Sea Sponges in Syria: Victims of Pollution and Unlawful Fishing

Published on 18.09.2023
Reading time: 12 minutes

This investigation, produced in collaboration with journalists from the Syrian Unit for Investigative Journalism (SIRAJ), documents strong evidence of the discovery of sponges on some Syrian beaches, nearly 30 years after they disappeared off the coast of Arwad Island. However, the risks of illegal and unsustainable fishing, including the use of explosives and pollution of the shores with sewage, are putting the newly discovered sponges in danger once again, especially in the face of weak enforcement of laws protecting marine environments.

“Today, not a single [sponge] remains on Arwad Island,” says 80-year-old Farouk Bahlawan, pointing with a trembling hand to the blue waters. Farouk and his friends stopped practicing the profession of sponge fishing nearly 40 years ago. Most of his friends either retired due to old age or died while engaged in this hazardous profession, and those who remain can be counted on one hand.

Bahlawan, who worked for nearly 40 years in the profession of sponge fishing on the Syrian coast in the Tartus Governorate, laments the disappearance of this marine creature from the shores of Arwad Island, where it used to be a maritime treasure in the past.

We accompanied Bahlawan, who knows many secrets about this creature, on a tour of the specialty shops selling marine products on Arwad Island. We did not come across any pieces of sponge in the island’s markets or in the houses of the islanders, and all the vendors we met confirmed that it had disappeared a long time ago, and they only remembered stories of this creature, told by their fishermen ancestors.

With great difficulty, Bahlawan managed to provide us with pieces of sponge, which he took from an old fishing tools warehouse he owns. He handed us a piece saying, “No one uses it in Arwad, and we have never used it.”

This Syrian fisherman did not know the reason for the European merchants’ interest in buying sponges. All he knew was that this marine creature used to be a significant source of livelihood for them on the island, with approximately 30 specialized boats for this type of fishing in Arwad. Each boat had about seven crew members, totaling around 300 people who relied on this resource for their living.

An animal, not a plant

The sponge is considered one of the invertebrate animals and is characterized by an irregularly spherical shape, resembling the human heart or a rectangular shape with rounded corners. It lives in saltwater and varies in size, ranging from a potato to a clay jar, with the average size being about the size of a soccer ball. Its colors range from white and gray to yellow, orange, red, and green, and its body is marked by numerous holes or openings that lead to chambers through which water flows, which is why sponges are also called poriferans.

According to Dr. Alaa Mondher Al-Sheikh Ahmad, the director of the coastal area branch at the General Authority for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, many non-specialists used to believe the sponge was a plant before discovering that it is in fact an animal.

Ahmad explains that sponges were distributed along the Syrian coast, primarily around the waters of Arwad Island. He confirms that this region used to produce a substantial amount of sponges due to the high number of people engaged in sponge fishing. Unofficial statistics indicate that approximately 15 tons of sponges were exported annually.

Traders used to come to Lebanon and then to Syria to buy sponges before exporting them to Turkey and subsequently to Greece, Italy, France, and other European countries.

The importance of sponges lies in the fact that their cells act as “filters” for purifying seawater, and they also serve as a safe haven for weaker fish to reproduce within them, protecting themselves and their offspring from predation, as explained by experts we met during the course of this investigation.

This investigation, produced in collaboration with journalists from SIRAJ documents strong evidence of the discovery of sponges on some Syrian beaches, nearly 30 years after they disappeared off the coast of Arwad Island. However, the risks of illegal and unsustainable fishing, including the use of explosives and pollution of the shores with sewage, are putting the newly discovered sponges in danger once again, especially in the face of weak enforcement of laws protecting marine environments.

Bahlawan, who worked for nearly 40 years in the profession of sponge fishing on the Syrian coast in the Tartus Governorate, laments the disappearance of this marine creature from the shores of Arwad Island, where it used to be a maritime treasure in the past.

Has the sponge returned to Syrian waters?

Environmental economist Mohammed Salman Ibrahim suggests that sponges were present in the 1980s and 1990s, and in his opinion, there are no proper initiatives to bring them back to Syrian coasts today. He points out that sponges have not disappeared from the coasts of Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, and they are also abundant in the waters surrounding the Greek island of Kalymnos.

Dr. Alaa Mondher Al-Sheikh Ahmad, on the other hand, mentions conducting field studies within the waters of Arwad Island and its surroundings, using specialized divers who ventured into the depths of the sea. However, they only found one piece of sponge after thirty or forty rounds around the island. He expresses deep sorrow, saying, “This result leads us to say that the situation is sad and tragic.”

