Sea sickness

Can Israel, a substantial contributor to the Mediterranean’s present unwholesome state, do more than it has done to save it?

By MAURICE PICOW
October 15, 2010 16:41
One of the shipwrecks found

Shipwreck. (photo credit: University of Haifa)

"Sick and getting sicker” is how oceanographers and environmentalists often describe the Mediterranean. The sea’s already polluted waters are becoming increasingly choked with large quantities of plastic and other debris, engine oil and sewage from cruise liners and cargo vessels. And many of the countries that share the shoreline of this ancient and historic body of water dump their raw sewage and industrial wastes there.

If that weren’t enough, the environmental conditions of the Mediterranean are changing still further due to rising seas and increasing water temperatures from global warming; oil and natural gas offshore drilling; and increasing salinity as a result of desalination plants constructed by Israel and other Mediterranean countries, including nearby Cyprus.

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Is there a way to save the Mediterranean, or is this historic sea, known since biblical times, doomed to become a heavily polluted, saline lake? And can Israel, a substantial contributor to the Mediterranean’s present state, do more than it has done to save it? Owing to the importance Israel places on the sea that borders the country’s entire western coastline – 195 kilometers – there is no shortage of scientific organizations and think tanks involved in studying it – the Israel National Institute of Oceanography, the Israel Oceanography and Limnological Research Institute (IOLRI), and the Dr. Moses Strauss Department of Marine Geosciences, University of Haifa, to name just a few.

All located in Haifa, these bodies are researching all aspects of the Mediterranean’s physical condition along the section that borders Israel.

Chronic marine pollution has been a problem in the Mediterranean for some time, Dr. Bella Galil, senior researcher at the National Institute of Oceanography, told Metro. It was the subject of a paper she wrote in 1995 entitled “Litter at the Bottom Mediterranean,” in which she noted the various forms of solid waste found in a trawl net that was supposed to be catching sea bream and other fish.

Although a number of international regulations are in force to prevent this type of material being dumped in the sea by countries who subscribe to international maritime pollution prevention treaties, large amounts of marine pollution are still evident in the Mediterranean, especially types that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

“It is usually the invisible pollutants that are the more insidious,” Galil pointed out. “Chronic marine pollution is much worse overall than temporary oil and chemical ‘spills,’ although the latter gain the most media attention,” she added, noting that plastic material in the sea is still a major problem.



“Plastic materials are widely used and most of them are not biodegradable,” Galil continued. Most of our attention is directed to coastal litter, which we can see, but little attention is paid to litter which we do not observe – such as minute particles from plastic bags and other plastic material.

A large swath of such plastic debris was discovered recently in the Atlantic Ocean and is said to stretch all the way across the Atlantic, from northern Florida to southern Virginia.

Prof. Barak Herut, director-general of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in Haifa, has spent years researching various forms of Mediterranean pollution.

He believes there is hope for the section of the eastern Mediterranean that Israel borders on, and that the overall situation is not as bleak as media reports often indicate.

“COMPARED TO other parts of the region, including the Adriatic Sea, Turkey, and sections off France and North Africa, Israel’s section of the sea is now much better than in former years,” he said, adding that only 50 percent of raw sewage is treated in other Mediterranean countries, while here it is a much higher percentage.

“Yes, there are some leakages from Israel’s coastal streams from time to time,” he said, “but in general, the situation has improved.”

As for solid wastes that “sink to the bottom of the sea” such as various plastic materials, Herut said the situation is more complicated to monitor than in the case of chemicals or raw sewage.

“We cannot monitor plastic materials,” he noted. “There is simply no easy way to do it.”

Asked about the effects of desalination plants – with two large plants currently operating in Ashkelon and Hadera – Herut believes that for now, anyway, these plants do not pose any serious pollution threat.

“In the Hadera desalination plant [located next to the Rabin coal-fired power plant near Caesarea] the brine discharge is diluted with natural seawater before being returned to the sea,” Herut said. “This is still being studied to determine if the local environment, including the Hadera River, is being affected.”

What about the drilling and extraction of natural gas from various gas fields discovered off the coast of Haifa and other locations?

Noted Herut: “Much has to be done about preventing serious forms of pollution, and safeguards are currently being set up by companies involved. In any event, natural gas is not nearly as polluting as crude oil, which has a number of harmful chemicals in its makeup.” He added: “The gas wells must be monitored so as to prevent any leakage.”

How do these fields compare to the ones in the Gulf of Mexico where the Deepwater Horizon well explosion caused one of the worst environmental disasters in history? According to Herut, the overall situation there does not appear to be as serious as the media has described it.

“Besides,” he said, “a lot of crude oil leaks naturally brought to people’s attention.”

