River of oil: more than 50,000 ships passed through the Istanbul Strait in 2003, 5% of which were tankers more than 200 m in length with a potential carrying capacity of 130 m tonnes of crude oil.

The Turkish Strait System includes the Straits of Istanbul (Bosporus), Çanakkale (Dardanelles) and the Marmara Sea, connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. It is a 278 km-long and 75 km-wide inland sea between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, with a surface area of approximately 11,350 sq km and a volume of 3,380 cu km. The system plays a significant role in the protection of the biodiversity of both the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins as a biological corridor for the various migratory fish, cetaceans and invertebrates. The health of this system is vital for the protection of the marine biodiversity of the Mediterranean Sea, and, particularly, of the Black Sea, as the straits are its only means of water exchange. One of the most serious problems is oil pollution, related to ship traffic, because the Istanbul Strait is one of the world’s busiest waterways: more than 50,000 ships passed in 2003, 5% of which were tankers more than 200 m in length with a potential carrying capacity of 130m tonnes of crude oil.

Accidents of shipping in the straits are examined under four categories: collision, grounding, fire and standing. Each of them has a direct effect on the marine ecosystem. Collision is the dominant type of accident. It is caused by poor visibility and strong currents, which lead to human failure in navigation. One of the most dramatic accidents occurred in 1979 when a 165,000 dwt Romanian tanker, Independenta, carrying 94,000 tons of Libyan crude oil collided with a 10,000 dwt Greek freighter.

Istanbul: ‘A centre of cultural synthesis for thousands of years’. (EPA photo/Kerim Okten) The incident caused heavy air and sea pollution in the Istanbul area and the Marmara Sea, The maximum accumulation of particles in the air during the fire reached 1,000 mg/cu m, at least four times greater than the permissible limit set for human health. Heavy oil contamination formed on the surface of the sea and on the shores of Marmara Sea and the Istanbul Strait.

It was estimated that 30,000 tonnes of crude oil burned and that the remaining 64,000 tonnes spilled into the sea. Because of the rapid evaporation of the light components, the crude oil quickly sank to the bottom of the sea in an area approximately 5,5 km in diameter. Then, in 1994, the marine environment was seriously affected by the Nassia accident, which resulted in the discharge of 20,000 tonnes of oil into the Black Sea, the Istanbul Strait and the Marmara Sea. The most recent disaster was caused by a Russian river ship, Votganeft 248, which split in two in bad weather near Istanbul in December 1999 and spilled some 2,000 tonnes of oil into the sea. A total of 75 people died during those accidents.

The Istanbul Strait has been a very rich fishing ground traditionally, providing a source of protein through the past centuries. But groundings are particularly dangerous for the benthic organisms such as mussel beds and vulnerable seagrass meadows in local coastal areas. In 1999, when the Volganeft 248 broke in two, some 2,000 tonnes of fuel oil were dispersed along a 5 km stretch of coastline, The oil also entered a wetland lagoon and the freshwater reservoir of the city of Istanbul. The ecological damage from this accident was a 90% mortality of marine life. Among the losses were the algae species comprising velvet horns, sea lettuce, starfish and spiny starfish, mussel, oyster, razor shell, limpets, green shrimp and pink prawn; and the fish species of rock gobby, common sole, grey mullet and gurnard.

In 1994, sea lettuce and velvet horns were affected by oil dispersion during the Nassia accident which resulted in mass mortality of these two species. The most recent incident was the Russian oil tanker, Gottia, running aground at Emirgan and hitting harbour walls, spilling 22 tonnes of oil into the Istanbul Strait. The last oil spill was this year at the entrance to the Istanbul Strait and 200 tonnes of oil spilled into one of the vulnerable and historical fishing grounds.

Oil spills and the increasing number of ships passing through the strait system is a serious threat to marine biodiversity, not only in the system but also in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Due to various environmental problems, 52 marine species that have been recorded in the TSS are now severely threatened. Besides oil spillage and pollution, invasive species, waste and bilge water are among other ecological threats in the strait. Needless to say, ecological catastrophes of this nature will continue to happen. Huge losses and damages will, of course, be covered by insurance but nature and the loss of human life cannot be restored with such compensation. The problem is that the Istanbul Strait is too narrow. Its narrowest point is only 740 m, less than 1 km. Most masters agree that the route is difficult and dangerous due to various high risks arising from natural handicaps, such as strong currents, whirlpools and sudden dense fog, particularly during spring and winter seasons.

There are times when the local southwesterly wind gets exceptionally strong and, combined with the current, makes navigation even more dangerous and confusing. Large tankers, while navigating through the system, have to alter their courses quite sharply on 12 occasions during passage through Istanbul and with a further 10 points in Çanakkale Strait. Furthermore, there is heavy ferry traffic. Seasonal fishing activities by boats of various sizes are to be added to this large volume of movement.

I strongly believe that all companies must strictly observe all the rules put in force for security. After the events of September 11, new security measures are implemented all over the world, not only in the straits. Nevertheless, any problem related to them to any extent must be the subject of a collective solution to maintain maximum security for the sake of international interest.

In recent years, an increase in the number and size of ships passing through the strait, together with an increase in dangerous cargo, threaten the 15m-plus people living in Istanbul. This city is also a world heritage site with 3,000 years of history, as well as a city of industry and business. Would it be acceptable that at least 10 huge oil tankers pass through the canals of Amsterdam or the Seine in Paris every day? We simply don’t feel secure while this traffic continues to grow. The security of the people is an important concern. The oil industry, which we do appreciate, comes further down the ranking. We are rightly nervous when a 200 m long fully loaded tanker passes through the strait while the navigational conditions are not quite safe. These waters are, no doubt, important for all Black Sea and Mediterranean nations. They are open as they should be under the Montreux Convention. However, in case of a serious accident, it is very likely that the Istanbul Strait would be closed for several days, weeks or even months, causing enormous losses. The vessel traffic system – installed at a cost of $ 10m funded by the Turkish taxpayers, not the users – has been operating since last year.

Pollution sources should be mitigated by national and international efforts with the help of the relevant conventions such as Marpol 73-78, fund conventions and others. Alternative shipping routes should be found for hazardous and toxic cargos for the protection of Istanbul and other world heritage cities of the Marmara Sea. The TSS should also be protected and declared a particularly sensitive area according to International Maritime Organization Marine Environment Protection Committee guidelines. It should also be pointed out that the Istanbul Strait has very special navigational characteristics and, for oil tankers, the passage is extremely dangerous. Therefore, tankers carrying oil to Novorossiysk in the Black Sea through the TSS is a great risk for Turkey and its neighbouring countries.

Finally, for those of us living here, the Istanbul Strait is an important part of a very unique city and a centre of cultural synthesis for thousands of years. This place of exceptional beauty should be a rare point of refreshment and recreation rather than a town with a river of oil running through it. Turkey is not trying to maintain its geopolitical importance by blocking the traffic in the straits but to take a precautionary approach for the safety and environment of the straits. On the other hand, growing concern over terrorism is widely shared by the international community.

Bayram Özturk is a Professor of Marine Science at Istanbul University. He mostly works on marine biodiversity, environmental security and marine policy on narrow straits. He has written more than 60 scientific publications and edited four books on marine issues. He is the director of the Turkish Marine Research Foundation which is one of the leading non-profit organisations in Turkey.