The Mediterranean—A Closed Sea With Open Wounds
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GREECE
Over a thousand dolphin corpses piling up on shores from Greece to Morocco, poisonous red tides in the Aegean, millions of tons of mucuslike foam in the Adriatic, turtles and seals on the brink of extinction, areas of water devoid of life altogether. What is going on in the Mediterranean? Is it doomed to a future of pollution and devastation?
“THE oldest humanised landscape in the world.” That is how zoologist David Attenborough describes the Mediterranean and its shores. Providing access to three continents, this sea played a key role in the rise and fall of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. It is the seedbed from which much of today’s culture and civilization developed. However, recent decades of overdevelopment, booms in tourism, overfishing, and pollution have left the Mediterranean in crisis. Concerned scientists and afflicted nations scramble to come up with solutions, with only partial success so far.
The Mediterranean is the world’s largest inland sea. Its 28,000-mile [46,000 kilometer] coast, a natural border shared by 20 countries, is inhabited by more than 160 million people, a figure projected to double by the year 2025. Warmer and saltier than the Atlantic, which is the main source of its waters, the Mediterranean is practically tideless. Since its waters are renewed only about every 80 or 90 years, it is also susceptible to pollution. “Whatever gets dumped in the Mediterranean stays there a long time,” says National Geographic.
Sun-drenched beaches, lovely scenery, traditional Mediterranean hospitality, and rich history make the whole area an extremely popular holiday resort. Every year, 100 million local beachgoers and foreign tourists visit there, and this figure is expected to triple in 25 years. Is this human tide partly responsible for the deterioration of their summer destination? Examine the facts.
These hordes of human invaders bring with them refuse that the Mediterranean countries are unable to cope with. About 80 percent of the sewage they produce—more than 500 million tons a year—ends up in the sea entirely untreated! Most of these tourists come in the dry season, contributing to the contamination of the area’s already limited water resources. Contaminated water, in turn, is dangerous to the health. Swimming in some parts of the Mediterranean can result in infections of the ear, nose, and throat, not to mention diseases such as hepatitis and dysentery and occasional cases of cholera.
The economy of many Mediterranean lands, however, depends on tourism. Speaking of such countries, Michel Batisse, a former assistant director-general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, says: “Their only resource is tourism, but that depends on the coastline not being ruined by uncontrolled construction driven by the search for quick profits.”
Heavy Tanker Traffic
The Mediterranean is a major transportation route between the Middle East and Europe, which results in heavy oil-tanker traffic. Over 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through it. The amount of waste oil spilled into the Mediterranean each year has been estimated at 17 times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. Between 1980 and 1995, 14 tanker spills occurred in the Mediterranean, and each year, up to a million tons of crude oil are dumped from ships, often because harbors lack the facilities to collect waste oil or to clean tanks.
To make things worse, the water that flows out of the Mediterranean to the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar is deep. Since oil floats, the sea loses its deeper, cleaner water but tends to retain its accumulation of oil on the surface. “The food chain of the Mediterranean is now marked by oil pollution,” says Colette Serruya, former director of Israel’s Institute of Oceanography. “It is part of the tissue of our fish and mollusks.” In 1990 the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reported that 93 percent of shellfish taken from the Mediterranean contained more fecal bacteria than the maximum allowed by the World Health Organization.
Added to this ruinous pollution, great damage is being done on the coast of the Mediterranean, much of which was thickly forested as late as the 15th century C.E. Deforestation, carried out to create farmland, to extend cities, or to provide shipbuilding materials for Venetian galleys, has brought irremediable erosion in its wake. In addition to the solids transported by rain, rivers carry down to the sea such pollutants as detergents, pesticides, and heavy metals. The Rhône in France, the Nile in Egypt, the Po in Italy, the Ebro in Spain, and other rivers carry increased quantities of agricultural and industrial waste.
