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Al-Shqayfat… Who destroys the habitat of sea turtles in Syria?

A green turtle in the sea water off Al-Shqayfat Beach. Source: private archive, Syria Indicator

Sea turtles in Syria paid the price for human wars, corruption, and tampering with nature.  Nowadays, they are migrating their habitats in a country whose beaches were classified as one of the best nesting and hatching areas in the Mediterranean basin.

Sea turtles were not living in their best conditions before 2011, but things got worse after that, as the war raged even on nature in a country whose resources collapsed through fighting, and many international and local organizations and associations concerned with environmental protection were no longer able to perform their mission and role for various reasons

Here is an investigation that explains the danger turtles are exposed to, on Al-Shqayfat Beach, in the Lattakia region western Syria, one of the longest sandy beaches and the best breeding environment for green and loggerhead turtles on the Mediterranean.

Al-Shqayfat… Habitat of turtles

In 1991 MEDASSET and Herpetofauna Conservation International (UK) conducted the first turtle survey on the Syrian coast. Prior to this project, little was known about the number of turtles in the country.

This effort revealed evidence of sea turtle nesting on the beaches between Latakia and Jableh (29 tracks or nests), and found that two of the seven species of sea turtles in the world are breeding on the Syrian shore in the Mediterranean.

A study issued in 2004, conducted by the Syrian University of Tishreen in partnership with a number of international organizations, showed that green turtles (Chelonia mydas) and loggerheads (Caretta caretta) are the most common nesting in Syria.

Preliminary research results, according to the study of Tishreen University and its partners in 2004, showed that the sandy beach in the Al-Shqayfat area and its vicinity acquires double importance because it is the only one of this length and sandy nature along the Syrian coast, as there are many other habitats that have been destroyed by humans or abandoned by turtles due to Human pollution, where there were a number of nests, but human sewage ruined them along with other factors including climate change in the Mediterranean.

Al-Shqayfat Beach, located between the north of the city of Jableh to the Great Northern River in the south of Latakia, with a length of 12.5 km to 20 km, is considered “the longest sandy beach in Syria, ideal for breeding sea turtles.” It is “ranked sixth as the best beach in the Mediterranean for breeding “Green” turtles, and Syria is considered the third most important country for nesting green turtles in the Mediterranean, according to an academic study conducted in July and August 2004 by the Laboratory of Marine Sciences at the Faculty of Agriculture at Tishreen University, the Sea Turtle Conservation Society in Greece and the International Center for Biological Conservation in London.

Numbers and nests

The study, issued in 2004, was able to “monitor and follow up 164 turtle nests on the beach, including about 120 nests for green turtles and 44 nests for large-headed turtles.” The results were “surprising in their positive aspects, contrary to what was expected,” according to Dr. Adib Saad Syrian Environmental Society, who participated in the study.

It was found that green turtles are the most common type of nesting in Syria, which hosts five specific nesting areas with a length of approximately 130 kilometers, in which turtles lay eggs, the most important of which is Al-Shqayfat Beach. Like the loggerhead turtle, green turtles often nest on the same beach.

In 2006, a green turtle nesting on Al-Shqayfat Beach was tracked by satellite for the first time. It showed the link of the Syrian hatchery to feeding areas along the Middle East and North Africa coasts.

According to activist Qahtan, a pseudonym for security reasons, who is interested in turtles on the Syrian coast, “the Syrian breeding areas can be divided into three parts, according to the density of nests on the beach each year. The first is Alshqayfat area, the most intense, with 60% of the nests, the second is the Al-Sanawbar Beach (a beach near Al-Shqayfat), which has an average density of 25% of the nests, while the third is the Al-Bassa Beach, which is the least dense, with 15% of the nests’ density.

Regarding the numbers of sea turtles on the Syrian coast, Dr. Adeeb Saad said in an interview: “No one knows (the number), so we started since 2006 numbering the turtles on the Syrian coast, with metal and plastic numbers, to know their numbers and times of their return” for reproduction and movement. Due to the circumstances of the war, this project has been forgotten. In 1989, all Mediterranean countries adopted an action plan for conserving sea turtles within the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), including Syria.

A green turtle on the beach of Al-Shqayfat was tracked in 2006
(Source: private archive – Syria Indicator

Nesting and hatching

According to the International Journal of Turtles (SWOT), “a sea turtle can reproduce from the age of fifteen to fifty, as it can live for more than a hundred years.” It comes out of the sea to the sandy beach between ten at night and one in the morning, so it chooses the appropriate place to lay eggs. And she begins to make a large hole with her front fins, then creates a small cylindrical hole inside the large hole and lays eggs inside it. After that, she fills the eggs with her back fins, then fills the entire large hole and returns to the sea, and does not return to the beach until after two years or more to lay eggs again.

