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Why Turkey’s Marmara Sea is full of marine glanders

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For for months, the surface waters of the Turkish Sea of ​​Marmara have been full of a slimy substance colloquially called sea snot. Cloudy mud, formally called marine mucilage, clogged the nets of Turkish fishermen, suffocating marine life and generally disgusting tourists and coastal residents with its stickiness and stench.

This is not the first time that foul mud has appeared along the Turkish coast, nor is the phenomenon unique to the region. But, according to the BBC, this is believed to be the worst snot bloom in history. Local officials are trying to clean up the mess by vacuuming up the mud with on-board vacuum cleaners, The Washington Post reports, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to prevent future blooms by designating the sea as a conservation area. But marine mucilage experts, including Alice Alldredge, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are skeptical of the possibility of total prevention.

The scientist spoke with Alldredge about the current snotastrophe.

Alice alldredge

Courtesy of ALICE ALLDREDGE

The scientist: What exactly is sea snot?

Alice Alldredge: Sea snot is a colloquial term for the mucus that is exuded by many different species of phytoplankton. It can also include the mucous material secreted by bacteria, and it could even include cells that have opened up due to, for example, a viral attack or something like that, and released their protoplasm. So you get this gooey mess. Its mainly polysaccharide material excreted from phytoplankton, but it has these other possible elements.

See: Red tides under the microscope

TS: Why are there so many along the Turkish coast?

AA: What seems to be happening in the Sea of ​​Marmara is that there is a warm layer on top, which is also very low in salinity at around 2.2 percent. And then there’s a cooler, more saline layer below, around 3.8%. . . . So if you have a really hot weather and you get a lot of nutrient inputs like sewage that they talk about in the newspaper articles[then you get] the phytoplankton bloom, and they’re getting really, really dense.

In this situation, they can produce this gooey material, and they and some of the gooey material will sink. Between very little salty water and very salty water, hot water and very cold water, there is a layer of density, and [the goo and plankton] go hang up there. . . . and small gas bubbles can form in it, causing it to rise to the surface. So you get a scum on the surface of this mucus material with a lot of dead algae and a lot of gunk in it.

It’s a combination of three things: a high nutrient content, the highly stratified water that is in this sea, and the resulting phytoplankton blooms.

It’s a combination of three things: a high nutrient content, the highly stratified water that is in this sea, and the resulting phytoplankton blooms.

Now you should know that this is not uncommon. There have been scum events like this in the Adriatic [Sea] date back to the 1800s. There was one in the Sea of ​​Marmara in 2007. In Italy, in the Adriatic, there have been cases where their substance rises to the surface due to the gas bubbles of bacteria and dries up in the surface. And it becomes so difficult that seagulls can walk on it as if they were walking on water.

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

AA: One more thing. . . . It seems that these events are multiplying in the Mediterranean. It was once the Adriatic, in the region of Sicily. Now there have been events around Corsica and the Italian-French border. So it is not only Turkey that is suffering from it.

TS: What do scientists worry about most with so much snot?

AA: For me, as a marine biologist, the main problem is that the material ends up sinking and completely smothering the organisms that are on the bottom. It kills the corals, it kills the fish, it kills all the crustaceans out there, the bivalvesit kills just about everything because there isn’t enough oxygen.

TS: What can we do about it?

AA: Well, they could try to scratch it off the surface, I guess. And I remember I don’t know how successful they were, but the Italians had, at one point, talked about trying to use the trick. Make it something plastic or something.

But other than that, you just have to wait for it to decompose.

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

AA: I think reducing the amount of nutrients going into the water there could help a lot. He probably couldn’t stop it completely, because as I said, these events took place in the Adriatic until the early 1800s when there was relatively little pollution. But, he could stop a lot of it.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity.

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