Why Turkey’s Marmara Sea is full of sea spit

F.or months, the surface waters of the Turkish Sea of ​​Marmara were full of a viscous substance that is colloquially referred to as “red of the sea”. The cloudy filth, officially known as sea slime, has clogged Turkish fishermen’s nets, suffocated marine life, and generally angered tourists and coastal residents with its slime and stench in general.

It is not the first time that the rotten slime has appeared along the Turkish coast, and this phenomenon is not unique to the region either. But loud BBC, it is considered to be the worst snot bloom in history. Local officials are trying to clean up the mess by vacuuming the slime with ship-based vacuum cleaners. The Washington Post reports, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to prevent future blooms by declaring the sea a nature reserve. However, marine slime experts, including Alice Alldredge, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are skeptical that complete prevention is possible.

The scientist spoke to Alldredge about the current snot disaster.

Alice Alldredge


The scientist: What exactly is Meerrot?

Alice Alldredge: Snot is a slang term for the slime that is secreted by many different species of phytoplankton. It may also contain the mucus material secreted by bacteria, and it could even include cells that have been ruptured, for example by a virus attack or something, and released their protoplasm. This is how you get this sticky mess. It is mainly polysaccharide material – excreted material from phytoplankton – but it contains these other possible elements.

See: “Red tides under the microscope”

TS: Why is there so much of it along the Turkish coast?

AA: What seems to be happening in the Sea of ​​Marmara is that there is a warm layer above it that also has a very low salinity – it is around 2.2 percent. And then there’s a colder, salty layer underneath, about 3.8 percent. . . . So when you have really warm weather and are fed a lot of nutrients – like the sewage they talk about in the newspaper reports -[then you get] the phytoplankton blooms, and they’re getting really, really dense.

In this situation, they can make this sticky material, and they and some of the sticky material will sink. Between the very salty water and the very salty water, the warm water and the very cold water, there is a density layer, and [the goo and plankton] will hang up there. . . . Small gas bubbles can form in it, which allow it to float back to the surface. So on the surface of this slime material, a scum with lots of dead algae and a lot of dirt is created.

It is a combination of three things: high nutrient content, the very stratified water in this sea and the resulting phytoplankton bloom.

It is a combination of three things: high nutrient content, the very stratified water in this sea and the resulting phytoplankton bloom.

Now you should know that this is not uncommon. There were such scum events in the Adriatic [Sea] back to the 19th century. There was one in the Sea of ​​Marmara in 2007. In Italy, on the Adriatic Sea, there were cases where its material rose from the gas bubbles of the bacteria to the surface and dried on the surface. And it gets so hard that seagulls can walk over it as if they were walking on water.

TS: I don’t know if that’s better than snot to be honest.

AA: Just one thing. . . . It seems that these events are increasing in the Mediterranean. It used to be just the Adriatic, in the area around Sicily. Now there were some events around Corsica and the Italian-French border. So not only Turkey suffers from this.

TS: With so much snot, what are scientists most worried about?

AA: For me as a marine biologist, the main problem is that at some point the material will sink and completely suffocate the organisms that are on the bottom. It kills corals, it kills fish, it kills all the crustaceans down there, the clams – it kills pretty much everything because there isn’t enough oxygen.

TS: What can you do about it?

AA: Well, they could try skimming it off the surface, I suppose. And I remember – I don’t know how successful they were – but the Italians once talked about using the stuff. Make something of it – plastic or whatever.

But otherwise you just have to wait for it to decompose.

TS: The Turkish President has promised to cure the region of these snot blooms. How could he do that? Or is that even possible?

AA: I think reducing the amount of nutrients that goes into the water there could be very helpful. He probably couldn’t stop it entirely because, as I said, these events continued in the Adriatic into the early 19th century, when there was relatively little pollution. But he could keep a lot from it.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity.

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