More than 750 oil slicks spotlight pollution risks in Mediterranean Sea

While ships releasing oil slicks during voyages is not a new issue, a new report is attempting to raise more awareness about the pollution challenge this presents, as 757 oil slicks, covering 1.9 million hectares in the Mediterranean Sea, have been identified between July 2020 – January 2024.

Sattelite photo showing the 2021 oil spill off the coast of Baniyas, Syria; Credit: Planet Labs

The recent report, titled ‘Mediterranean Sea Chronic Oil Pollution Analysis: July 2020-January 2024,’ released by SkyTruth, underlined that the majority of the 757 oil slicks in the Mediterranean Sea were discharged from vessels in transit, thanks to the data obtained from Cerulean online digital platform that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and satellite imagery to track ocean oil pollution and its potential culprits.

Based on the report’s findings, the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Greece had the highest number of slicks (182), followed by Italy (163) and Egypt (102) while six flag states – Marshall Islands, Panama, Malta, Singapore, Liberia, and Togo – were associated with over 60% of slicks by identifiable vessels.

Furthermore, SkyTruth claims that six repeat polluters were associated with more than one oil slick, including a container ship flagged by Egypt and oil/chemical tankers flagged by Hong Kong, Panama, Russia, Marshall Islands, and Liberia.

John Amos, CEO of SkyTruth, commented: “Greece is plagued by this pollution problem, but it’s hardly alone. This is a global issue that will take international cooperation and vigorous, transparent action to address.

Vessels dumping toxic oil into the ocean is not new, but our ability to detect this formerly hidden behavior with Cerulean now leaves polluters nowhere to hide. Raising visibility is the first step to solving the problem.”

In addition, two minimally-protected marine protected areas (MPAs), the Mediterranean Cetacean Migration Corridor and the Pelagos Sanctuary for the Conservation of Marine Mammals, are said to have seen the greatest number of oil slicks inside their borders.

“MPAs were created to protect this unique nature hub, but there is still a long road to go before regulation efforts are sufficient to meet the goals enumerated in the 30×30 target. Adopted in 2022 by nearly 200 nations, the 30×30 agreement aims to protect 30% of the world’s ocean and land areas by 2030,” outlined SkyTruth.

The Mediterranean Sea is perceived to be a biodiversity hotspot, home to approximately 11% of all marine species in less than 1% of the global marine area, with around 20% of these species existing only in the Mediterranean, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, loggerhead and green turtles, monk seals, and more than 80 species of sharks and rays.

Moreover, SkyTruth highlights that the Mediterranean Sea is facing “huge pollution-related risks” and is already believed to be warming 20% faster than the global ocean average due to climate change, leading to a marine mammal population decrease of 41% over the last 50 years.

“At SkyTruth we aim to make the invisible, visible. At Our Ocean we’re hoping to raise awareness about chronic oil pollution as well as efforts to protect marine biodiversity. The first step to progressing on these issues is for people to be aware,” added Amos.

A massive oil spill, which occurred in August 2021 due to leakage from a power plant inside one of Syria’s oil refineries, spread along the coast of the Mediterranean country, stretching over 25.5 square kilometers. A few months before, an oil tanker leak off the coast of Israel spilled tons of oil in the Mediterranean, leading to tar pollution, which affected wildlife in the area.

Multiple oil wells are active in the Mediterranean, especially in the waters of Egypt, where there are plans to embark on new hydrocarbon exploration campaigns. The Eastern Mediterranean is perceived to be a gas-prone area, with major discoveries now proven in both clastic, such as Leviathan, and carbonate, like Zohr, reservoirs in the offshore region.

Shell made a new gas discovery in November 2023 at an offshore block located in Egypt’s Mediterranean Sea with Stena Drilling’s drillship. During the month before, a consortium comprising QatarEnergy, BP, and Eni got hold of a new exploration block offshore Egypt as part of the 2022 EGAS International Bid Round.

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In search of more hydrocarbons, offshore drilling activities are anticipated in many Mediterranean countries, including Egypt, Cyprus, and Lebanon. Recently, Suez Oil Company (SUCO), one of the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation (EGPC) companies, hired ADES’  jack-up drilling rig for activities in the Gulf of Suez off the coast of Egypt.