This scientific cycle of turtle nesting and ovulation in Al-Shqayfat, corresponds to the monitoring operations that the activist “Qahtan” and other activists have been following for many years on the Syrian coast.

According to the activist, the turtles come out of the sea to the Syrian shore in order to lay eggs at the end of May every year and egg-laying season ends at the end of July and beginning of August, each turtle lays between 300 to 400 eggs, but the sea turtle does not lay all the eggs at once and in one nest, but in two to four nests, and most often three nests, at the rate of a nest about every two weeks. The sea turtle does not reproduce every year but every two to four years.

Green turtle ovulating.
(Source: Syria Indicator private archive)

He added, “Most of the turtles on our beaches breed once every two years, and we found this after numbering the turtles and observing them every year as they return to the beach to lay eggs. For this reason the number of nests varies from year to year.”

The nesting season in Al-Shqayfat begins with the start of the tourist season in the region. This matter, says engineer “Ali,” 45 years old, from the Directorate of Agriculture in Lattakia, “represents a real problem, as human activities, apart from beach dredging, abound at a critical time for turtles. Turtles arrive day or night to lay their eggs in the sand during the night, and laying eggs takes several hours, and within a period ranging from fifty to seventy days, the chicks hatch and make their way to the surface with difficulty. They usually go out  between two and four in the morning and instinctively head towards the sea to start a new life cycle.”

A photo from 2020 shows that turtle eggs have been tampered with on Al-Shqayfat beach.
(Source: private archive – Syria Indicator)

Ali, who follows up on the situation of turtles in the area and interested in their fate and the necessity of preserving them, says: “It is amazing that these turtles, when they grow up, will return to the same beach from which they came out and lay their eggs, and this is what makes the dredging process disastrous for them.” 

He points out that the long period of incubation of eggs creates additional problems, “the eggs themselves become a target for wild foxes and dogs, especially since turtles do not incubate their eggs like other mothers, as they return to the sea as soon as the ovulation process ends.”

Footprints of turtles as they move from the sea to the sandy beach in Al-Shqayfat.
(Source: Private – Syria Indicator)

 How did the disaster begin?

The classification of Syrian beaches in general, and Al-Shqayfat Beach in particular, as one of the best turtle nesting areas, has become questionable year after year, with multiple violations, including greed for beach sand, or investing it in the tourism season, in addition to environmental pollution, the phenomenon of high temperature, and the presence of enemies, including jellyfish and human hunters.

A turtle tries to lay eggs among piles of rubbish on Al-Shqayfat beach.
(Source: Private – Syria Indicator)

Out of 200 nests in 2018, there were only ten in 2020, according to environmental activists interviewed by the investigation team. However, no one listened to the calls of this group, and the concerned authorities did not do what was necessary to protect the turtles and their environment.

“Nesting in recent years does not bode well,” says activist Qahtan. He points out that the decline in the number of nests is caused by “people messing around, massive pollution, and turtles eating plastic bags thinking they are jellyfish.” He also points out that the decline in nesting and the number of turtles explains the large numbers of jellyfish in recent years.

The most important reason is the desecration of the sand of Al-Shqayfat by the bulldozers of the heavy hitters and its transformation in recent years into areas under private control. According to the testimonies of activists and specialists, a large number of the heavy hitters flocked to this beach to invest, trying to seize it in various possible ways, including building villas (some of which were demolished), monopolizing other sections and directly encroaching on public property.”

Randomly camping on the sands of Al-Shqayfat Beach.
(Source: Private – Syria Indicator)

Killing with dynamite or beating

The main threats to turtles off the mainland of Al-Shqayfat are bottom trawling and floating longline fisheries. In many incidents told by the fishermen to the investigation team, many of them beat turtles when they came across them in their nets, while some of them left them bleeding because they believed that this would cause other turtles to leave the area. Other fishermen raise stories of selling turtle shells to some shops, albeit at a small percentage. The most present problem here is the use of explosive materials (dynamite) in fishing operations, which have become more widespread in recent years and cause the killing of turtles, their young, and all living things in the sea.

“We rarely intervene, and for years we have not been able to prevent dynamite hunting…as this is done in broad daylight,” says one of the guards from Al-Shqayfat police station, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

The Ports Directorate of the Ministry of Transport guards the beach against encroachments, and it has outposts along the Syrian coast, where military personnel with light weapons attend.

