A thick layer of marine mucilage, or “sea snot,” has spread in the Sea of Marmara, covering harbors, shorelines and swathes of the surface south of Istanbul. Scientists say climate change and pollution have contributed to the proliferation of this organic matter, which contains a large variety of microorganisms and can flourish when nutrient-rich sewage flows into seawater.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pledged to rid the Marmara Sea of the “scourge” of marine mucilage, as workers embarked on a massive effort to vacuum up the foul-looking substance that has been plaguing coastal communities. “My fear is, if this expands to the Black Sea, the trouble will be enormous. We need to take this step without delay,” Erdoğan said.
According to a report from Marmara Environmental Monitoring (MAREM), the main reason for the sea snot outbreak in the Marmara is untreated sewage, which causes the upper levels of the seawater to reach higher temperatures, leading to sea snot buildup.
Turkish Minute spoke with climate and energy expert Önder Algedik, who thinks marine mucilage, which is the result of a plankton explosion, tells us that the seas are not waste bins and that we can’t treat them as such.
“Nature has limited tolerance, and it’s abused in Turkey. Actually, mucilage is not that blood curdling, it’s just a natural reaction of nature, but the threat to life here is our environmental policies,” said Algedik.
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is harshly criticized for ignoring environmentalists’ concerns and allowing damage to the environment and marine life by pressing ahead with giant construction projects.
According to Algedik, wrong policies started in the mid-1980s, when the government discontinued full sewage treatment and started partial treatment.
“Partial treatment is not real treatment, it’s just the elimination of physical waste, which is only the first stage of treatment. The pumping of this untreated sewage into the depths of the sea only exacerbated the problem,” he said.
The Sea of Marmara, which stretches along Istanbul’s southern coast from the Bosporus to the Aegean, is densely populated and home to numerous industrial sites. Marine mucilage was first found in Turkey in 2007 but has also been discovered in the Aegean Sea near Greece.
Turkey’s recent outbreak in large areas of the Sea of Marmara, which connects the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea, is believed to be the biggest in history and is causing havoc for local communities.
According to Algedik, not only the AKP but indeed most politicians from various political parties in Turkey want to turn everything into money and therefore do not pay the needed attention to nature and the environment.
“The Marmara has become a dumping ground into which sewage, urban garbage and thermal power plant/industry hot water are discharged, and AKP politicians let this happen by means of their policies. In fact the ‘deep sea discharge system,’ which is the main reason for the mucilage, was a policy of Bedrettin Dalan, mayor of Istanbul between 1984 and 1989. Of course the AKP increased the scale of the discharge and accelerated the process,” says Algedik.
The Turkish government announced a disaster management action plan this week. Environment Minister Murat Kurum said Turkey plans to designate the entire Sea of Marmara as a protected area, reduce pollution and improve the treatment of wastewater from coastal cities and ships, the ineffective management of which has helped the sea snot to spread.
According to the action plan, standards for waste treatment facilities will be set again and waste dumped into Marmara will be reduced. The conversion of waste treatment plants will be completed in three years. Kurum also called on local residents, artists and NGOs to join what he said would be Turkey’s biggest maritime clean-up operation.
Pelin Cengiz, a journalist focused on economy and ecology, describes the mucilage disaster as “the cry of the Sea of Marmara” and one of the most striking examples of the deterioration of the right balance between protection and production.
According to Cengiz, at a time when the Sea of Marmara is going through a serious crisis, the delayed action plan announced by the Turkish government is meaningless.
“While talking about the ‘protection action plan,’ Minister Murat Kurum says, ‘Together, we will protect the Marmara within the framework of the disaster management plan.’ A protection plan is one thing, disaster management is another. An action plan should have been already implemented before today,” Cengiz told Turkish Minute in a phone interview.
“This is also an issue directly related to urban policies. Some 25 to 30 million people are living on the Marmara coast and most Turkish industry is located here, but investments such as sewage and wastewater treatment are not made as required and the Sea of Marmara has become the center of all kinds of pollution,” says Cengiz.
According to her, it is difficult to predict the future of the Sea of Marmara, and it may be impossible to reverse the situation. “As a result of the deterioration in the marine ecosystem, we expect serious problems in maritime transportation, fisheries and tourism.”
Despite widespread public opposition based on environmental and financial concerns, the AKP government will begin construction on the controversial Kanal Istanbul, a proposed artificial sea-level waterway in Istanbul, on June 26.
While Erdoğan and his AKP government claim the channel, which is planned to bisect the European side of Istanbul to connect the Black Sea to the Marmara and Mediterranean seas, is necessary for the safety of Istanbul’s Bosporus Strait and its busy marine traffic, critics of the project argue that it is aimed at generating money for pro-AKP circles and will damage nature and could even worsen the earthquake risk in the city.
Energy and climate expert Algedik thinks with the load of 500,000 new apartments and houses and an increase in resource consumption, the canal project will have a devastating effect on nature.
“Scientific studies on this subject say we lost the old Sea of Marmara and that there are just a few things we can save. If we continue like this, we will lose the sea completely, and the next will be the Black Sea. Turkey must quickly get rid of these mistakes and develop correct policies,” says Algedik.
According to Cengiz, the AKP government has not had a sustainable environmental protection plan developed through consultation, and action plans that were made or intended to be made generally remained on paper.
“Adopted developmental economic policies brought along a systematic series of eco-crimes. In recent years we have seen that the right to live in a healthy environment has been violated in almost every energy, construction and development project. All this destructive development brought the struggle for the environment to every region of Turkey; many communities, associations and civic initiatives strive to protect the air, water, soil, forests and livelihoods of the places where they live. We need a radical and sharp change in mentality to turn away from these systematic, pollutive, destructive and profit-driven policies,” Cengiz said.