Turkey's Bosporus and Çanakkale straits are of strategic importance as many countries in the Black Sea region depend on them to exchange goods with the rest of the world. Traffic in the straits will likely increase in the coming years as these countries, which Turkey has found it hard to convince to use newly emerging alternative energy routes, develop economically. Recent oil treaties involving the Russian, Caspian and Kazakh regions point to an even further increase in traffic, in spite of the BTC and Blue Stream.
The amount of oil passing through the straits was 164.1 million tons in 2007, up from 63.1 million in 1997. According to statistics from the Coast Guard Command, 91.1 million tons of oil were shipped through the straits in 2000. That number was 145.1 million in 2003 and 152.7 million in 2006. The figure estimated for 2009 is more than 200 million tons.
The danger this poses for the environment is enormous. The Istanbul strait is one of the narrowest points for sea transport in the world. Its winding contours, strong currents and poor visibility due to fog, snow and rain create additional risks. Approximately 10 percent of the 50,000 vessels that pass through the Istanbul strait every year are oil or liquefied natural gas tankers. This combination of factors has multiplied the risk of a major accident that could have serious environmental consequences and endanger the residents of this city of 13 million.
Russia supports construction of the Samsun-Ceyhan Pipeline, a planned crude oil pipeline between a Black Sea oil terminal in Samsun and a Mediterranean oil terminal in Turkey's Ceyhan to provide an alternative route for Russian and Kazakhstan's oil and to ease the traffic burden of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, but it still opposes a complete ban on international fuel transport through the straits.
In 2007 alone, 186 incidents that negatively impacted the environment -- such as oil spillage or accidents -- were reported by the Coast Guard Command, which issued YTL 251 million in fines to 46 tankers found to have borne responsibility for the incidents. Increased traffic is also a burden for the Coast Guard, which has to provide security to thousands of LPG and oil tankers every year. The Coast Guard also organizes frequent search and rescue operations and fights illegal fuel smuggling.
Since 1999 no major tanker accidents have taken place in the straits. Turkey set up a center to administer maritime traffic in the straits after a disastrous tanker accident in the İstanbul strait in 1999. Thirteen radar towers were constructed to monitor the two straits as part of the $30 million system, which started fully functioning in 2002. Although the system has so far prevented another major accident, officials at the Coast Guard Command reiterate that this certainly does not mean that the risk for accidents has disappeared.
Turkey says when it signed the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits, the international treaty that regulates international straits traffic, the annual number of vessels passing through the straits on average was 4,500 to 5,000, versus 50,000 as of 2007, and argues that it is impossible for the narrow straits to accommodate this burden. In addition to tanker traffic, nearly 700,000 vessels travel through the straits. One-and-a-half million people travel daily through the straits.
Turkey points to the Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline as a potential resolution to the problem of oil tankers in the straits, which have been a source of major discord between Turkey and Russia, the latter demanding that Turkey reform its straits regime or build a new pipeline that would extend into Europe through Turkey's western region of Trakya.
Russia fears that pumping oil through pipelines might incur further costs for the end-buyer, who already suffers from higher costs. In order to prevent another disaster, Turkey allows oil tankers through 90 minutes apart from one other. In addition, larger oil vessels are not allowed to sail at night. When big size tankers are passing, the traffic on the strait runs in one direction only.
Meanwhile, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a United Nations agency working to ensure safe and clean ocean travel, and the European Union have adopted strict double-hull standards for tankers carrying bulk oil. But Russia, not a member of the EU, refuses to comply, saying that it would be too costly for Russian oil traders as they would have to reconstruct all vessels as double-hulled tankers.
Deadly collisions and oil spills on the Bosporus
During the period from 1953 to 2002, 461 maritime incidents occurred in the Istanbul strait. On Dec. 14, 1960 the Yugoslavian-flagged tanker Petar Zorani?, carrying oil, collided, with the Greek tanker World Harmony at Kanlıca Point, killing 20 people and spilling 18,000 tons of oil. On July 3, 1966 Turkish passenger ferryboat Yeni Galatasaray collided with the lumber-carrying Turkish vessel Aksaray, and 13 people died in the ensuing fire.
Eight people drowned on Nov. 18, 1966, when Turkish passenger ferryboat Bereket hit the Romanian-flagged Ploesti. Five died on July 1, 1970 when the Italian vessel Ancona ran aground, causing the collapse of a building under construction. On Dec. 27, 1972 five died when two Turkish vessels collided. Eleven died on April 21, 1979 when the Romanian-flagged vessel Karpat collided with the Turkish ship Kefeli. On Nov. 15, 1979 the Romanian registered Independenta collided with Greek ship Evriali at Haydarpaşa Point. There were 43 fatalities and 94,600 tons of crude oil spilled, and the ensuing fire lasted for weeks. On April 2, 1980 Greek ship Elsa collided with the Soviet vessel Moskovosky, killing two people.