BANDIRMA, Turkey – The Sea of Marmara, which has been renowned for centuries for its clear waters and vibrant fish, laps the shores of the Turkish capital. A 19th-century historian referred to the ancient city as “a diamond set between two sapphires” because of its perfect shape.
For some time, the Marmara has been sickening, and this year it suffered a paroxysm that choked its waters and suffocated the marine life on the seabed. Thousands of fish died in April, and by May, a natural secretion known as mucilage had appeared, smothering harbours and beaches with a slimy film of its own.
A night of fishing in the city of Bandirma recently turned into an environmental disaster, according to Burhan Onen, a 63-year-old fisherman who gathered his crew for a night of fishing. Despite the fact that we have not stopped going out, our catches have dropped by 80 percent.
Mucilage, also known as sea snot, is a natural substance produced by phytoplankton and consumed by other marine life, such as jellyfish and sea cucumbers. Mucilage is a viscerally accurate description of a substance produced by phytoplankton.
Prof. Mustafa Sari of the Maritime Faculty of Bandirma Onyedi Eylul University believes three factors are responsible for the phytoplankton secreting an excessive amount of the slimy substance starting this fall: the rising surface temperature of the Sea of Marmara, which has been steadily rising over the past two decades and is 2.5 degrees Celsius higher than the 40-year average; and excess phosphorus and nitrogen from polluted runoff.
Turkmenistan has previously experienced outbreaks of mucus-producing bacteria, which are similar in appearance to the tides of algae that spread across the Adriatic Sea in 1989 — which were also caused by an overabundance of microorganisms that scientists have linked to global warming and pollution.
The issue was first brought to Mr. Sari’s attention in November, when he received a deluge of calls from local fishermen who were concerned about the mucilage.
He enlisted the help of a friend to look into it. It was frightening to watch the video his friend had brought back from a scuba dive, he said. Large globules of mucilage were visible in the water, and at a depth of approximately 100 feet, the scene was completely black, with no visibility whatsoever.
According to Hakan Sevgi, 52, a member of a fishing cooperative, the slime was clinging to fishing nets, making them too heavy to pull in. When the mechanical pulley on one of the boats failed, the crew had to haul in the nets by hand, which took seven hours for a job that should have taken half an hour.
Other fishermen have reported that some fishing crews have been forced to abandon their nets and are now only casting them in shallow waters for 30 minutes at a time.
Mr. Sari reported that he discovered 30 sea cucumbers trying to climb off the sea floor during a dive this year, with one of them clinging to a seashell in an apparent attempt to rise above the sludge.
On his second dive, he discovered that there were only a few left.
he explained. “We only saw three of them, which means the others died.” The slime was reducing the amount of oxygen in the water, which was lethal to the marine life in the area.
Although the months of December to March were lean, fishermen held out hope that the warmer weather would dissipate the mucilage, as it had in the past. Misakca, a small fishing village on the southern shore of the Marmara, was struck by disaster during the month of April.
“All of the sand fish turned white and died,” said Ahmet Kartal, who is 62 years old. “Even the crabs died,” says the author.
In addition, he stated that “we are famous for our jumbo shrimp here, and now there is not even one.” The fisherman says, “I’ve been fishing for fifty years and have never seen anything like this in my life.”
Although the dead fish had mucilage-clogged gills, Mr. Sari said the larger, unseen disaster was a breakdown in the food chain, which was not visible.
“The greatest harm is done to the biodiversity of marine life,” he stated emphatically. “The ones that are not mobile, such as reefs, mussels, sponges, and clams, were severely harmed,” says the scientist. They will return, but it will not be in the near future.”
According to Erol Kesici, a hydrobiologist and advisor to the Turkish Nature Conservation Association, the problems in the Marmara had been brewing for years.
In his words, “there have been years of negotiation, warnings and nothing has been done.” In addition to residential and industrial waste, untreated wastewater that is discharged into deep waters is a contributing factor.
The area surrounding the sea is densely populated — the city of Istanbul alone has a population of 16 million people — and there are plans to expand even further. The majority of pollution, according to Mr. Kesici, is caused by industry and shipping, with household waste accounting for 40 percent of total pollution.
Erdogan, whose political legacy is built on large-scale construction projects, has announced plans to construct a canal through Istanbul that will provide an additional, fee-paying route for commercial shipping from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. Erdogan has vowed to complete the project by 2025. Science has warned that the canal will cause significant environmental damage to the Marmara, but Mr. Erdogan and his cabinet have disputed those claims.
According to Adil Karaismailoglu, the minister of transportation, “the opposite is true.” He made the statement during a television interview last month. “When the clean water of the Black Sea mixes with the water of the Marmara, the water quality of the Marmara will improve.”
In fact, parts of the Marmara region are already heavily industrialised, and the minister of the environment and urban planning, Murat Kurum, announced last month that the government had shut down a fertiliser factory, a thermal power station, and three shipyards in order to reduce pollution after the mucilage crisis made headlines last month.
However, although it was not clear whether the closures were temporary, the minister stated that the government was attempting to have the sea designated as a protected area.
Turkey is experiencing a difficult time as a result of the mucilage. Turks were desperate for some summer respite after being crushed by an economic crisis and exhausted by pandemic lockdowns this year. Coastal communities were banking on a strong tourist season, and fishing crews, hotels, and restaurants were preparing for the upcoming months of high demand.
On a recent morning, however, the mood at the fish market in Bandirma was depressing. Sales had been declining for months due to crews’ inability to bring in a good catch. However, now that the boats have arrived, crates have been left on the cement floor, and buyers have only stared, not bid.
Customers were apprehensive about eating the fish.
“Because the average person isn’t buying fish anymore, the price has dropped,” said Zihni Erturk, who owns a fishing trawler as well as a wholesale business. Since January, he claims, his businesses have been operating at a loss.
The Moby Dick restaurant, which was directly across the street from the market, was serving only fish from the Black Sea, with nothing from local waters.
Visiting Canakkale, a popular tourist destination on the Dardanelles, where the Marmara River empties into the Aegean, vacationers peered into the harbour and marvelled at the mucilage that had transformed the sea into the consistency of thick clam chowder.
When the slime clogged the ports and beaches, the government sprang into action and dispatched municipal workers to try to pump it out. Scientists, on the other hand, claim that the main problem is located underwater and that there is no way to clean the seabed. According to Mr. Kesici, a hydrobiologist, the mucilage is spreading to the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea as well.
For years, illegal dumping went largely unchallenged, but now he is calling for more inspections and harsher penalties to stop it. He went on to say that stinking rivers and canals continued to feed into the sea.
In contrast, he and others have called for a far more fundamental rethinking, which includes a moratorium on waste disposal into the sea for the remainder of the century.
According to Mr. Kesici, the burden placed on the Marmara is too great. “It is unable to support the amount of shipbuilding, tourism, traffic, and even planes. It is in desperate need of a break.”