With numbers depleted from historical levels in the Mediterranean, green and loggerhead turtles have been placed on the IUCN red lists. According to a 2004 study, high levels of interactions were identified between Syrian fisheries and sea turtles. Night surveys during the nesting season and collaborative efforts with fishermen have provided opportunities to monitor turtles on land to obtain biometric data, to identify turtles before they return to sea after nesting, or to be released after being caught with fishermen’s nets.

On the Syrian coast, there are multiple villages, towns, and cities located five to ten kilometers from the shore; this means human presence along the coast and interaction of fishermen with turtles by fishing with nets, as turtles appear among the fishing components. Fishermen often rightly ask questions about how to deal with turtles and “why should we protect them?” How can it protect us? How can we avoid damaging nets because of it?” These questions are at the core of the problem between the two parties, as net fishing operations trap a number of turtles, causing the net ropes to break, which means a double loss of fish and nets.

If we know that the waters of the Syrian coast are poor in fish, and the average annual catch does not reach 1,000 tons, then this competition between fishermen and turtles ends in a disadvantage for both parties. Turtles do not compete with fishermen for fish, but they cause unintended harm to them, and this means that it is necessary to educate fishermen to deal in different ways with these “cute, ferocious creatures,” as one of the fishermen in Al-Shqayfat area put it.

Pollution and climate break the balance

The previous survey documented the first problem related to turtles in Syria, the presence of large amounts of heavy plastic pollution and sewage water on beaches and coastal marine areas important for nesting and foraging for turtles, especially seaweed and terrestrial ones. There were pipes carrying water Sewage directly from villages and towns close to the sea, instead of collecting in sewage treatment units. The intensity and breadth of pollution indicate an ongoing problem and not an isolated pollution event; this leads to the impact of all these actions on the environmental balance.

Ahmed, an agricultural engineer in the Environment Directorate in Lattakia, says that climate change and unusually high temperatures have caused a large spread of jellyfish on beaches, including Al-Shqayfat Beach last February 2022 at an unscheduled time, as it appeared recently in July 2022. This phenomenon affects the environmental balance, and also causes injuries among beachgoers.

Engineer Ahmed says that turtles eat jellyfish, which are characterized by a high reproduction rate, and with the absence of turtles from the area, jellyfish multiply greatly. During the summer and tourism season, jellyfish contact with humans leads to “burning injuries on the skin.”

Beaches enter the war economy cycle.

Before the uprising in Syria in 2011, there was significant reliance on sand and gravel coming from the Syrian interior, specifically, from the areas of al-Nabek, Qara, Palmyra, and other locations such as the Badia, according to one of the owners of sand-carrying cars whom we met in the course of the investigation.

The Syrian war led to the cessation of land and sand transport operations for years, especially with the intensification of military operations along the international highways between Damascus, Homs, and Latakia, especially in the years from 2014 to 2018, and the quarries themselves in those areas are no longer operating, because they are located within areas conflict.

The biggest predator… The Makhlouf family

As soon as the tourism and summer season starts in Al-Shqayfat region, about 15 kilometers south of Latakia, a parallel season begins, which is the season of “wastas” to obtain official licenses from the Municipality of Bustan al-Basha and the Directorate of Ports. Licenses that allow small entrepreneurs to have a few meters of beach to build tents on and invest. It was necessary to pass through the largest contractor who controls this beach and the godfather of the activities established on this vast sandy beach, Muhammad Makhlouf, the uncle of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Officials in the relevant departments in the region confirmed that.

After Makhlouf’s death on September 12, 2020, infected with Coronavirus, people assigned by his successors are managing this operation, in addition to other investments in Al-Shqayfat region and others, according to the same sources.

Mr. 10 percent and his heirs

 

Muhammad Makhlouf was known by the title of Mr. “10 percent” for imposing, as is commonly believed, that any party that wants to buy oil from Syria pays 10 percent of the value of the deal, taking advantage of the power and influence of the Assad family. He is the father of the most famous Syrian billionaire, Rami Makhlouf, and the former owner of the local cellular communications company, Syriatel.

And if Rami had become one of the outcasts from the investment game in Syria, with his being under house arrest in Damascus, then this ostracism has not yet reached the investments of the father Makhlouf’s heirs, which can be described as imperial. It extends over several investment sectors, including oil and money, inside Syria, as in Jableh, Qardaha, and Damascus, and outside Syria, such as Abu Dhabi. According to a report by the US State Department, open-source estimates of Rami Makhlouf’s wealth range between $5-10 billion.