What lies underneath the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean? That is being brought more and more to the public’s attention by undersea exploratory and “mapping” operations such as the recently completed one carried out from September 4 to 15 by the Nautilus Sea Research Foundation, composed of a group of American and Israeli oceanographers and marine geophysics.

THE ISRAELI team members were connected with the Moses Strauss Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Haifa, headed by Prof. Zvi Ben Avraham. The project’s Control Center was headed by Dr. Yitzhak Mokovsky, head of the Geophysics Department and a specialist in marine geophysics dealing with the eastern Mediterranean.

Mokovsky has had a lifelong love of the sea, and is an experienced diver and surfer. He worked as a diving instructor in his youth, before choosing to become a specialist in marine geophysics. He is also a geophysical consultant for the oil and gas industry.

“The oil and gas drilling industry is an extremely sophisticated one, because if you go wrong, it costs a lot of money afterwards,” he said. “Once the oil and gas reserves are found in off-shore fields, the companies employ the geophysicists to see how the project will be undertaken. This involves designing the entire production infrastructure [oil or gas well rig, pipelines, etc.].”

According to Mokovsky, the best offshore fields are currently the Tamar field, off Haifa, and the Mari-B field off Ashdod. Noble Energy is the big player in the energy exploration operation there, he said.

“They are using what they know to be the best methods, bringing in even better submersibles for exploration than the ones we are using. We are looking for the full scope of development for this industry – there is going to be a great development of infrastructure in this area in the coming years,” he said.

With regard to the desalination plants such as the ones in operation in Ashkelon and Hadera, Mokovsky noted: “We need desalination... and we need to acquire all the resources and financial aid necessary to undertake these projects. As for the consequences of desalination,” he said, “it’s still difficult to ascertain what damage is caused to the Mediterranean when the desalination outlet pipes are as much as 1 to 2 km. out to sea.”

Mokovsky is very excited about the findings made on the recent Nautilus dives.

“We found a large black coral formation [tree-like corals related to sea anemones] at a depth of 700 meters. We never knew they existed,” he said. “We also found large ‘holes’ in the seabed several meters wide and deep. We still have no idea how they were created.” He added that strange sea life, including species of fish and invertebrates previously unknown to the eastern Mediterranean, had been discovered.

The dives were shown on the Nautilus Live website, with site visitors able to view the same underwater scenes as the scientists and hear their comments.

Viewing the seabed at depths of nearly 700 meters revealed a world much different than the underwater vistas often shown in films. It appeared more like an underwater desert with only some forms of marine life present, such as crustaceans and other invertebrates.

Other scenes showed sea creatures trying to hide themselves in the sandy seabed when the submersible’s mobile arm strayed too close. Undersea pollution was also discovered, especially trash.

“We found a lot of solid waste such as discarded paint cans, plastic items, fishing nets, and wires – all of which trap fish and other marine creatures. The Continental Shelf off Israel’s coastline is the most “dirty” in the region – even more than the Marmaris [off Turkey] and the Aegean [off Greece],” Mokovsky said.

The offshore oil and gas companies here are not really dedicated to exercising the most adequate safety measures, Mokovsky said – in contrast to countries like Norway, where government officials have been able to agree with the oil companies on infrastructure safeguards for undersea energy production projects.

“This is the first time Israel has become serious about these off-shore projects, and proper regulations have to be drawn up and enforced,” said Mokovsky, while adding, “Despite these issues, I believe these projects will in due course enable Israel to become energy self-sufficient.

“In short, both the environment and the developing infrastructure, including energy exploration and production, have to find a way to coexist,“ he said.

What about problems connected with commercial fishing? Replied Mokovsky: “Commercial fishing, especially the use of large dragnets, can damage the seabed; especially due to the Eastern Med being a poor marine life habitat. Because of this marine habitat factor, it made us very excited to find black coral formations so deep.”

Dr. Ruth Yahel, a marine ecologist for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, specializes in studying and protecting Israel’s Mediterranean marine environment.

The Mediterranean is going through an “enormous change,” she told Metro; 50% of the fish now found there came originally from the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal. These new fish species include unwanted varieties, especially poisonous ones like the box fish.

Some of these new species, she said, “have resulted in the depletion and even disappearance of local indigenous species.”

The increasing operation of desalination facilities and oil and gas production will eventually have an effect on the sea’s marine life. Yahel added that the consequences of the increasing use of desalination are still not fully known; some of the smaller desalination plants discharge their briny residues back into the sea “right on the coast and not further out to sea like the larger ones do.”

What is occurring in the sea’s depths was virtually unknown to Israeli authorities until 2004, when a law was passed to conserve the Mediterranean’s marine environment in the sections that border Israel.

