Environmental protection minister says tar on Israel’s beaches that caused the country’s worst case of sea pollution in decades came from a single scofflaw ship

A dead 17-meter-long fin whale wich was washed ashore is pictured on the beach near the city of Ashkelon.
A dead 17-meter-long fin whale wich was washed ashore is pictured on the beach near the city of Ashkelon.Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND – AFP

Zafrir Rinat Feb. 24, 2021

The oil pollution over the past week along the length of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline was caused by a single ship, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel said on Wednesday. The director of the ministry’s Marine and Coastal Environmental Division, Rani Amir, said that the source is one of several suspected ships, but that the ministry has excluded five ships that had initially come under suspicion.

One of the obstacles to the investigation, Gamliel said, has been that Israel does not have authority to stop ships in the open sea. Amir added that the ministry had asked for a gag order in the case due to concern that the operator of the polluting ship would seek to obstruct the investigation.

The ministry’s chief scientist, Prof. Noga Kronfeld-Schor, said some of the components of the tar dissolve in the water and could cause damage to the food chain along the coast. On Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced a ban on the sale of fish and other marine life caught off the coast until further notice.

Animals have been found covered with tar, including a few birds and nine sea turtles. Four of the turtles died, while the others were taken to the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center at Mikhmoret between Tel Aviv and Haifa. There they were fed in an attempt to increase their metabolism and dilute the oil in their bodies.

On Wednesday morning of last week, it was clear that the ministry was dealing with a serious incident, Amir said, but due to the stormy weather at the time, it was not practical to dispatch aircraft or patrol boats to investigate. The incident, the worst case of maritime pollution in Israel in decades, came as surprise, he added, but even if there had been advance warning of the oil spill, the problem could not have been dealt at the time with waves that were a meter and a half (5 feet) high or higher.

The ministry said Saturday it had been told by the European Maritime Safety Agency that an oil slick located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off Israel’s coast was the source of the pollution. Gamliel said that the extent of the damage is still not clear and that a cleaning substance is being tested at the Rosh Hanikra Beach nature reserve to determine if it can be used to help clean the tar off rocks.

On Tuesday, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority reported that most of the beaches along the coast have been cleared of large pieces of tar, but that small fragments of tar are more difficult to remove. The vast majority of tar and other debris that has been removed from the beaches has been done by volunteers.

On Tuesday, the cabinet approved 45 million shekels ($13.8 million) in funding for the cleanup of the spill. Tar from the spill has marred beaches stretching  over 170 kilometers (106 miles) – 40 percent of Israel’s coast. 

Almog Ben Zikri and Ido Efrati contributed to this report.