The Financial Times estimates that the Makhlouf family controls 60 percent of the Syrian economy, apparently obtained through years of corruption and intimidation.

Last February, the Council of the European Union imposed restrictive measures on five women from the family of Muhammad Makhlouf (his two wives and three daughters) to join the list of persons and entities subject to EU sanctions regarding Syria. Rami, the half brother of those daughters, is originally on those lists and on other lists of US sanctions against Damascus. His brother Hafez Makhlouf (born in 1971), head of Branch 40 / State Security in Damascus, is included in the European and American sanctions from the family. In addition to his official status, he is a businessman who does not appear much on the media scene.

Al-Shqayfat area, affiliated with the municipality of Bustan Al-Basha, is the original birthplace of the Makhlouf family, with its rocky wealth during the nineties of the last century. According to a source from within the Lattakia City Council of the Ministry of Local Administration, there was previously fierce competition from members of the al-Assad family to invest in Al-Shqayfat. However, the struggle ended in the exclusivity of Muhammad and his heirs later.

The activities of Makhlouf’s successors in Shqayfat focus on investing in two aspects that are closely related to the construction sector, namely investing in stone quarries in the area and dredging beach sand.

The first investment is located in Al-Shqayfat quarry, and the site is officially affiliated with the municipality of Bustan al-Basha. According to Law No. 7 of 2017 related to the state’s right to protect mineral wealth deposits and prevent their illegal extraction, transfer, and distribution, the license is granted by the governor, after the approval of the Executive Office and the branch of the Geology Foundation in Lattakia, then the Directorate of Agriculture, for a period of three years that can be renewed. According to the institution’s sources in the city of Latakia, Al-Shqayfat quarry has been licensed since 2006, and the last renewal of the license was in 2020. 

Meanwhile, individuals working in a facility close to the quarries indicated that the investor was Muhammad Makhlouf, and the matter became in the hands of the heirs after his death.

The investigation team addressed, via official e-mail, three concerned authorities in the Syrian government, namely the Ministry of Local Administration and Environment, the Ministry of Transport, and the General Directorate of Ports, to inquire about the license, its nature, the extent to which it violates legal principles, and its encroachment on the environment, but the three authorities did not respond.

The investment of stones is based on extracting and breaking the rocks and then grinding them to obtain the necessary gravel in the construction operations. This investment seems old in the region, confirming that the large size of the rock blocks cut from the place and their area is several dunums, and these need a long time to cut them. This investment is to a halt, given the old age of the crushing machines seen in the area.

Pictures showing quarrying and crushing tools. In general, activity in this sector has almost stopped, and there is no renewal of breaking machines. (Source: Private – Syria Indicator)

When the investment in stone and gravel ends, if it has not already ended, then the natural resources in Al Shqayfat have not ended. There is a second source that is inexhaustible and no less expensive, important, and necessary than the quarries, the beach sand.

For more than two months, the investigation team monitored Al Shqayfat beach and noticed that bulldozers and trucks collect sand at points along the coast in the form of hills; then, trucks transport it to multiple destinations. These operations occur in broad daylight, and sand collection operations include several areas along the beach.

Due to the presence of sand piles and white pebbles on the surface.
Source: (Exclusive – Syria Indicator) – May 17, 2022.

The collection and transportation operations are carried out without any objection or interference from an official or security authority, such as the Ports Directorate. Our team interviewed a guard who indicated that the violations took place “in broad daylight as well.”

 

What does the law say?

The Syrian coast (183 km long) consists of two parts, rocky, with short sandy parts from north of Latakia to the Turkish border, and sandy, with short, rocky parts extending from south of Latakia to the Lebanese border. It means that there are many places where sea sand can be obtained.

The Syrian shores are public property and no changes may be made to them because of the damage that would cause the marine environment. Nor may it be acquired or disposed of according to Article 3 of Law No. 65 of 2001. Article 9 of the same law clearly states that any officially approved investment may not cause any harm to the marine environment. Article 16 / C stipulates that it is forbidden to extract beach sand from public property in any way.

Privacy and pricing

Engineer Ali Hammoud, who works in the Ports Directorate in Lattakia, says, “Part of the sand in which turtles lay their eggs in Al Shqayfat area is of the type of black sand, and this sand is the most ideal for turtles to lay their eggs. At the same time, it is of good quality and can withstand weather conditions, especially in areas facing the sea, and are therefore very suitable for construction.”