“Previously, only the engineering factors surrounding the exploration and production of undersea energy were taken into account,” Yahel said. “But now companies like Noble Energy use Israel Nature and Parks Authority undersea maps when planning a drilling project in order to take environmental considerations into account.”

She pointed out that 20% of the Mediterranean that Israel borders has been declared nature reserves, and divided into four areas: an area between Nahariya and Rosh Hanikra; an area off the Carmel Coast; the Sharon area, especially near the Poleg Stream Estuary; and the Nitzanim area between Ashdod and Ashkelon (where a lot of commercial fishermen still fish with dragnets).

The issues surrounding the declaring and maintaining of nature reserves in the sea are quite different than those on land, even though problems exist on land as well, Yahel noted, giving the example of nature reserves in the Negev and Arava having to “coexist” with IDF training and practice areas.

“There are many problems with being able to declare the open sea nature reserves, especially in areas beyond Israeli territorial waters,” she added. Yahel has been involved in earlier dives similar to the current Nautilus one, including in September-October 2009, from which a four-page article lavishly illustrated with pictures was published in Yediot Aharonot.

“The article did a lot to make people more aware of what is down there in depths of up to 1,000 meters,” Yahel said. “But judging from the continuing public misuse of beaches, etc., not much was learned from it.”

She pointed out that despite Israel being a leader in the implementation of the 1976 and 1995 Barcelona Conventions for Protection of the Coastal Regions of the Mediterranean, a lot of damage from pollution, commercial fishing and real estate development projects is still occurring.

A SPECIALIST in marine ecology, Yahel noted that a very beautiful coral reef was found at a depth of only 40 meters just off the coast in Michmoret, between Netanya and Hadera.

“Findings such as this make it even more important to have more adequate mapping of the undersea environment,” she emphasized. “A lot more interest has been shown in marine research, and the mapping is needed to make the public and governmental authorities more aware that the deeper areas of the sea need to be protected; especially in the four areas designated as protected,” she said.

What the future of the Mediterranean will be in next 20 to 30 years depends on a number of factors, Yahel added, including increased reliance on desalination, rising sea temperatures caused by global warming and other factors; undersea energy projects and, of course, pollution.

One of the major marine life problems of the eastern Mediterranean in recent years, she noted, has been the large influx of various jellyfish species, many originating from the Red Sea.

“The jellyfish problem has become so severe that last year, entire bathing areas had to be closed due to so many of them coming ashore. Efforts are being made to clear and remove these creatures, which now have almost no natural enemies due to a depletion of fish species that used to prey on them,” Yahel she told Metro.

The Environmental Protection Ministry, headed by Gil Erdan (Likud), promoted Israel’s participation in the International Clean Coasts Week, September 19 to 25. More than 2,500 volunteers picked up trash and other debris from various beaches – much of it left by individuals and families on beach outings.

Talking recently about the condition of Israel’s beaches, Erdan noted: “I am sorry to say that despite some improvement, part of our beaches are still affected by pollution – much of it from the general public. Through campaigns such as the International Clean Coasts Week, and public notices, we are trying to make people more aware of the importance of keeping our beaches clean.”

Galia Pasternak, a ministry employee working with Israel’s beaches, told Metro that “80% of the trash found on beaches comes from beach visitors, and only 20% comes from the sea. But Israel is not unique in this problem, as it’s one found all over the world.”

She referred to a report entitled “Trash Travels” published by Oceans Conservancy, the international marine environment protection organization. It notes in detail the condition of the world’s oceans and seas as a result of trash left on beaches.

“Much of the trash left on our beaches is eventually carried out to sea, where it finds its way to other countries,” she said.

Another ministry employee, Gil Zeidner, says that although there has been some improvement in the Mediterranean’s overall condition, there is still a long way to go toward solving its many pollution problems – many of them caused by “neighboring countries.

“We need to educate people about taking more responsibility, and to not throw their trash on the beaches,” he said. “Penalties are not enough, and we feel that the media are a great tool for making people more aware of the need to keep our beaches clean.”

Yahel, summing up what could happen if not enough effort is made to improve the Mediterranean’s environment: “Either we improve the Med’s overall condition, or we will wind up losing control of the sea’s environment, which will have a major impact on our health as well as on our economy,” she warned.

Further information regarding pollution and other factors can be obtained from the following websites: Environmental Protection Ministry, Clean Coasts Campaign: http://www.sviva.gov.il/Enviroment/; Israel Oceanography and Limnological Research Institute, http:// www.ocean.org.il/; Israel National Parks Authority (Center), http://www.parks.org.il/; Zalul, Israel’s Environment Association, http://www.zalul.org.il


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