Turkey launched the biggest maritime cleanup operation in its history this week to tackle an unprecedented bloom of marine mucilage in the Sea of Marmara that experts say is an unsightly symptom of a much larger environmental problem. 

In recent weeks “sea snot” has blanketed much of the shoreline around Istanbul in the waterway between the Aegean and the Black Sea. Underneath the waves curtains of the sludge hang in sheets, with the blooms depleting oxygen levels in the ocean, choking aquatic life and threatening Turkey’s fishing industry. 

Turkey's president has promised to rescue the Marmara Sea from an outbreak of "sea snot" that is alarming marine biologists and environmentalists

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to designate the Sea of Marmara a conservation area this week, vowing to save Istanbul’s shorelines from “the mucilage calamity.” 

“We must act without delay,” he said, as officials dispatched a fleet of surface cleaning boats and an army of workers equipped with trucks with vacuum hoses to suck up the worst of the scum along the shoreline.

The algal bloom first appeared in Turkish waters in 2007 but this year’s outbreak is the worst on record, experts say. 

The floating organic matter is secreted by a booming phytoplankton population, whose out-of-control growth has been fuelled by a nutrient-rich cocktail of raw sewage, agricultural runoff and other pollution, according to an academic committee formed by Turkey’s Higher Education Council.

Children swim in the Marmara sea covered by sea snot

While overfishing, ocean acidification and the impact of invasive species are other interrelated factors, the experts believe that warmer waters associated with climate change are turbocharging the bloom. 

“The impact of rising sea temperatures due to climate change also plays an important role,” said President Erdogan.

Eskihisar-Topçular vapur hattında son durum böyle… Her seferde gemilerin filtreleri tıkanıyor, büyük problem yaşanıyor… pic.twitter.com/tFRXNUPQfK

— Hava Forum (@HavaForum) June 11, 2021

According to researchers at the Institute of Marine Sciences at Turkey’s Middle East Technical University, the temperature of the Sea of Marmara has increased by an average of  2-2.5 degrees over the past two decades. 

Between the immediate cleanup efforts and the long-term effects of climate change, Turkey is looking at solutions to improve water water treatment and reduce pollution. 

A view of the sea, on the Caddebostan shore, on the Asian side of Istanbul

Environmental protection has failed to keep pace as the population of Istanbul and its surroundings has increased massively in recent decades, with around 20 million people now living around the Sea of Marmara. 

That is about to change, with Environment Minister Murat Kurum pledging to reduce nitrogen levels in the sea by 40 percent .

"We will take all the necessary steps within three years and realise the projects that will save not only the present but also the future together," he said, speaking aboard a marine research vessel.

Meanwhile the mucilage has began to infiltrate portions of the adjoining Aegean and Black seas.