Marine sand is better than that produced on land or by crushing pebbles. According to international and local research, it is characterized by its high ability to cohesion, strength, and adhesion. It also consists of a high percentage of the mineral quartz (silicon dioxide)، “which gives it a special commercial and urban importance” according to engineer Ali.

Sand transportation is carried out by private cars and trucks which do not belong to a company or a private contractor. And as we documented in the attached video clip, buying and selling takes place next to the dredging area without fear of anyone.

Over a period of two months, the investigation followed the movement of sand transportation, as daily trucks transport sand from the area, and packing operations accelerate in the morning.

A truck was spotted bearing the Damascus Countryside Governorate plate, but this does not mean it was transporting sand there. According to its path, its direction was towards the city of Jableh and Banias or Tartous and its countryside, and it could also be towards Latakia.

We asked one of the building contractors in the city of Latakia about the sources of sand needed for his construction operations. He replied, “The source is diverse, from Baniyas and Al Shqayfat and other sources.” This process occurs through phone calls with people who control stations collecting sand and gravel. According to the follow-up, we found three stations, the first in Al-Hamam Square (northeast of Lattakia), the second near the Suqubin gas station, and the third at the entrance to Latakia, in the direction of the southern suburb area.

Makhlouf heirs’ control and monopoly of the sand and gravel trade led to an increase in the price of a cubic meter of sand along the Syrian coast. Today, (as of the date of writing the report) its price has reached more than thirty thousand Syrian pounds (eight dollars) from the land, which goes where the buyer wants.

Truck owners and small traders told the authors of the investigation that the price of one shipment with a capacity of twenty cubic meters in Lattakia or Jableh amounts to one and a half million Syrian pounds after adding bribes (royalties) to the roadblocks.

Cumulative damage

The sandy beach dredging operations going on for years in Al Shqayfat, under the eyes of the authorities, are causing much cumulative damage. Its impact extends to the land and sea ocean, given that the dredging act, which the United Nations Environment Program warned against, and developed an action plan to prevent, is irreversible and takes hundreds of years to restore its previous status. It leads to the sea advancing inland over time, eating up swathes of wild coastal lands, which are vital habitats for many organisms, but this damage is not the only one.

The dredging damage increased to a worse and more dangerous kind in Al Shqayfat beach area. This region has a different specificity, which was noticed in the scientific and environmental research conducted by the local Tishreen University and local and international environmental organizations more than twenty years ago, without changing anything in its interest. On the contrary, the pace of dredging sand, stones, and gravel increased significantly during the Syrian crisis.

The damages and risks of dredging operations increase because “the sand level is generally not deep on the Syrian coast,” according to engineer Ali Hammoud from the Ports Directorate.

Any solutions?

For decades, many environmental activists have tried to find solutions to the sand dredging that destroys turtle nesting and spawning sites. Activists, with individual initiatives, transported turtle eggs and placed them in safe places until they were hatched, then transported them, in cooperation with friends, to the sea over the past years.

An environmental activist collects turtle eggs on Al Shqayfat beach to protect them from dredging and tampering.
Source: (Exclusive – Syria Indicator)

Activists and professors at Tishreen University put forward the idea of converting ” Al Shqayfat” into an environmental reserve, with a suitable marine depth to protect turtles from encroachments on them, whether by dredging or dynamiting. They noted that there is no land or marine reserve in the Jableh region, despite the richness of the region, which necessitates making it protected, according to a university professor interviewed by the investigation.

The doctor, a specialist in the marine environment, whose name is withheld for reasons of his safety, says, “The area is almost equipped naturally, and it does not need human additions to it except for its fences.” He adds that “the existence of an administration for the region working to invest it in tourism is a necessary matter, which can be carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture or the Environment or both, and the implementation of this requires a plan by environmental activists, according to the specialist.”

He adds that the status of Al Shqayfat as a marine and terrestrial environmental reserve “creates an ideal environment for turtle breeding naturally, and an ideal environment suitable for human hunting and economically feasible species,” in addition to creating job opportunities in the reserve whose entrances are from the expected tourism to the region. The reserve leads to “restoring the local environment to its functions” including “human swimming” that does not affect reproduction, laying eggs and other activities, through a little care and attention.

On the other hand, with the current conditions in Syria, the idea of establishing a reserve remains locked up. Partial consideration should be given to educating fishermen in the first place about the dangers to which turtles are exposed, while responding to “life and daily concerns is not difficult,” with the cooperation of this segment of fishermen, who certainly do not refuse to preserve their source of livelihood, according to the specialist.

Investigation: Hazem Mustafa - Development and follow-up: Ali Eid - Translation: Nabil Nabo

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