Fears grow for endangered turtles after oil spill hits Lebanon

Dozens of volunteers have undertaken the painstaking task of cleaning beaches, but are finding it impossible to clear the sand.

Fatima Jaafar is a volunteer with Green Southerners, a non-governmental organisation that works on environmental issues [Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera] 
Fatima Jaafar is a volunteer with Green Southerners, a non-governmental organisation that works on environmental issues [Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera] 

Tyre, Lebanon – The sandy shores of the Tyre nature reserve on the Mediterranean are a nesting ground for more than one species of endangered turtles. But since an oil spill off the Israeli coast early last month, beaches in south Lebanon, too, are washed up with deposits of tar.

“This is a green turtle, an endangered species, they never die so young,” said Hassan Hamze, director of the reserve, holding up a tar-covered five-year-old turtle in his palm. “But you see the layers of this black material enveloping him.”

Hamze then pointed to the carapace of a metre-long (three-foot) loggerhead turtle, also endangered, stuffed in a freezer in a back room in his office. He said that while an autopsy to determine the exact cause of the turtles’ deaths was pending, at least four more had been found dead since the oil spill.

Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research says waves carrying tar crashed as far as 70m (230 feet) up from the waterline and the damage is not limited to the south. It says the soft black material has spread from Naqoura, near Israel, all the way up to the beaches in Beirut in the north. Worse still, clumps range between 50cm to 0.5cm, too tiny to be filtered out but still capable of spreading pollutants into the sand.

Dozens of volunteers have undertaken the painstaking task of cleaning the beaches, but are finding it impossible to clear the sand of the tinier tar particles.

The news of dead turtles was bad enough, but the disappointment of the young volunteers sifting through the sand was compounded by the fact that the beach at the Tyre Coast Nature Reserve was also their holiday spot, and a matter of pride at a time everything else in their country seemed to be collapsing.

A sliver of clean and cushiony beaches in the south are thronged every summer by hundreds of thousands of Lebanese who lay on the sand to soak in the sun and forget their worries about the country’s economic collapse, rampant corruption and foreign meddling.

The turtles arrive in May, shortly before the tourists. To prepare for them, environmental activists would start cleaning the beaches of plastic and other waste at least a month before.

Hassan Hamze holds up a turtle killed by the oil spill [Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera]

‘Lose a whole generation of turtles’

Fatima Jaafar, a science teacher and a volunteer with Green Southerners, a non-governmental organisation that works on environmental issues, is one of those activists.

“Mother turtles are very picky about where they hatch their eggs,” she said. “If they sense anything wrong, they will turn back to lay eggs in the sea and we will lose a whole generation of turtles.”

This year, however, her task has become immeasurably harder.

Her team of volunteers has been coming every day for the last week to the Al-Bakbook beach, but so far they have managed to clean just about 500m of the 3km-long stretch.

She says many of the tar particles are too small, invisible to the naked eye, and go straight through her sieves. Moreover, the wind has moved the sand and hidden the tar in its layers. Jaafar says the worry is that as temperatures rise the tar will melt and mix in the sand, turning it poisonous for generations of turtles.

She walked to the spot where she spotted a dead turtle a few days ago. “It had tar all over it, even in its mouth,” she said.

“You know that turtles who are born here return to their birth spot to lay their eggs when they mature. We won’t lose one but many generations of endangered turtles because of this oil spill.”

Jaafar and other Green Southerners volunteers have collected 400kg of tar but are concerned that is far from enough to save the precious turtles.

Some of her colleagues blame Israel for deliberately causing the environmental disaster. Hassan Sharafeddine, another volunteer, who studied mechanical engineering in Iran, called it a “Zionist plot”.

“This is no different from dropping bombs on us,” he said.

Hamze, the nature reserve director, demanded an inquiry and said unless there was an international probe there would always be a doubt that the oil spill might have been caused at an Israeli offshore oil-rigging platform.

Israel, however, has been struggling to clean its coasts that are also layered with tar. The Israeli government first identified a Greek tanker as the likely culprit behind the oil spill but once it was cleared Israel’s environment minister, Gila Gamliel, accused Iran of “environmental terrorism”.

She said there was enough circumstantial evidence to link the oil spill to a Libyan-owned and Syria-bound tanker carrying Iranian crude. Gamliel alleged the ship turned off its tracking device and deposited its cargo into the surf. Her accusations have been met with surprise even inside Israel, according to the local press.

Volunteers have collected 400kg of tar but are concerned that is far from enough to save the precious turtles [Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera]

No coherent plan

Hassan Dbouk – the mayor of Tyre city who is affiliated with the Amal Movement, a Hezbollah ally that also considers Israel an arch-enemy – inspected the damage at the nature reserve. He dismissed the charge against Israel, yet held it responsible for dirtying Lebanon’s beaches.

“It is coming from Palestine,” he said. “It is an accident but those who occupy Palestine are responsible.”

Those who run Lebanon, however, have done little. The ministry of environment asked the National Council for Scientific Research to release a report using images provided by European satellite imagery, but there is no coherent plan for minimising the damage.

Marine experts said dozens of well-meaning volunteers cannot accomplish the mammoth task and thousands of paid workers are needed for the clean-up. They said the government must advertise the importance of cleaning the beaches through an awareness campaign and encourage people to join the effort. They added that the water must be tested to ascertain the damage the oil spill might have caused to marine life.

But there is no effective government in Lebanon and the country is grappling with myriad crises. In the last few weeks, the Lebanese pound touched 10,000 to the United States dollar, compared to 1,500 before the economic crisis. It has become nearly impossible for people to live a decent life and many say they would leave Lebanon if they could.

The country is fast running out of its reserves and a loan by the International Monetary Fund is nowhere in sight.

The day Al Jazeera visited the south, the highway from the capital Beirut to Tyre was littered with burned tyres and many streets made impassable by protesters. As the economic crisis worsens and the country remains under lockdown to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Lebanese are remerging on the streets to fight what seems to be a losing battle.

Their shoreline of sandy turtle beaches – that one good thing of which they could still boast – is now tainted by tar, although for once the crisis was not of Lebanon’s own making.

Lebanon’s National Council for Scientific Research says waves carrying tar crashed as far as 70m up from the waterline (Anchal Vohra/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera

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