An Iranian oil tanker is leaking oil into the Red Sea after being hit by two missiles on at about 5.00 am local time on Friday 11 October 2019. The National Iranian Tanker Company owned Sabiti was reportedly about 100 km off the coast of the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah at the time of the incident, although the tanker had turned off its tracking equipment since August, something routinely done by Iranian tankers to prevent them from being tracked by the US, which has imposed economic sanctions on Iran. The authorities in Iran have blamed the attack on 'terrorists' but not directly accused any political organisation or nation of being behind the attack. Nobody was hurt in the incident, and the crew were initially able to halt the loss of oil from the tanker, but the vessel began leaking again once it started to move.
Oil leaking from the Iranian tanker Sabiti into the Red Sea. IRIB TV/AFP.
This incident is the latest in a series of attacks on Iranian tankers this summer, part of a deteriorating diplomatic situation between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. The United States has accused Iran of attacking oil tankers and shooting down one of its military drones, while Saudi Arabia blames Iran for an attack on the Saudi Aramco Oil Refinery in September, which Iran denies. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been poor for decades, but have deteriorated in recent years as the countries have backed different sides in the conflicts in Yemen and Syria. The US has accused tankers such as the Sabiti of smuggling oil to Syria, where Iran is a key ally of the government of President Bashar al-Assad, although Iran also exports oil to Russia (also an ally of the government of President Bashar al-Assad) and the EU through the Red Sea.
Oil spills are potentially harmful to marine life in a variety of ways. Most obviously it can coat the outside of organisms, causing damage to external structures such as the feathers of Birds and fur of Mammals, as well as smothering many marine invertebrates and plants. It also contains a variety of chemicals which can be directly toxic upset the hormonal balance of many animals. Oil also impedes the feeding of marine organisms, coating both food and feeding organs, but provides an excellent food source for Bacteria, which can lead to Eutrophication events - dramatic increases in Bacteria numbers, which then use all the oxygen in the water, leading other organisms to asphyxiate.
The Red Sea is considered to be a biodiversity hotspot, having a unique fauna with many endemic species (species not found elsewhere). This has been able to develop due to the Red Sea's relative isolation, being connected to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean by the shallow Strait of Bab al-Mandab, which is prone to variations in temperature and salinity that present a barrier to many marine organisms. The Red Sea has a unique deep-sea environment, where the waters remain constantly at about 22°C and have a salinity of about 40‰ (compared to about 35‰ for most seawater). This has led to the development of a vast reef system with many organisms unlike anything found anywhere else. Unfortunately, high shipping levels since the opening of the Suez Canal have led to many problems for this ecosystem, both from pollution and alien organisms carried on the sides and in the ballast tanks of ships, and decades of political instability and conflict in the nations around the Red Sea have meant that much of the area is poorly studied or protected.
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