Troubling 'Sea Snot' Takes Over Turkish Coastlines

The problem is worsened by industrial runoff, untreated waste, and warmer waters.

Turkish sea snot
Marine mucilage, or sea snot, overwhelms the Sea of Marmara in Turkey.

Getty Images / Guven Polat

There's nothing like an influx of "sea snot" to spur a country to take action on its waste management practices. Turkey's Sea of Marmara, which links the Black and Aegean Seas, has become inundated in recent months with a substance formally known as marine mucilage, but widely referred to as sea snot for its thick, slimy consistency. 

The substance has covered a vast area of the sea's surface, its shorelines, and harbors, and is also falling beneath the surface to coat the seafloor, where it suffocates sediment-dwellers like mussels, crabs, and oysters. Fishermen say they are unable to fish, and there is concern that even when they do, the fish may not be safe to eat. 

The Washington Post quoted a sea snail diver who said he had "lost most of his income because the visibility was so poor underwater and that crabs and sea horses were dying because the slimy mucus was clogging their gills." Some coastal towns have reported mass die-offs of fish, which "in turn leads to plummeting oxygen levels that choke other forms of marine life."

Mucilage forms when phytoplankton proliferates, fueled by warmer water temperatures and pollution from industrial waste and sewage. The unpleasant blooms consist mainly of diatoms, single-celled algae that release polysaccharides, a sugary carbohydrate that becomes sticky, hence the "snot" reference.

Scientists have expressed concern about its ability to spread marine diseases, with one research paper published in PLOS One stating, "Marine mucilage contained a large and unexpectedly exclusive microbial biodiversity and hosted pathogenic species that were absent in surrounding seawater."

While mucilage has been seen throughout the Mediterranean Sea over the past 200 years, scientists say it's now increasing in frequency. "The number of mucilage outbreaks increased almost exponentially in the last 20 years. The increasing frequency of mucilage outbreaks is closely associated with the temperature anomalies." 

The situation has become so dire that Turkey's environment minister, Murat Kurum, has announced a major national effort to tackle the mucilage. The 22-point action plan includes making the entire Sea of Marmara a protected area while cracking down on the disposal of untreated fecal matter into sea waters by ships and coastal communities. Existing wastewater treatment plants will be converted to advanced biological treatment facilities in order to reduce the amount of nitrogen in the water and "waste reception boats or facilities" would be set up to receive waste from boats entering the sea.

More immediately, Kurum said he would initiate Turkey's "biggest maritime cleanup effort" and called on citizens to pitch in. "On Tuesday, June 8, we will conduct the largest sea-cleaning in Turkey with a consciousness of mobilization together with all our institutions, municipalities, nature lovers, athletes, artists, and citizens."

Already, residents of the city of Izmir have been working hard to remove the mucilage from their waterfront. According to one local news source in mid-May, more than 110 tons had been dredged and collected by "sea brooms and amphibious vehicles", put in sacks, and transported to an incinerator for disposal. 

But no amount of cleanup can ever get ahead of a problem whose root cause has not been addressed. Turkey has some serious self-examination to do in the coming years—as well as infrastructural overhaul—if it hopes to tackle this issue with lasting effect. Really, it has no choice, as the viability of its fishing and tourism industries, not to mention the health and happiness of its citizens, rely on it.

View Article Sources
  1. Aktan, Yelda. "Mucilage event associated with diatoms and dinoflagellates in Sea of Marmara, Turkey." The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, 2008.

  2. Danovaro, Roberto, et al. "Climate Change and the Potential Spreading of Marine Mucilage and Microbial Pathogens in the Mediterranean Sea." Plos ONE, vol. 4, no. 9, 2009, p. e7006, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007006