Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
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published on UN Environment on Jun 14, 2018

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Battling pollution in history’s most fabled sea

Were Jason and the Argonauts to set sail now, they would scarcely recognize their original route. The shorelines, once covered in trees, have been largely stripped of greenery, while many of the fine sandy beaches are now lined with high-rise hotels. From the Bosphorus to the Saronic Gulf, towering container ships choke the waterways where wooden triremes previously held sway.

And then there’s the trash. The past few decades haven’t been particularly kind to the Mediterranean, perhaps antiquity’s most storied sea. Booming population growth has saddled it with dollops of land-based waste, while massively expanded fishing and shipping operations have dirtied its waters from offshore. There are around 500 million bits of rubbish on the Mediterranean seafloor, according to UN Environment’s 2015 Marine Litter Assessment. In 2017, the sea frequently made the news for all the wrong reasons, and this year has only brought more of the same.

For any body of water, this would be intensely problematic. But for the Mediterranean – and the 21 countries that flank it – it is perhaps doubly so. No other sea of its size has so many dependents, including millions who rely on it for their livelihoods. And few other ecosystems can boast as outsized a share of the world’s marine life. Although the Med accounts for less than one percent of global marine area, it shelters about six per cent of marine species. If the sea’s water quality continues to deteriorate, there’s no telling how grave the consequences might be.

“You have to take into account the economic value of the marine litter, in terms of the loss of touristic value. A clean beach is one of the most important characteristics of a waterside resort sought by visitors,” said Christos Ioakeimidis, a Greek marine litter expert. “If you are a tourist, you don’t want to see marine litter when you are sunbathing or swimming. If so, you will never revisit the same place.”

The Med’s struggles take place against a backdrop of rising global concern about plastic pollution, and much of that distress is directed seawards. At least eight million tonnes of plastic filters into the planet’s oceans every year – a figure that might triple within a decade if nothing is done, according to a recent UK government report. Earlier this month, a pilot whale choked to death off the coast of Thailand after consuming at least eight kilograms of plastic.

In some ways, it was inevitable that the Mediterranean would one day do battle with pollution because circumstances have, to a certain extent, conspired against it. It’s a semi-enclosed waterway, with only one proper outlet – which is of limited usefulness in expelling pollutants as stronger Atlantic currents block much of the outflow. It’s punctured by dozens of trash-laced rivers, and its circulation is rendered all the more peculiar by the incoming Black Sea flow, which is exceptionally nutrient-rich, and the Suez Canal, which introduces warmer Red Sea waters.

The topography, “coupled with the hydrodynamics and the geomorphology makes really – in a bad way – ideal conditions for marine litter,” Ioakeimidis said. And the Med is one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, carrying at least 10 per cent of global cargo tonnage – much of it ferried by oil-spilling megaships.

But it didn’t have to be this bad. In large part, the Med is a victim of massive mismanagement. 70 per cent of the wastewater that makes its way into the sea is untreated, according to UN Environment statistics, a volume that has only increased as the combined population of the littoral states has surged from 276 million in 1970 to not far off 500 million now.

The Mediterranean has borne the brunt of states’ failure to keep pace with waste disposal requirements. And as the region’s coastal tourism infrastructure continues to grow, servicing well over 100 million sunseekers a year, so too is its irresponsible use of single-use plastics. In Greece alone, the volume of marine litter doubles over the summer.

The Mediterranean’s fishy dependents have suffered even more than its humans. Every local turtle species is on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List, including the very endangered green turtle, whose numbers have fallen from around 1,000 females in the late 1970s to around 350 now.

“The classic scenario is that, in the water, a plastic shopping bag looks like a jellyfish, and we know that turtles eat jellyfish,” said Vicky Rae, a scientist at the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (Medasset).

Monk Seals and whales, which ingest large quantities of even larger plastics, are also struggling. Though several states have set aside protected areas, they are not sufficient to save species like turtles that migrate from one shore to another over the course of the year.

Mediterranean action plan

Fortunately, however, there is help at hand. In fact, some wonder if the Mediterannean’s relative success so far in carving out a proper pollution-fighting framework might even be a model for others.

Beginning in 1975, with the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), the littoral countries have become increasingly ambitious in facing up to their shared crisis. The Plan, which was drawn up under the auspices of UN Environment’s Regional Seas Programme, was the first of its kind in the world to adopt legally binding measures on marine litter. It has contributed to a decrease in the amount of muck seeping into the water, no mean feat in a region sometimes riven by political tensions and divided among so many states.

“We are facing less and less major pollution, and there are fewer major accidents,” said Gabino Gonzalez, head of office at the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Centre for the Mediterranean Sea (REMPEC), part of the UN Environment /MAP. “I’d say we should be optimistic. The Mare Nostrum is, and I hope will remain, our common interest.”

UN Environment/MAP is pushing to introduce improved, reduced, and standardized waste disposal facilities in ports. And as of this summer, at least seven bordering states have passed some kind of anti-plastic bag legislation. The tide, it seems, has finally begun to turn.