Sea snot choking Turkey’s waters could be a warning to the world

Istanbul — Turkey’s Marmara Sea is dying. Globs of feathery goo are literally choking the life out of the water. Scientists say rising sea temperatures and untreated wastewater being dumped into the sea combined to create the perfect conditions for phytoplankton to thrive. Now it’s thriving at the expense of everything else.

At normal levels, the microscopic plant is essential for providing marine life with oxygen. But when it grows at the extreme levels seen in the Marmara now, it collects in a thick layer of slime known as mucilage, or, more descriptively, sea snot.

The snot is suffocating everything else right down to the coral, which it covers and slowly chokes to death.

White layer formed on the sea in Anatolian side of Istanbul
An aerial view of “sea snot” near Maltepe, Kadikoy and Adalar districts of Istanbul, Turkey, on May 2, 2021. Lokman Akkaya/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Professor Bayram Ozturk, head of the Turkish Marine Research Foundation, has been studying the Marmara Sea for years, and he told CBS News he’s never seen anything like this.

“Never, ever. It is a real environmental catastrophe,” he said.

The sea snot is killing huge numbers of some species in the Marmara by cutting off nutrients in the water.     

The alien-looking substance has invaded Istanbul’s famous shoreline, creating a gluey, slimy layer on the surface of the water, blocking sun light and oxygen to the fish and plants below.   

Authorities have worked for weeks to clean it up, but their solution is purely cosmetic — scraping snot off the top of the water does nothing to address the roots of the problem.    

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An aerial photograph taken on June 4, 2021, in Turkey’s Marmara Sea at a harbor on the shoreline of Istanbul shows “sea snot,” or mucilage, a jelly-like layer of slime that develops on the surface of water due to excessive proliferation of phytoplankton, gravely threatening the marine biome. YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty

About 25 million people live around the Marmara. After decades of indiscriminate pollution, the disastrous consequences are rising to the surface.     

Oceanographer Mustafa Yucel, who studied at the University of Delaware, is heading an expedition to measure oxygen levels in the Marmara Sea.

His team will “try to reconstruct the history of pollution,” and their findings could help prevent future outbreaks.    

Sea snot outbreaks have happened in the Adriatic Sea in the past, on a smaller scale, and they were brought under control by strict pollution management. But the expanse of snot choking the Marmara is the largest on record, and it could serve as a warning to the world.

“For example, in the United States, [the] Chesapeake Bay, Gulf of Mexico, they are all like [the] Sea of Marmara — they are overburdened,” Yucel said.  

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An aerial photograph taken on June 6, 2021, in Turkey’s Marmara Sea at a harbor on the shoreline of Istanbul shows “sea snot,” or mucilage, a jelly-like layer of slime that develops on the surface of the water due to the excessive proliferation of phytoplankton, gravely threatening the marine biome. YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty

There are no quick fixes to the problem, and experts warn that urgent action must be taken to curb the local pollution, and the global climate change fueling the growth of mucilage.    

“If we cut the pollution for about 40% — that’s a huge amount — the system can only start recovering after such a reduction,” he said of the problem along Turkey’s shores. “That would take at least 5 to 6 years to take the Sea of Marmara out this coma situation.” 

The Turkish government has drawn up an emergency action plan, which includes fining big polluters. But activists say they want to see more of a commitment to saving the country’s seas, before it is too late.