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Turkey Racing To Combat 'Snot' In Sea Of Marmara

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Turkey, leaders are promising to clean up waters that have been clogged with a thick, slimy layer of organic matter. It is known as sea snot. The surface goo rises from organisms on the seafloor, and it's threatening marine life and the livelihoods of those who work on the water. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports scientists blame pollutants and rising temperatures and say it could take years to clean up.

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PETER KENYON, BYLINE: On a recent visit to one of Istanbul's many coastal neighborhoods overlooking the Sea of Marmara, I found one of the creeks leading to the sea there covered with a greenish layer of mucus-like sludge.

This is Istanbul's Kalamis neighborhood, and the Marmara is entering into a creek here. And it's a beautiful neighborhood, but the creek itself is covered with mucilage.

That's mucilage as in Marine mucilage, also known more colorfully as sea snot. And it's both ugly to look at and dangerous to marine life. Just up the coast, charter boat captain Erkan Akin is tending to his boat. He says the government did send machines to clean up the harbor recently, but that doesn't do anything about what's beneath the surface. And anyway, he adds through an interpreter, the wind blows the stuff on the surface into new places every day.

ERKAN AKIN: (Through interpreter) In this area, when it's Lodos, which is the south wind, it goes toward the land and goes inside here. And then if it's the north wind, which is Poyraz, then it goes out toward the out sea.

KENYON: He says wherever it goes, it's bad news for fishermen, and it could get worse.

AKIN: (Through interpreter) Yeah, it's bad news, but we haven't seen the fish dying yet. But once the water gets suffocated, I think we're going to see the fish dead as well.

KENYON: Fishermen have noticed smaller amounts of mucilage for several years. But marine scientist Bayram Ozturk says the explosive growth could lead to mass mortality of some ocean creatures.

BAYRAM OZTURK: Mussel, oysters, scallops, sea urchins, sea stars, etc., and some fish species as well.

KENYON: The sea snot is caused by an explosion of living organic matter. Ozturk says reasons for the surge include the ocean dumping of untreated sewage, as well as the rise in temperature due to climate change. He says the danger isn't limited to Turkey. Mucilage has been seen not just in the Marmara but in the Aegean Sea.

OZTURK: It is important issue because Aegean Sea important for Turkey, not only Turkey but also for Greece.

KENYON: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has addressed the issue, promising to clean up the seas, as Turkey did earlier in another waterway, the Golden Horn.

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PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN: (Through interpreter) Did we do this in the Golden Horn? We did. Hopefully, we will save our sea from the mucilage scourge. If it spreads to the Black Sea as well as the Marmara, the trouble will be great. We must do this without delay.

KENYON: Some experts estimate a minimum of five years' effort will be required, plus long-term changes to prevent it recurring. At a harbor cafe overlooking the Marmara Sea, Zeki Isci is just sits with a fellow longtime fisherman. He says he's been making his living off the water for 43 years. But even before this latest crisis, he could see the writing on the wall for old-fashioned hook and line fishermen like him.

ZEKI ISCI: (Through interpreter) We're the last generation of this kind of fishing in Istanbul. Look; I'm 60. He's 60-something. No one wants to do it. You have to wake up so early. But my body's like a clock. I wake up at 4 each morning.

KENYON: Now he worries that if this sea snot problem isn't solved, retirement could be looming for many fishermen, not just the old-timers like him.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEPARTMENT OF EAGLES' "IN EAR PARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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