BANDIRMA, Turkey – The Sea of Marmara, legendary for centuries for its blue waters and sparkling fish, runs along the shores of Istanbul. Its perfect shape inspired a 19th century historian to describe the ancient city as “a diamond set between two sapphires”.
But the Marmara has been disgusting for a long time, and this year it suffered a climax that choked its waters and choked out marine life. In April thousands of fish died and in May a natural secretion called mucilage emerged, choking the ports and beaches with its slimy film.
“It’s an environmental disaster,” said Burhan Onen, 63, as he gathered his crew for a night of fishing recently in the town of Bandirma. “We haven’t stopped going out, but the catches are down 80%.”
Mucilage, also known by the viscerally accurate description of sea glanders, is produced naturally by phytoplankton and generally consumed by other marine species including jellyfish and sea cucumbers.
Mustafa Sari, professor in the maritime faculty of Bandirma Onyedi Eylul University, blamed the excessive secretion of viscous substance by phytoplankton from this fall on three triggers: the surface temperature of the Sea of Marmara, which has steadily warmed for two decades and is 2.5 degrees Celsius higher than the 40-year average; excess phosphorus and nitrogen from pollution; and the natural stability of the Marmara, which is an inland sea.
Turkey has once been plagued by mucilage, which has some similarities to the tides of algae that spread to the Adriatic Sea in 1989, also caused by the overproduction of microorganisms that scientists have linked to global warming and pollution.
The problem first emerged in November, when Mr Sari was inundated with urgent appeals from local fishermen about the mucilage.
He asked a friend to investigate. The video his friend brought back from a scuba dive was alarming, he said. Large globules of mucilage were visible in the water, and at about 100 feet deep, the scene was completely dark, with zero visibility.
Mud clung to fishing nets, making them too heavy to pull, said Hakan Sevgi, 52, a member of a fishing cooperative. When a boat’s mechanical pulley broke, the crew spent seven hours pulling up the nets by hand, a job expected to take half an hour.
Some crews were forced to drop their nets and now only throw them in shallow water for 30 minutes at a time, other fishworkers said.
During a dive this year, Mr Sari said he found 30 sea cucumbers attempting to rise from the bottom of the sea, one of them clinging to a seashell in an apparent attempt to get out of the sea. rise above the mud.
On a second dive, he found few.
“We only saw three, which means the rest are dead,” he said. The mud reduced the oxygen in the water, which is fatal to marine life.
The months of December to March were lean periods, but fishing crews hoped that warmer weather would clear up the mucilage as in the past. But in April, in Misakca, a small fishing village on the southern shore of the Marmara, disaster struck.
“The sand fish all turned white and died,” said Ahmet Kartal, 62. “Even the crabs are dead.”
“We’re famous for our giant shrimp here, and now there aren’t even any,” he added. “Fifty years that I have been a fisherman, I have not seen anything like it in my life.”
The dead fish had gills clogged with mucilage, Sari said, but the biggest and most invisible disaster was a breakdown in the food chain.
“The biggest damage is to the biodiversity of marine life,” he said. “Those who are not mobile, reefs, mussels, sponges, clams, these have been strongly impacted. They will come back, but not in the short term.
The problems in the Marmara had been covering for years, said Erol Kesici, hydrobiologist and advisor to the Turkish Association for Nature Conservation.
“There have been years of negotiations and warnings and nothing has been done,” he said. “The cause is residential and industrial waste, and untreated waste that is dumped into deep water. “
The area around the sea is heavily populated – the city of Istanbul alone has 16 million people – with plans for further expansion. Mr. Kesici estimated that household waste could account for 40% of pollution, with industry and shipping being responsible for the rest.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has built his legacy on large construction projects, plans to build a canal through Istanbul to open an additional toll road for commercial shipping from the Black Sea to Marmara. Scientists have warned that the canal will cause great environmental damage to the Marmara, but Erdogan and his ministers have refuted the claims.
“It’s actually the opposite,” Transport Minister Adil Karaismailoglu said in a television interview last month. “When the clean water of the Black Sea mixes with Marmara, the quality of the water in Marmara will improve.”
Parts of the Marmara region are already heavily industrialized, and Environment and Town Planning Minister Murat Kurum said last month that the government had closed a fertilizer factory, a thermal power plant and three construction sites. naval vessels to reduce pollution when the mucilage crisis hit. the news.
It was not clear whether the closures were temporary, but the minister said the government was also working to declare the sea a protected area.
The mucilage hit Turkey at a difficult time. Crushed by an economic crisis and exhausted by pandemic lockdowns, Turks were in desperate need of summer relief. Coastal communities were counting on a vibrant tourist season, and fishing crews, hotels and restaurants were gearing up for busy months.
But faces were brooding at the Bandirma fish market one recent morning. Sales had been down for months as crews struggled to make a take. But now the crates straight out of the boats lay on the cement floor as buyers watched, without bidding.
The customers were afraid to eat the fish.
“Ordinary people don’t buy fish, so the price has come down,” said Zihni Erturk, who owns a trawler and a wholesaler. He said his businesses have been at a loss since January.
Opposite the market, the Moby Dick restaurant served only fish from the Black Sea, nothing from local waters.
In Canakkale, a popular tourist town on the Dardanelles where the Marmara flows into the Aegean Sea, vacationers gazed in the harbor at the mucilage that had turned the sea into clam chowder.
Girded with action when mud clogged ports and beaches, the government deployed city workers to try and pump it out. But scientists said the main problem was underwater and there was no way to clean the seabed. The mucilage extends to the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, said Kesici, the hydrobiologist.
He called for more inspections and tougher penalties to prevent illegal dumping, which has gone largely unchallenged for years. Stinking rivers and canals still flow into the sea, he added.
But he and others have called for a much more fundamental overhaul, including a moratorium for the rest of the century on the disposal of waste in the sea.
“The burden of Marmara is too heavy,” Kesici said. “He can’t handle all the shipbuilding, the tourism, the traffic, even the planes. He needs a break.