Conservationists assess impact of Lebanese slick

Endangered turtles, seals and birds have been devastated Mediterranean oil slick caused by the Israeli bombing of a Lebanese power station during the recent hostilities in the region.

The fragile peace has given inspectors from the World Conservation Union (IUCN) a chance to get in and assess the environmental damage caused by the massive spill for the first time and their observations paint a depressing picture.

The experts were invited to take part in a fact-finding mission by the Lebanese Environment Ministry and discovered coastal ecosystems ravaged by the toxic oil spill, which has carpeted the seabed and coated both the beaches and the rocky shoreline of the country.

Breeding grounds of endangered loggerhead turtles have been plastered in oil and algae which would normally be feeding fish stocks has been contaminated and washed ashore.

While the heavy fuel oil itself is bad enough, samples taken of the slick have also contained highly toxic substances such as poly-nuclear aromatic hydrocrabons (PAH) which are likely to have a lasting effect on marine life.

“This is a particular risk to marine organisms,” says Rick Steiner, an oil expert and member of the IUCN Commission on Environmental and Economic Social Policy who worked on the infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.

“PAHs provoke cancer, they can accumulate in the species’ organs and cause long term impacts such as the sudden collapse of fish populations years after contamination, as happened in Alaska.”

The Palm Islands Nature Reserve, located off the coast of Tripoli, is home to fragile ecosystems and has been badly hit by the spill.

As well as its population of turtles, the reserve is also home to 156 species of birds, including many migratory birds depending on direct contact with the now contaminated water.

The reserve’s polluted environment is also putting endangered loggerhead turtles at risk. Threats come from the oil film on the water, when they come up to the surface to breathe and from the contaminated beaches where they nest.

Rare monk seals, which have been observed in the past in the reserve’s waters, might well be affected as well. They are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Palm Islands Nature Reserve is a micro sample representing the overall situation of the country’s marine environment,” says Ghassan Jaradi, ornithologist and head of the reserve’s management committee.

On Palm Islands Nature Reserve, the IUCN mission helped start clean-up operations and biodiversity monitoring, by providing technical advice and locating resources.

Around 15,000 tons of fuel oil spilled into the sea following the Israeli bombing of the Jiyyeh power plant fuel tanks south of Beirut in mid July (see related story).

The spill spread northwards contaminating 150 km of the Lebanese seashore, reaching the southern Syrian coast. Affected areas are around Beirut, Tabarja, the historic town of Byblos, in Anfeh and the Palm Islands Nature Reserve off Tripoli.

The ongoing flight embargo prevented the IUCN team from assessing offshore contamination, but judging from information available, there are still large amounts of oil drifting in the sea, on shore, and sinking to the sea bed.

Sam Bond

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