Local beach lovers are disappointed to hear that sargassum has been spotted in Cayman Brac so it looks like only a matter of time before the other islands are blighted by the obnoxious smelling and unsightly seaweed.
Virtually every beach in the Cayman Islands has been affected by sargassum in recent years. ‘Sargassum season’ typically blankets beaches from April to August.
Since 2018, the seaweed has been swept into the Caribbean on prevailing ocean currents where it has clogged the beaches and waterfronts of scores of Caribbean and Central American countries – while wreaking havoc on tourism and local wildlife.
A couple of months ago researchers at the University of South Florida warned of a massive sargassum bloom this year after satellite imagery detected four million tons of it blossoming in the Atlantic Ocean. Well the warning was extremely prophetic.
Already the Yucatán coastline is devastated with mountains of seaweed, fouling the beach with a sulphurous scent of decay and putting swimming nearby an unpleasant experience.
The algae’s growth is cyclical and even beneficial in normal amounts. Usually the seaweed blooms and stays out in the ocean, providing a floating habitat for fish, shrimp, eels, turtles and birds.
But the sargassum now comprises the world’s largest algae bloom—and isn’t staying out in the ocean anymore. Since 2011, vast quantities have washed up on Caribbean coastlines, from the Lesser Antilles to Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. In the open ocean, massive rafts of it keep sunlight from reaching coral reefs. As it decays, the seaweed releases compounds that harm marine life. The problem is sprawling - scientists using NASA satellite data recently clocked the floating seaweed belt at 5,549 miles long.
Once on shore, sargassum piles prevent sea turtles from laying eggs and reaching the ocean. Plus, the stench causes headaches and nausea among beachgoers.
Scientists believe the inordinate growth stems from increased runoff of agricultural inputs and sewage from the Amazon River in Brazil as well as warming water temperatures and surge in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.
Since the crisis began, the amount of seaweed washing ashore has ebbed and flowed. It’s an economic crisis as well as an ecological one.
During a talk at the University of West Indies, Edmund Bartlett, co-chair at the Global Tourism Resilience and Crisis Management Centre, said that the annual cost of cleaning-up the Caribbean islands was around $120 million. But it’s not just the cleaning costs that hit budgets; the loss of tourism revenue is substantial too. In Mexico’s Quintana Roo state, where tourism accounts for 87 percent of the state’s GDP, excess sargassum substantially threatens livelihoods.