Note on the Turkish Straits

1 . CHARACTERISTICS OF THE STRAITS / NAVIGATIONAL RISKS

Turkish Straits, a unique system of waterways consisting of Istanbul and Çanakkale Straits and the Marmara Sea connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, are considered one of the most strategically significant waterways of the world. Turkish Straits, however, are no less important to the Black Sea riparian states than to Turkey for their economic and military security. They serve as main trading routes linking the Black Sea riparian countries to the world markets.

In addition to their importance, Turkish Straits are marked by number of other characteristics that are to be found nowhere in the world.

First, İstanbul Strait, twisting and turning around the historical riches of the city, runs right across Istanbul, a UNESCO “World Heritage City” with more than 15 million inhabitants.

Second, the physical characteristics of Turkish Straits make them one of the most challenging waterways around the world in terms of navigational safety. Strong currents, sharp turns and unpredictable changes in weather conditions make it all the more difficult to navigate the Straits safely.

In short, Turkish Straits are unarguably among the most dangerous and challenging waterways in the world.

II. MONTREUX COVENTION

By Montreux Convention, signed on 20 July 1936, the rules governing the passage of vessels of war through Turkish Straits were modified while reserving the principle of free passage for the trading vessels. Montreux Convention, applicable to an area which is of great importance to Turkey in strategic, political and economic terms is a rare multi-lateral agreement which is still in force since it was signed. Implemented by Turkey in full transparency and impartiality for more than 82 years, Montreux Convention constitutes a reasonable and applicable balance of interest among all states whether littoral or non-littoral to the Black Sea.

Montreux Convention does not include a regulatory provision that concern safety of life, property, environment and navigation during passage through Turkish Straits. However, navigational safety constitutes an integral part of the principle of free passage proposed by the Convention. This means Turkey has the right to regulate navigational safety during passages under the international law and common practices. In other words, Turkey believes that the principle of “freedom of passage” through Turkish Straits, which are under Turkey’s jurisdiction, cannot be interpreted to mean “free and unregulated” transit.

III. MARITIME TRAFFIC IN THE STRAITS

The density in marine traffic around the Turkish Straits has recently reached alarmingly high levels.

In 1936 only 17 vessels passed through İstanbul Straits on average, while that figure stands around 50.000 today, which means 130 vessels on an average day. In other words, there has been an eight-fold increase in the number of vessels passing through the Turkish Straits since the signing of the Montreux Convention.

Furthermore, Istanbul Strait is always busy with local traffic of fishing boats and other personal vessels using this waterway.

In recent years, not only the frequency of vessel traffic has increased but also the size of vessels and the nature of cargoes have drastically changed. The ratio of oil, oil products and other dangerous and hazardous materials transported by large tankers has been rapidly increasing. Indeed, the number of oil tankers and other dangerous cargo vessels passing through the Strait of Istanbul rose by % 219 in the last years alone from 4248 in 1996 to 9303 in 2008. Similarly, the amount of hazardous cargo increased from 60.1 million tons in 1996 to 140.3 million tons in 2008. The figures for the Strait of Çanakkale are similar.

The above figures do not include the daily intense maritime traffic in Istanbul (about 2500 shuttle boats), inter-city ferries, leisure crafts and fishing boats. More than 2.5 million people are involved every day in Istanbul alone in the maritime traffic for transport and other purposes.

3. CONSEQUENCES OF THE DENSE MARITIME TRAFFIC IN THE STRAITS

The increasingly congested maritime traffic in the Turkish Straits causes serious concern from various respects.

An accident in the Strait of Istanbul that involves hazardous cargo has the potential of endangering the lives of tens of thousands, if not millions, of people. Moreover, the effects of an environmental catastrophe resulting from such an accident would leave its scars for many decades.

The nature, volume and frequency of vessel traffic, the increase in the size and tonnage of the vessels and the nature of cargoes, have sharply increased the risk of maritime accidents in the Straits which could have grave consequences in terms of ecological, environmental and physical disasters.

The dense maritime traffic in the Turkish Straits and the consequent marine pollution, have already severely affected the environment. There is a significant decrease in the number and the variety of the surface and subsurface fish in the Straits, mainly bluefish, mackerel, and swordfish.

Until early 1970’s the Turkish Straits were known as a rich and productive marine area. The Straits also used to play an important role as a biological corridor between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and acted as an acclimatization zone for the Mediterranean species.

However, due to the pollution mainly stemming from maritime traffic, this sensitive eco-system is now facing the threat of destabilization. Most of the fish species are on the verge of extinction. Not only maritime accidents but also garbage dumping, used oil dumping, ballast water and waste water discharging contribute to a great extent to marine pollution.

Another ecological problem, connected to the congested maritime traffic in the Turkish Straits is the introduction of exotic species carried by tanker ballast water. Callinectes sapidus, a kind of blue crab, was the first of this type brought by tanker ballast water in the 1950's. The sea snail appeared in 1960's, through ballast water probably from Sea of Japan. The last exotic species, which was observed in the waterway in 1987, is Ctenorphore Mnemiopsis, transferred this time from Atlantic coast of North America. Their population has grown rapidly in the Straits, in the absence of a natural predator, and contributed to the destabilization of the sensitive eco-system in this waterway.

Noise pollution, destruction of natural beauty and damage to cultural heritage are other side effects of the intense maritime traffic.

