Oil Spill Off Israel's Coast Is Its Worst Maritime Pollution in Decades, and Cleanup 'Could Take Years'

Thousands of volunteers join cleaning efforts, with four sea turtles the first known fatalities. European satellite tracking points to the source as a tanker that passed through the area a week ago

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A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, on Saturday.
A woman holds a dead sea turtle covered in tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, on Saturday.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

Tar that has washed up along Israel’s coast in recent days represents the country’s worse maritime pollution in decades, with officials blaming dozens of tons of oil spilled at an unknown location at sea.

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The accident has marred beaches over 170 kilometers (106 miles), 40 percent of Israel’s coast, affecting 16 communities. Air patrols dispatched on Saturday were able to pinpoint oil slicks between 200 to 500 meters from the coast, moving towards the mainland in the north of the country, around the port city of Haifa.  

Thousands of volunteers joined major cleaning efforts organized by NGOs and local authorities over the weekend. Officials say much work remains to remove all the tar, and most of it will have to be done by hand. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority believes the cleanup will take years. 

People clean tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean sea in Gador nature reserve near Hadera, on Saturday.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

"This event will not end in the next few days, we are preparing for long, hard work," said Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, as she announced that the government had allocated emergency funding to local authorities to deal with damage locally.

Ten suspected vessels

The pollution was first noticed Wednesday; the Environmental Protection Ministry says the most likely scenario is an unreported spill from a tanker.

On Saturday, Minister Gamliel said information received from the European Maritime Safety Agency points to an area about 50 kilometers off the Israeli coast as the source of the pollution, which occurred about a week ago.

The cleanup effort on Bat Galim beach in Haifa, on Saturday.Credit: Yaron Hanan

"We've identified 10 vessels that passed through that area, and one or more of them could be responsible for this severe incident," she said.

Identifiying the source might prove difficult, as officials say the tanker in question likely operated illegally and therefore not monitored. 

Using the European agency's staellite tracking systems, the search for the source of the spill has been narrowed down. However, officials still await more specific information. Even then, it remains unclear what punitive measures could potentially be taken against the tanker's operators.

Wildlife in danger

After two days of masses of tar washing up on the shores, particularly in the Haifa area at the Galim, Dor, Habonim and Gedur beaches, cleanup teams reported a decrease on Friday.

Since Wednesday, animals have been found covered with tar, including a few birds and nine sea turtles. Four of the turtles died, while the others were taken to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center at Mikhmoret between Tel Aviv and Haifa. There they were fed in an attempt to increase their metabolism and dilute the oil in their bodies.

Officials also fear damage to a rare species of snail, Dendropoma petraeum, which was only recently rediscovered in the area after a quarter-century absence.

Shaul Goldstein, the head of the parks authority, and marine ecologist Ruth Yahel compared the damage to that caused by an oil spill at a nature reserve in southern Israel in December 2014. The rocky terrain and difficulties accessing certain affected areas mean the rehabilitation efforts will last long and require complex measures, they say.

The authority is due to present its cleanup plan Sunday and hopes to attract hundreds of volunteers to assist. 

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