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Marine monitor urges Israel to step up surveillance or risk more oil spill woes

Head of Tel Aviv-based Windward, which helped ministry pin February leak on alleged smuggling ship, says he ‘won’t feel comfortable’ until Israel starts keeping a closer eye on sea

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A satellite image of Israel and Gaza's southern Mediterranean coast taken by the EU's Sentinel 1 on February 12, 2021. (screen capture)
A satellite image of Israel and Gaza's southern Mediterranean coast taken by the EU's Sentinel 1 on February 12, 2021. (screen capture)

The head of the company that helped Israel pinpoint a vessel it says is responsible for spilling oil that wound up polluting the country’s beaches is calling on Jerusalem to significantly bolster its monitoring capabilities, or risk being stricken again.

“Until Israel, like every other country that respects its oceans, has the ability to monitor daily for oil spills and to find the perpetrators, this can happen again and again. It’s a decision away,” said Ami Daniel, co-founder and CEO of Tel Aviv-based marine intelligence firm Windward.

With no satellite or other robust civilian monitoring, Israel was taken by surprise on February 18 when tar began washing onto its Mediterranean coastline, following stormy weather.

During the following days, it became clear that beaches from Rosh Hanikra in the far north to Nitzanim in the south had been contaminated, leaving globs of tar all over the sand and shallows, along with dead or badly injured wildlife. On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Ministry declared the state of emergency along the coast over, with almost all beaches mostly cleaned after more than 650 tons of tar had been collected by an army of volunteers, soldiers and others.

Officials dealing with marine issues said they could not remember an incident with such a wide geographical spread. The long-term damage to ecosystems still remains to be seen.

Israeli volunteers clean tar off a beach following an offshore oil spill that covered most of the Israeli Mediterranean coastline with tar, February 22, 2021. (Flash90)

It was not until early March that the ministry announced it had fingered a culprit for the leak: the Emerald, a 19-year-old ship sailing under a Panamanian flag allegedly smuggling crude oil, probably from Iran to Syria. Minister Gila Gamliel called the leak “environmental terror,” but has provided no evidence the spill was an intentional attack.

(Though Gamliel claimed the ship had Libyan owners, a subsequent investigation by Israeli firm Black Cube, distributed by the ministry, concluded it was owned by a company controlled by a Syrian family and registered in Greece.)

The ministry leveled the accusation after getting pro bono help from Windward, set up 10 years ago to provide clients with intelligence and risk assessments for maritime activity. Among other things, the firm uses monitoring and artificial intelligence to find ships engaged in deceptive practices, include sanction-busting and smuggling.

Daniel, who took part in the press conference pinning blame on the Emerald, said his company volunteered to help Israel find the boat because the government did not have the tools on its own.

“This wasn’t charity, but Zionism. We are deeply committed to this subject and we won’t feel comfortable so long as Israel doesn’t have ongoing monitoring, whether it’s through us or another company. This is my perspective as a citizen and as a father,” he said.

Pieces of tar from an oil spill in the Mediterranean Sea wash up on a beach in the Gdor Nature Reserve near Michmoret, Israel, Monday, March 1, 2021. The cleanup from the disastrous oil spill that has blackened most of the country’s shoreline is expected to take months. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Daniel said the breakthrough in the investigation of the February spill came when the fluid that was leaked was positively identified as crude oil. “There was only one full tanker [in the area],” he said.

He added that the ministry was waiting for results that would provide further details on the exact type of crude oil. “With the right test, you can definitely say whether it was Iranian oil or not,” he said.

Ami Daniel, Co-Founder and CEO of Windward. (Courtesy)

He stressed that the ministry needs access to a basket of services in order to be able to catch oil spills — and the perpetrators — in real time.

These include access to multiple satellite arrays that can provide radar images, which pick up differences in the reflections on the water, and optical sensors, which can produce high-resolution images of large areas.

It also needs a way to collect data from ships’ radar systems and from radiofrequency satellites.

Having the right equipment is  “like having speed cameras for cars. If you don’t have them, the perpetrators are unlikely to get caught,” he said.

Once the tar started to show up on Israel’s shores, Jerusalem scrambled to get data and images from the European Union, whose satellites pass over the area every couple of days.

The EU’s Sentinel One satellites eventually provided the ministry with images of a suspicious blotch taken on February 11 some 50 kilometers (31 miles) out at sea, though the ministry, with Windward’s help, later concluded that the leak occurred between February 1 and 2 and was carried northwards with the tides before moving toward Israel’s beaches.

Satellite image of a stain on the sea’s surface on February 11, 2021, that was 21 kilometers (13 miles) long and located 44 km (27 miles) off Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The white dots around the green line are ships. (Greenpeace)

While Windward does not currently provide environmental services, it is planning on soon rolling out an environmental risk program that will help governments and others to monitor for oil leaks and help shipping companies deal with new international maritime regulations on carbon emissions, among other things.

“I care that this doesn’t happen again and that our kids will be able to walk along yellow beaches rather than black ones.”

In 2008, the government decided to formulate a National Plan for Preparedness and Response to Marine Oil Pollution Incidents, but the plan never came to fruition and was never funded.

Faithful Warrior, an oil tanker filling up at the EAPC terminal in Eilat, in southern Israel, from January 8 to 9. (Mori Hen, of the not-for-profit Desert and Sea Environment, Eilat)

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Ministry published proposals to integrate remote sensing technologies provided by the likes of satellites and drones into its work. In one example, it described how Canada had used satellite images and aerial photographs to identify 183 oil spills and impose fines on the perpetrators.

Information of this kind would enable Israel to create models for oil distribution in real-time and in emergencies, the document said. But again, the proposals were never funded.

The Environmental Protection Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

“I think that we as a country can’t live with the environment as a second or third priority,” Daniel said. “If things go awry, the country may not be able to recover.”

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