Turkey's Gulf of Izmit Awash with Dead Fish

By Jon Gorvett

ISTANBUL, Turkey, January 25, 2001 (ENS) Turkey's Gulf of Izmit, just south of Istanbul, became the focus of environmental concern this week, as Greenpeace activists launched a protest while scientists argued over just why the Gulf has been filling up with dead fish.

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Red mullet in the Gulf of Izmit (Photo courtesy Ata Bilgili)
Izmit is one of Turkey's principal industrial centres and was in the news in 1999 as the epicentre of a devastating earthquake. The Gulf on which it sits accounts for a large portion of the country's trade and a third of its petrochemical industry. Thursday's events began when Greenpeace activist climbers unfurled banners across the front of Izmit city hall. On coming to ground, the 20 activists were arrested and, Greenpeace claims, assaulted by police and security guards.

Their protest was against a municipal industrial and clinical waste incinerator that has been operating on the Gulf in defiance of a court order to close it down. The Izmit Incinerator is owned and operated by a company called Izaydas, which is itself owned by the municipality of Izmit.

A report from Greenpeace released to coincide with today's protest action claims that an analysis of the incinerator's ashes shows "high levels of heavy metals and the presence of chlorinated contaminants, such as PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] and dioxins."

According to Dr. David Santillo, Greenpeace's senior scientist at their laboratories in the UK, this indicates a breach of the United Nations Environment Programme regulations, which promise to eliminate such materials at source. "As the scientific analysis reveals," Dr. Santillo said, "clearly incineration is no solution."

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Greenpeace activists protest toxic pollution at Izmit, summer 2000 (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
The history of protest against the incinerator is a long one. In November 1997, Greenpeace, local nongovernmental organisations and people from Izmit and surrounding villages protested in front of the incinerator where test burning operations began. They called for its closure and for a ban on incinerators all over Turkey.

In January 1999, the illegal operation of the Izmit Hazardous Clinical Waste Incinerator was stopped by the government one day after the action held by Greenpeace on January 7.

Today's action also came at the close of a week in which environmental concerns in the 30 mile long Gulf had been highlighted by the frightening presence of huge numbers of dead fish. What caused this massacre of local marine life is now the subject of a sometimes angry debate.

A Turkish Environment Ministry investigation resulted in a statement that the fish had died "of natural causes." The Ministry's scientists said that their tests had revealed no "unusual content" in the Gulf's waters, and concluded that "seasonal currents flowing from the hydrogen sulphide layer in the neighboring Sea of Marmara" were responsible for the mass culling of marine life.

The Marmara is in many ways similar to the neighboring Black Sea, where collision between fresh water and sea water has produced a layer of hydrogen sulphide in the sea, a substance deadly to marine life.

The report also suggested that life on the sea bed had been even worse affected than at the top, with "sediment" rising to kill off the fish.

However, the state Turkish Scientific and Technological Research Council then said that "strong winds" had turned the "water-oxygen gradient upside down." The fish had then simply suffocated. Council chairman Professor Naci Gorur then assured the public that this was a "natural occurance," and "nothing to be concerned about."

Elsewhere, the popular theory is that in fact the slaughter is the result of methane gases escaping from the sea bed following an earth tremor. The Gulf lies right on the North Anatolian Fault Line, responsible for the August 1999 quake in which more than 19,000 people died.

Then the Turkish Maritime Research Foundation released its report. "The likely cause of death is industrial waste," it said, discrediting the escaped gases theory and other "seasonal factors" by saying that there had been "no previous recorded instances of any such thing across the entire world."

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The Turkish Petroleum Refineries Co. refinery in Izmit seen here was built in 1961. Due to the 1999 earthquake, one of the crude oil towers collapsed. The fire started then cannot be controlled by local authorities yet. (Photo courtesy Kandilli Observatory & Earthquake Research Institute, Boğaziçi University)
This backs up earlier Greenpeace findings which detected "extensive and pervasive contamination" in the Gulf from a variety of toxic substances.

"They say that the fish are being killed by disturbances in the water, or from sediment on the bottom," says Greenpeace Toxics Campaigner Tolga Temurge, "but nobody seems to be asking why the sediment is so poisonous that when it's disturbed it kills everything. Frankly, the most astonishing thing about the fish was that they'd survived this long."

The controversy continues. Meanwhile, local fishermen are left with little to do but sit and watch as the slow waters of the Gulf wash up another line of dead fish.

"What can we do?" asks Mehmet Arzulu, a fisherman from Golcuk. "They have poisoned our livelihood."