Assad Erdogan
Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, meeting in Istanbul on May 9, 2010. Photo by AP
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Though the recent confrontation between the Israel Navy and a Gaza-bound flotilla has been making headlines, something else is threatening the Mediterranean Sea: non-human invaders from various locations around the world. And in this case, Turkey, Israel and Syria must all play a role in addressing the issue. A day after the flotilla incident, at a conference that convened in Istanbul, they resolved to take action.

 The three countries were part of a larger group of Mediterranean states that met to address the threat posed by the foreign species of plants and animals invading the sea. The species enter the Mediterranean through vessels' discharge of ballast water, which is used to keep ships balanced - a fact that has major consequences for the sea's ecology.

The conference was convened pursuant to the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea, to which all of the countries in the region are signatories, including many that have no diplomatic relations with Israel.

The convention is considered a successful example of how, despite political differences, action can still be taken on environmental issues. Representatives from Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco sat side by side with the Israeli delegation. A representative from the Environmental Protection Ministry, Ronen Alkalai, said he encountered no hostility at the conference, despite the fact that it came just one day after the flotilla raid.

According to estimates, more than 900 species of foreign plants and animals as well as bacteria and viruses now live in the Mediterranean. Some entered the sea directly through the Suez Canal, while many others were initially discharged in ballast water. The Mediterranean is home to some of the world's most important shipping lanes, with more than 10,000 ships sailing through it annually.

During the course of the conference, Alkalai said the Turks presented data from tests they'd performed on ballast water in ports, which found 143 non-native species.

Many of the invading species force out indigenous wildlife and cause the spread of disease among local animals. There have also been cases in which disease-spreading bacteria arrived by ship. The foreign species have also caused serious financial damage to ships and other equipment.

Several steps were agreed upon in Istanbul, including conducting surveys of particularly problematic ports and shipping lanes.

The signatories to the Barcelona Convention will also be obligated to adopt a uniform policy on the handling of ballast water. Initially the steps will be voluntary, but the signatory countries intend to ultimately make them mandatory.

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry's Rani Amir, an interim measure would involve a process verifying that ships' ballast water has been replaced before entering the Mediterranean.