403 main accidents have been recorded in the Strait of Istanbul alone since 1948. The number of collisions has been 292, crashing into buildings in the residential areas along the Strait of Istanbul have been 27, grounding 35 and fire 6.

A collision or an environmental disaster will force the closure of the Straits for unpredictable periods as it happened several times in the past, which would affect the economies of the Black Sea countries as well as land locked Caucasian and Central Asian States.

A few examples of major accidents that occurred in the Strait of Istanbul are as follows:

  • In 1979, a collision between the Romanian tanker "Independenta" and the Greek freighter "Evriali" resulted in over 30 deaths. 30.000 tons of crude oil was burned and 65.000 tons of oil spilled into the sea. An area of 5.5 km in diameter was coated with a thick tar. In this area mortality rate among marine species was estimated at 96 %.
  • In 1991, Lebanese "Rabunion” collided with another vessel in which 8 crewmen were killed and the Lebanese vessel sank with its cargo of 20.000 live sheep, again causing a serious environmental damage.
  • In 1994, "M/T Nassia” hit "M/V Shipbroker”-both Greek Cypriot flagged vessels. The fire on Nassia lasted for over a week, resulting in the closure of the Strait to maritime traffic. The fire also spread on to the freighter killing 26 crewmembers. This accident also caused heavy environmental damage. 20.000 tons of oil spilled over the sea, fish from several species and cetaceans were stranded and sea birds were killed.

The rate of accidents has drastically declined after Turkey started to implement the traffic regulations in the Straits. The number of collisions which was around 50 per year before the enaction of these regulations has dropped to less than 5.

4. INTRODUCTION OF MARITIME TRAFFIC REGULATIONS FOR THE TURKISH STRAITS

The increasing maritime traffic in the Turkish Straits, especially the sharp rise after 1990’s in the number of oil tankers and the amount of oil they carry bring with them the growing risk and danger of a large-scale accident in the Straits causing huge environmental damage and destruction. The past examples show that this risk and danger may turn into a nightmare any time unless the necessary measures are taken to ensure safety of navigation in the Straits.

Having faced with this gloomy reality, Turkey had to take some safety measures in the Straits in 1994. The measures, which were contained in the Turkish Straits Regulations, were revised in 1998 taking into account 4 years of practice and experience.

On the other hand, traffic separation schemes (TSS) were introduced in 1994 in the Straits in accordance with the provisions of the “International Regulations for Prevention of Collision at Sea” (COLREG). The TSS were approved by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) General Assembly in November 1995.

The Turkish Straits Regulations and the TSS aim at enhancing safety of navigation in the Turkish Straits and are in conformity with the relevant rules of international law and practice.

Indeed, the Maritime Safety Committee of the IMO concluded at its 71st session, which was held in London on 19-28 May 1999, that the safety measures and the associated IMO Rules and Recommendations “have proven to be effective and successful". The drastic decline in the number of accidents and collisions substantiate this conclusion.

On the other hand, the Turkish Government has installed a modern vessel traffic services (VTS) system in the Turkish Straits. The System has been operational since December 2003. This system is aimed at increasing the level of safety of passage, rather than making it possible for a greater number of vessels to pass through the Straits. It is an undertaking of extreme expense, which Turkey has had to bear.

Despite the safety measures that have been taken, the Turkish Straits are still threatened by the ever growing number of oil tankers and other dangerous cargo vessels. A glance at the figures of the last eleven years given below is enough to understand the level and scope of the risk and danger.

STATISTICAL FIGURES REGARDING TANKER TRAFFIC IN THE STRAIT OF ISTANBUL

Year

Number of tankers Carrying

Hazardous Cargo

Amount of Hazardous Cargo (Million Tons)

2006

10.153

143.452.500

2007

10.054

143.939.500

2008

9303

140.357.500

2009

9299

144.660.000

2010

9274

146.750.500

2011

9103

138.496.500

2012

9027

131.123.000

2013

9006

134.444.000

2014

8745

133.961.000

2015

8633

135.952.000

2016

8703

136.100.000

2017

8832

146.943.000



STATISTICAL FIGURES REGARDING TANKER TRAFFIC IN THE STRAIT OF ÇANAKKALE

Year

Number of tankers Carrying

Hazardous Cargo

Amount of Hazardous Cargo (Million Tons)

2006

9567

152.726.000

2007

9271

149.320.000

2008

8758

149.052.000

2009

9567

152.105.5000

2010

9252

156.929.000

2011

8818

154.606.000

2012

8998

151.040.000

2013

9299

149.091.000

2014

9250

152.286.000

2015

9524

155.531.000

2016

9481

156.203.000

2017

9478

166.729.000

There are arguments that the safety measures taken in the Straits contravene with the principle of freedom of passage envisaged by the Montreux Convention. As explained above, the safety measures are needed vis-à-vis the risks and dangers resulting from the increased tanker traffic in the Straits. One has to interpret the principle of freedom of passage with due regard to the safety of millions of people and the protection of environment. As manifested in the aftermath of the Erika and Prestige accidents, marine safety is a growing concern worldwide. As one of the most threatened and congested waterways, the Turkish Straits can not and should not be left out of this global concern. Otherwise, this would be nothing but an abuse of the right of freedom of passage without taking into account the legitimate and justified concerns of Turkey for its people, its environment and its historical and cultural assets.