"We are in the midst of one of the greatest ecological disasters since the state was founded. I have declared a state of emergency in Herzliya. From Ashkelon to Rosh Hanikra, hundreds of tonnes of tar have washed up on our beaches. I call on the government to declare a coastal disaster and to give us the budget necessary to deal with this incident," Herzliya mayor Moshe Fadlon told "Globes" yesterday. The Herzliya municipality is starting a general beach cleaning exercise today involving all municipal workers and hundreds of school pupils who have enlisted in the effort to deal with the disaster.
Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi and Israel Nature and Parks Authority director Shaul Goldstein have agreed that thousands of soldiers will join employees and volunteers from the Authority in mapping the areas that have been damaged by the tar, in cleaning up beaches, and in disposing of the debris.
Four days after the unprecedented ecological incident began on Israel's coastline, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on the matter in a press conference on the coronavirus pandemic. "The tar pollution that has hit Israel's coast is a severe incident, and the pictures of animals and birds covered in tar shock us all. I have spoken to Minister of Environmental Protection Gila Gamliel and asked her to put forward a plan for cleaning the beaches as soon as possible," Netanyahu said.
Earlier, President Reuven Rivlin said, "The pictures of the pollution on our beaches are terrible. I mourn for our flora and fauna, for the sea that has been blackened with tons of tar. This is a time for an immediate national plan before we find ourselves facing an unprecedented ecological disaster. " Rivlin expressed gratitude to the volunteers taking part in the clean-up, but said that that their efforts should be in support of a orderly, budgeted plan to deal with this incident and ensure readiness for future ones of this kind. The pollution is affecting a 170-190 kilometer stretch of Israeli coastline.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection has provided an update saying that it received initial information from EMSA (the European Maritime Safety Agency) and from REMPEC (the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre), which is based in Malta, of the possibility of pollution from an oil slick spotted on February 11, 50 kilometers from the Israeli coast at Ashkelon, the result of a discharge from a ship.
The oil slick was spotted via a satellite, and is being investigated by the Ministry of Environmental Protection as the possible source of the pollution, using models for forecasting sea movement. The results of the modelling link the pollution source with the lumps of tar that have washed up on the beaches in the past few days. At present, the investigation raises the possibility of associating the oil slick with at least ten ships that passed through the appropriate area at the appropriate time.
Dr. Elyakim BenHakoun, a researcher in maritime economics and the environment at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology told "Globes" that he believed that the source of the damage was the criminality of shipping companies that refuse to abide by international treaties that cost them money. Under the 2020 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), ships above a certain tonnage are obliged to use fuel with reduced sulphur content to cut air pollution. As a result, fuel has become more expensive, and there are those who choose to flout the law, pollute nature, and endanger human health.
Life sciences and environment researcher Dr. Daniel Madar said that such illegal behavior could be widespread, because, unlike on land, it is easy for ships on the open sea to evade guidelines, laws and regulations, because of weak supervision and enforcement, huge distances, absence of witnesses, and the possibility of ridding themselves of the evidence on the high seas. "There are ships that still refuel with the old fuels - it is still sold in certain places. They sail to certain countries in Africa, Asia or Latin America where regulation is weak or non-existent, fill up with forbidden fuel, sail with it most of the way back, and discharge it near the end of the voyage, when they are approaching a port where enforcement is strict. It could be that ships on their way to Europe discharged the fuel when they were near Israel, and were inspected in Europe after they had got rid of the evidence." Madar says.
The ecological damage on the coast is very broad, from creatures such as turtles and seagulls that died after their bodies became coated by large clumps of tar, to rocks on environmentally sensitive beaches that have become covered in tar that cannot be completely removed. The opening of the sea-bathing season in two months' time is now in doubt.
The worst damage, however, could be that which is hidden from the eye. Rani Amir, director of the Marine and Coastal Environment Division of the Ministry of Environmental Protection says that the sea is a very sensitive ecological system in which our food is produced. Phytoplankton, for example, is at the bottom of the food chain for algae, turtles, and larger mammals. It is very sensitive to pollution, and may well have been harmed by the large quantities of fuel poured into the sea. "If the beginning of the food chain is hit, there will be damage all along it," says Amir, in other words, damage to creatures that not only serve sea life, but also the food systems of human beings.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 21, 2021
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