queries from the Compass Thursday, said the programme will be restarted once it is safe to do so.

“At the moment, the Parks and Recreations unit of the Public Works Department will be using the newly acquired equipment and its personnel to stay ahead of the issue. As the summer progresses where we will see a greater influx of the sargassum, increased turtle nesting and, if it is safe from COVID-19, then we will employ additional help to remove the sargassum by hand,” Hew said.

Austin said the teams dealing with the sargassum are aware of the dangers and the DoE is ready to give advice to people who want to take part in clearing the seaweed.

“You do need to consult with the department because at the moment [it] is turtle-nesting season, so we don’t want heavy equipment, we don’t want machinery on the beach when it’s likely to impact potentially a turtle nest that may be on the beach that you’re not aware of,” Austin added.

He said a significant amount of sargassum has been spotted outside of the reef and, over the past couple of days, the DoE has been monitoring the situation.

“It doesn’t seem to have made it ashore yet … we could have more of a build-up this week, depending on how the wind shifts and changes,” he said.

While the appearance of sargassum will not be welcomed by residents who will be able to go to the beach any day of the week starting Sunday, Austin said, “there are always some beaches where the sargassum hasn’t impacted”.

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