For centuries, the Mediterranean region has been written about as a place of global commerce, a cradle of civilisation and a frequent setting for epic adventure. Unfortunately, in the run-up to a season when tourists normally flock to its shores, it has recently been in the news for less glamorous and poetic reasons: marine mucilage.
This thick layer of slime, which is as bad as it sounds, has appeared on parts of the Turkish coast over the past few weeks, choking precious marine life and the livelihoods of those who rely on the sea for a living, from fisherman to the many Turks who work in the country's huge tourism industry. Produced by tiny algae, the slime was first found in Turkey in 2007, further east towards neighbouring Greece. While the substance is not a new phenomenon for the country's environmental authorities, today's outbreak is by far the largest on record.
Ankara yesterday said it would work tirelessly to save the Sea of Marmara, where the substance has gathered, a strategically significant body of water that connects the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. So great is the need to respond that Turkey's Environment Minister, Murat Kurum, has said the region would be designated a protected area by the end of 2021, and that his government would take all necessary steps within three years to protect the site in the short and long term.
What could cause a mass of sludge to appear so suddenly on the coast? A major factor is global warming, caused by carbon emissions that heat oceans to temperatures conducive to marine mucilage.
But lax waste-management policies are also responsible. For years, waste and sewage from nearby Istanbul – a city of 16 million people – and its industrial and building sites have been seeping into the area's fragile waters.
Turkey, along with many coastal states in the region, has recognised the environmental and economic threat posed by pollution of the wider Mediterranean. Ankara has been a member of the Programme for the Assessment and Control of Marine Pollution in the Mediterranean, which monitors the health of the region’s oceans. Despite the organisation being around for half a decade, current crises suggest that more still needs to be done.
The situation provides a lesson for all coastal states in the region, including those in the Gulf. The Arabian Sea is the warmest in the world, putting it on the frontline in the war against algae. More broadly, it is right that countries are taking the threat of marine pollution seriously. Environmental preservation is not just about doing what is morally correct, but also about protecting our prosperity.
Summer is fast approaching and with it, the many devotees of a Mediterranean break will flock to Turkey’s coasts. Any encounters with thick slime, if it is not cleaned up by then, are sure to put a dampener on the holiday. But even that will be just a fraction of the disappointment experienced by the locals who take such pride in living by one of the world’s great seas.