In contrast, Dr. Ezdihar Ammar, a professor and researcher at the Higher Institute for Marine Research, affirms that biological surveys and research conducted regularly between 2003 and 2018 revealed the presence of sponges in various areas at depths ranging from half a meter to 35 meters. The research covered several areas, such as Samra, Ras al-Bassit, Baniyas, and Latakia (including the Arab Bay area and the Ibn Hani Fanar Reserve).

During their surveys, researchers documented the existence of 22 species of sponges, with 20 of them being local and two being invasive species of tropical origin. The latter’s presence was documented on the Syrian coast in 2018 and 2022. Most of these species belong to the group of demosponges, which include economically and medically valuable species like Spongia officinalis. The latter is the most important sponge species globally, as well as Hippospongia communis and various species of the Axinella genus — commonly known as the yellow sponge, Agelas, and others.

Sewage discharge and illegal fishing

According to Farouk Bahlawan, Several factors contribute to the loss of sponges in Syrian waters in recent years, including the discharge of untreated sewage into the coasts and dynamite fishing. He estimates that over 500 kilograms of untreated sewage are poured into the sea daily, which he believes is a major contributor to the decline of sponges and fish.

Dr. Alaa Mondher Al-Sheikh Ahmad explains that the sharp decline in sponge populations can be attributed to two main factors. The first factor is the use of dynamite in fishing, where some fishermen employ explosives made from fertilizers or ready-made explosives. When these explosives detonate, their residues enter the bodies of aquatic organisms.

Mobile organisms can escape during explosions, but organisms like sponges remain stationary and live in colonies at shallow depths in the sea, making them more susceptible to the dangers of explosives and pollution than other species. The second reason, according to Dr. Al-Sheikh Ahmad, is improper fishing practices, where fishermen used to uproot sponges from the seabed without leaving a portion for reproduction and regrowth.

Farouk Bahlawan confirms this practice, citing that they didn’t cut the sponge during fishing, but rather uprooted it from the roots, despite the importance of cutting a portion and leaving others to allow it to regrow and reproduce.

Pollution in the Syrian coastal areas is not limited to dynamite fishing alone; it also extends to other sources, including sewage discharge and ship traffic waste. Mohammed Salman Ibrahim observed the effects of untreated sewage in the sea during his tour. 

“Untreated sewage, amounting to hundreds of thousands of cubic meters, is discharged into the sea annually.” After analyzing samples of coastal water in Tartus, he found the presence of 1,080 harmful bacteria per liter of water, far exceeding the permitted limit for swimming, which is only 100 harmful bacteria per liter,” says Mohammed Salman Ibrahim. 

In his study, he points out that all sewage channels leading to the sea in Tartus are submerged, and the beaches are being filled in, except for two remaining open outlets. Meanwhile, approximately eight main discharge points have been submerged. On Arwad Island, sewage is discharged directly into the sea without treatment.

Ibrahim also points out other reasons for the decline in sponges, such as the deterioration of their natural habitats and climate change. Additionally, ballast water, which is water used by ships to balance their cargo, plays a significant role in the decline of marine organisms in general and sponges in particular.

Primitive fishing methods

Farouk Bahlawan emphasizes that sponge fishing is a very dangerous profession that can result in injury or paralysis if not practiced correctly. When he started practicing the profession with his brother Mohammed Bahlawan in 1952 at the age of 12, there were no diving apparatuses, and he used to dive traditionally to a depth of about 6 or 7 meters.

Both brothers left the profession before diving equipment was introduced in Syria. Mohammad, now 84, turned to boat building, still practicing this craft to this day. We met Mohammad as he sat near a small wooden boat, meticulously working on it to create a unique piece of art.

According to Mohammed’s account, the Turks were pioneers in this work, and the Syrians knew nothing about it before them. He recalls, “I used to dive using a machine that supplied air, accompanied by three Turkish divers who shared the tasks. I held something like a phone, which was essentially a long rope. The diver would give me a signal or two through it, and each movement had a specific meaning, such as needing air or wanting to head up to the surface.” He emphasizes the need for divers to pull the rope gently during their ascent because speed could lead to decompression sickness, paralysis, or death. Many Turks, Lebanese, and Arwad Island residents died during sponge fishing operations and were buried on the island.

