Decaying Yemen tanker risks Red Sea oil spill worse than Exxon Valdez

The oil spill would directly affect the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, one of the last reef ecosystems to survive and thrive to this day.

Highly diverse coral reefs of the Red Sea are home to thousands of species, all of which are at immediate risk in case of an oil spill. The wellbeing of these colorful reefs is key to the livelihood of millions of people along the shores of the Red Sea. (photo credit: PROF. MAOZ FINE)
Highly diverse coral reefs of the Red Sea are home to thousands of species, all of which are at immediate risk in case of an oil spill. The wellbeing of these colorful reefs is key to the livelihood of millions of people along the shores of the Red Sea.
(photo credit: PROF. MAOZ FINE)
An international team of researchers from Israel, Germany, Switzerland and the US has joined the UN’s warning of a man-made natural disaster – four times worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill near Alaska – that awaits the Red Sea if immediate action is not taken to secure a decaying tanker stranded off the coast of Yemen.
The team published a policy brief on Tuesday, detailing the “immense devastation” anticipated for the Red Sea, its coral reefs and the surrounding populations of 12 neighboring countries, including Israel, if the advanced stages of decay facing the Safer tanker are not addressed immediately by the international community.
The oil spill, estimated to be a total of one million barrels, would directly affect the coral reefs of the northern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, one of the last reef ecosystems to survive and thrive to this day. Reef systems are used as essential nurseries for many species of fish that feed more than a billion people a year.
“Coral reefs line almost all 4,000 kilometers of the Red Sea’s coastlines and also surround multiple islands within it, so that oil spills in any part of the sea threaten these valuable ecosystems,” said Prof. Maoz Fine from Bar-Ilan University’s Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science, who co-authored the brief. “Action must be taken now. The window of opportunity to save a unique marine ecosystem is quickly closing.”

Coral reef of the Red Sea (Credit: Prof. Maoz Fine)Coral reef of the Red Sea (Credit: Prof. Maoz Fine)
The Safer, built in 1974, is moored off the Ras Issa oil terminal, 60 km. north of Yemen’s Port of Hodeidah. The area is held by Houthi rebels, but the high seas are controlled by a Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the movement and has prevented it from selling oil.
The tanker has been sitting stranded in the port since then, where it has plunged into its current state of decay that threatens a massive oil spill in the Red Sea. Sides involved in resolving the conflict surrounding the ship’s stagnant state had been warned years in advance that a disaster of this magnitude was on the horizon, but to no avail.
UN and Houthi officials say water has entered the Safer’s engine room at least twice since 2015. The latest leak in May was plugged by Safer Corp. divers and Houthi naval units.
The UN says a major rupture could severely harm Red Sea ecosystems and shut Hodeidah Port, Yemen’s main entry point for imports and aid.
Steps have been taken for the situation to be rectified, although it is unclear if they will be in time to prevent a disaster.
Houthi authorities in Yemen gave long-awaited approval in late November for a UN plan to visit and assess the deteriorating oil tanker. Staff and equipment could be expected to arrive at the tanker by late January or early February, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said at the time.
Hussein al-Azzi, the Houthi deputy foreign minister, on Sunday said Houthi authorities had sent a letter confirming they would welcome the UN team of experts, and they were waiting for confirmation of an arrival date.
“It represents an important step forward in this critical work,” Dujarric said, adding that the letter was received on Saturday.

The oil spill could have a major impact on the Red Sea's ecosystem (Credit: Prof. Maoz Fine)The oil spill could have a major impact on the Red Sea's ecosystem (Credit: Prof. Maoz Fine)
The UN has warned that the Safer, stranded since 2015, could spill four times as much oil as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster near Alaska. But access to the vessel has been complicated by the war in Yemen.
The Iran-aligned Houthi group, which controls the area where the tanker is moored, and the national oil firm that owns it agreed in July to allow a technical team to assess the ship and make any feasible repairs. But a final agreement on logistical arrangements did not materialize.
Dujarric said the experts would assess the tanker and might undertake light maintenance. The United Nations has a plan, but it needs to procure equipment and permits, which will take time, he said.
“The de facto authorities have assured us that they will provide all the necessary facilitation to ensure that the expert team can deploy as quickly as possible,” Dujarric said.
“Immediate international intervention is needed to prevent an imminent humanitarian and ecological disaster,” said co-author Dr. Karine Kleinhaus from Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “Emergency action must be taken by the UN and its International Maritime Organization to remove the oil, despite political tensions in the region.”
Other authors of the policy brief include Prof. Hezi Gildor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr. Yael Amitai from the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institution, Prof. Anders Meibom from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland and Prof. Christian R. Voolstra from the University of Konstanz in Germany. The brief can be viewed in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science.