One direct result of this pollution is the red tides that have afflicted various areas of the Adriatic and Aegean seas, covering the beaches with a foul-smelling, glutinous sludge. This phenomenon is caused by eutrophication, a process that occurs when decomposing waste matter saps the water of its dissolved oxygen, suffocating much of the local flora and fauna. Other areas threatened by this phenomenon include the Gulf of Lions (France), the Lake of Tunis (Tunisia), the Gulf of Izmir (Turkey), and the Lagoon of Venice (Italy).
The coastal ecosystem has been weakened to the point that species alien to the Mediterranean are able to take over from native species. A typical example is a “killer” alga, Caulerpa taxifolia, which exterminates other marine species. Introduced accidentally off Monaco, it has now begun to spread on the seabed. It is toxic, has no known predators, and has already spread widely. “We could be seeing the beginning of an ecological catastrophe,” says Alexandre Meinesz, professor of marine biology at the University of Nice, France.
There is more bad news. According to marine biologist Charles-François Boudouresque, more than 300 alien marine organisms have been introduced into the Mediterranean. Most came from the Red Sea through the Suez Canal. Some researchers believe that this biological pollution is irreversible and that it might prove to be one of the major ecological problems of the next century.
Death in the Water
Mediterranean flora faces many dangers, one of them being the destruction of the Posidonia sea-grass meadows, which serve as the lungs, larder, and nursery of the sea and as a shelter where hundreds of marine species reproduce. Jetties and marinas encroaching on these meadows can destroy them, as can pleasure boats, which tear the plants up with their anchors.
The sea’s fauna is equally threatened. The Mediterranean monk seal, one of the world’s 12 most threatened species, is being driven to extinction. There were almost 1,000 monk seals in the Mediterranean in 1980, but their ranks have been decimated by hunters and fishermen, and only between 70 and 80 are left today. The loggerhead turtles now lay their eggs only on Greek and Turkish beaches, where they are sometimes trodden underfoot by tourists. The turtles often get entangled in fishing nets and end up on the menu at local restaurants. The mantis shrimp, the rough pen shell, and the date mussel have been added to the list of endangered species.
An Action Plan
To deal with this alarming situation, in 1975 the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) was adopted under the auspices of UNEP. It aspires to commit the Mediterranean countries, as well as other members of the European Union, not only to protecting the sea from pollution but also to ensuring that coastal development respects the environment. In 1990 the Mediterranean Environmental Technical Assistance Program (METAP) was launched, which was succeeded in 1993 by METAP II. Other efforts to create nature reserves, sanctuaries, and marine national parks have yielded some commendable results in protecting dolphins, whales, monk seals, turtles, and other endangered species.
Actions, however, have not adequately matched words. By the early 1990’s, the MAP was close to collapse, as major contributor nations failed to pay their dues. According to authorities of the plan, not one of its objectives is known to have been achieved. Reporting on the willingness of the Mediterranean nations to take improvement measures, Ljubomir Jeftic, deputy coordinator of the MAP, warned: “Don’t be too optimistic.” Even if these countries can agree to act, the harm already done might take decades to repair. Observes New Scientist magazine: “Right now, like much of the Mediterranean’s wildlife, the MAP looks dead in the water.”
What, then, is the future of the Mediterranean? Will it become a dead sea full of stinking, muddy algae? If its future depends only on man, perhaps. However, the Creator of this planet, Jehovah God, has concern for “the sea, which he himself made.” (Psalm 95:5) He has promised that soon he will “bring to ruin those ruining the earth.” (Revelation 11:18) After this necessary removal of irresponsible humans who pollute, among other things, the seas, God will restore ecological balance and appropriate biodiversity on our globe. Then “the seas and everything moving about in them” will “praise him” with their pristine, unsullied condition.—Psalm 69:34.
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Overdevelopment has led to pollution
Lloret de Mar, Costa Brava, Spain
Hotels in Benidorm, Spain
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Polluted Spanish waters and (below) an oil slick at Genoa, Italy
V. Sichov/Sipa Press
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Loggerhead turtles are threatened
Mediterranean monk seals are on the brink of extinction
Turtle: Tony Arruza/Corbis; Seal: Panos Dendrinos/HSSPMS