Mohammed Salman Ibrahim explains that sponge fishing in Syria went through two stages: the first, which was primitive and without diving equipment, allowed divers to reach depths of 30 to 40 meters. The second introduced diving equipment and enabled divers to reach depths ranging from 50 to 60 meters. Harvesting sponges and cutting them from the seabed was done manually or with a pointed wooden or metal stick, followed by several stages of cleaning, drying on washing lines, and refining using sharp tools or shears.

Sponges and marine environmental balance

Sponges play a significant role in water purification, serving as a habitat for certain fish species that live and reproduce alongside them. Losing sponges can deprive these fish of their refuge. Furthermore, sponges have various other ecological roles in the marine environment.

Dr. Ammar explains that sponges have great ecological importance. They are active biological filters that feed by filtering seawater and can filter large amounts of water daily. This contributes to purifying seawater from heavy metals, oil compounds, radioactive elements, and all pollutants that enter the water column. Because of this, they are sometimes referred to as “marine sanitation workers.”

“Sponges protect themselves from harmful environmental factors such as fungi, bacteria, and viruses by producing secondary metabolites that act as antibiotics against these factors. They are known for their strong immunity and resistance to toxins.” 

Once marine predators or enemies approach the sponges, the latter fight back with a strong chemical defense. The sponges don’t produce these toxins themselves; instead, they store bacteria capable of producing these toxins.

Harmful substances in the water cannot harm sponges. For example, they can absorb mercury in amounts more than a thousand times higher than the surrounding water without getting contaminated. Sponges store these harmful substances in special repositories, thus protecting themselves from the harmful effects. However, the high levels of pollution in Syrian waters exceeded their capacity to defend against it.

Moreover, sponges are favored by medical and pharmaceutical researchers for their various capabilities. They are a valuable natural source of bioactive compounds, especially for producing antibiotics effective against antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains. These marine organisms also have applications in various industries, including medicine for artificial bones and dental fillings.

Beyond medical applications, sponges are used in nanotechnology and material sciences to study material properties and their applications. They are also utilized in maritime industries, such as protective ship coatings and optical connectors, among many others.

Can the rediscovered sponges be preserved?

Considering their return to Syrian waters, experts propose steps to protect sponges, especially since their economic significance and potential for trade might make them attractive for random harvesting, which could endanger the marine environment again.

Dr. Al-Sheikh Ahmad emphasizes the need to first and foremost address chemical and thermal pollution in the sea, which result from oil and food factories. He also stresses the importance of building sewage treatment plants to prevent untreated sewage from reaching the sea.

To achieve success in the restoration of sponges, Dr. Al-Sheikh Ahmad believes that cooperation with international organizations and countries experienced in this field is necessary. Additionally, implementing sustainable fishing practices, combating pollution sources, and protecting marine habitats are crucial. Mohammed Salman Ibrahim suggests the construction of basins for sponge farming within coastal reserves. He mentions that three such reserves can help in the restoration of sponge habitats. Alternatively, sponges can be cultivated in floating cages similar to those used for fish farming, placed in specific clean locations away from untreated sewage discharge points.

Dr. Ammar points out that they have been conducting research on the biodiversity of sponges and associated organisms through various studies. One of their studies dates back to 2018 when field experiments were carried out for the cultivation of some sponge species using different methods. The suspension method on ropes proved to be successful, especially for the Mediterranean bath sponge. This encourages the use of this method for local sponge development in the future.

She also adds that constructing artificial reefs and placing them in some damaged environments suitable for sponge growth may be the most appropriate solution at this stage to rehabilitate these ecosystems and restore this important biological resource. However, the key remains the implementation of effective protection measures and increasing the number of marine reserves in coordination with the local community for optimal and sustainable solutions.

Leniency of penalties

Dr. Ammar emphasizes on how crucial it is to highlight the importance of sponges and their sustainability, especially among the most affected groups such as fishermen, their families, and local residents for whom the marine environment is a source of income.

In light of the information about the reappearance of sponges in Syrian waters, it appears that national environmental laws are lax and do not respond adequately to the challenges facing local ecosystems. For instance, Article 61 of Law No. 11 of 2021 imposes fines ranging from 100,000 to 200,000 Syrian pounds (8 to 16 US dollars) against anyone who catches, releases, or attempts to release sponges, in violation of Article 32 of the same law.

Article 32 requires a decision from the Ministry of Agriculture to regulate sponge fishing as well as the appropriate seasons and methods. The Directorate General of Ports should determine the conditions that should be met by boat owners, divers, and navigators on sponge fishing vessels.

Published on 18.09.2023
Reading time: 12 minutes

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