The sinking of the Rubymar ship predicts harm to Yemen’s fish stock and marine ecosystems

Date: 28 March 2024

Following the Houthi’s targeting of the Robimar cargo ship, laden with thousands of tons of fertilizer and fuel in the middle of last month, the sinking of the British ship on March 2 has raised significant concerns among Yemenis. This comes amidts international warnings of an environmental catastrophe in Yemeni territorial waters, intensifying worries. Many are concerned about the anticipated harm to fish stocks and marine life.

The incident dates back to February 18, when the Houthis targeted the ship, measuring 171 meters in length and 27 meters in width, carrying over 41 thousand tons of fertilizer and diesel, with a number of missiles while it was sailing in the Red Sea. This attack inflicted severe damage, placing the vessel in imminent danger of sinking approximately 16 miles away from the Yemeni coastline.

Since the incident occurred, the internationally recognized Yemeni government has issued repeated appeals for help to avoid the disaster. However, these please were disregarded by the ship’s owner, Britain, and numerous other environmental organizations. A week later, the US Central Command (Centcom) said that the attack on the Robimar resulted in extensive damage to the vessel and the release of an 18 mile (29 kilometers) long oil slick, further explaining that water was gradually infiltrating the ship.

Days later, the Robimar, as announced by the Yemeni government, sank, while its crew, primarily comprised of Syrians and Egyptians, was evacuated to Djibouti, marking the first ship to suffer this fate due to Houthi attacks. The government stated in a release that the sinking coincides with strong winds, attributing the outcome to the abandonment of the ship without international intervention.

Environmental Disaster 

Dr Abdul Ghani Abdullah Jagman, an Oil expert and consultant in natural resources development, informed Raseef22 that the roughly 21 thousand metric tons of ammonium phosphate sulfate fertilizer aboard the ship poses an environmental hazard to habitats and organisms in the Red Sea.

Jagman confirms that the sinking of a ship carrying such a substantial quantity of fertilizer will undoubtedly trigger an environmental disaster, particularly because the fertilizer will dissolve in water, potentially polluting the marine environment. He continues: “Ammonium phosphate sulfate, although a commonly used agricultural fertilizer, can disrupt the delicate balance of nutrients in the sea and inflict harm upon aquatic ecosystems.”

“Excess nutrients from fertilizers can induce eutrophication, a process where algae and aquatic plants grow rapidly due to hightened nutrient availability. This can result in oxygen depletion, posing a threat to fish and various marine organisms,” Jagman adds. He continues: “The Red Sea is home to coral reefs and a rich array of marine life, hence fertilizer runoff could detrimentally impact coral health, potentially triggering bleaching.”

He also believes that the sunken ship poses an underwater danger to other ships sailing on the crowded shipping lanes through Bab al-Mandeb. A collision with the submerged ship could exacerbate further environmental damage and disrupt maritime traffic.‎

The situation requires careful monitoring and implementation of suitable measures to mitigate the environmental impacts and prevent any potential future risks, Dr. Jagman recommends. He suggests that government and official authorities send “a team to conduct measurements and continuous monitoring to evaluate the environmental impact. This team should determine the extent and location of pollution, issuing warnings to anyone frequenting the area, including fishermen and commercial ships, to steer clear and follow up until the damage dissipates.”

Threat to food chains

Speaking to Raseef22, Abdul Basit Al-Gharabi, assistant professor at the College of Environmental Sciences and Marine Biology at Hadhramaut University, points out that the Robimar started to sink progressively, eventually tiling on its stern before descending vertically to reach the seabed at a depth of 150 meters.

He confirms that the hazards posed by the cargo of the sunken ship, have a substantial impact on marine life, whether oil spills or other compounds like ammonia phosphate, used as inorganic fertilizer to enhance plant productivity. While phosphates are not inherently highly toxic, th danger lies in their rapid dissolution in water and extensive dispersion. Therefore, future removal could prove challenging if they intermix with seawater, repercussions proving severe on living organisms and the marine environment in the Red Sea region at large, including the mangrove forests prevalent in the area.

The oil spill will inflict harm on algae and single-celled organisms, which are important food sources rich in amino and fatty acids, easily absorbed by various fish species. Their loss would deprive fish of essential nourishment, resulting in their weakened health and potential death.

Furthermore, Al-Gharabi points out the impact of oil spill on surface dwelling phytoplankton, crucial for stabilizing energy and producing oxygen in the marine environment via photosynthesis. Oil pollutants infiltrate the cellular structure of millions of large plant organisms, before reaching fish, and eventually posing risks to humans. He added: “We must intervene to contain the oil spill resulting from the sinking and we must dispose of it through all available means, ensuring that the pollution does not reach us.”

Fishing with a line on a desert beach in Yemen. Image: Jon Bowen, Flickr.

Future Risks

Regarding the potential future risks in the absence of an intervention to curb pollution, eliminate oil spills, and mitigate their spread, Al-Gharabi emphasises that these risks may be environmental, biological, economic, and even social, as the oil spill could obstruct sunlight, preventing its penetration to the depths of the sea. Consequently, this would affect algae. and plants engaged in photosynthesis, which serves as the primary food source for marine life. This would reverberate through the food chain, affecting organisms from green to non-green plankton, crustaceans, fish, and ultimately humans.

He continues: “A decrease in oxygen levels will lead to the suffocation among living organisms, leading to their death, and a decline in their population numbers, and thus a decrease in the fish stocks. This will significantly impact fishermen who rely on these ressources, potentially resulting in a rise in unemployment rates.”

Moreover, these chemicals and oil will affect the quality of fish and marine life, altering their taste and smell, and reducing production rates, a significant source of hard currency. Consequently, this will impact the national income level.

Sabri Lajerb, Director General of the Marine and Aquatic Sciences Research Authority, Hadramaut Branch, told Raseef22: “The pollutants released from the Robimar ship will exert an adverse impact on marine life, particularly fertilizers. Regarding oil, it is loaded with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. Once saturated, thease heavy materials precipitate to the seabed. Over time, they interacts with the water, posing harm to the marine environment and the entire ecosystem.”

In the absence of official reports clarifying the scale of the anticipated environmental disaster resulting from the sunken ship, and its impact on Yemeni waters and neighboring countries, there are reports about the arrival of international experts to evaluate the situation. Additionally, the Yemeni government is in talk with the international community to establish a partnership aimed at strategizing to combat pollution resulting from the sinking, as well as monitor and prevent its spread. Especially since the Red Sea is a closed and relatively small area, pollution can easy spread in it without its effects appearing immediately.

Environmental organizations are also actively engaged in monitoring and evaluating the situation, to collect precide information regarding the ship and its cargo, while trying to provide guidance on the most effective measures to avoid the impending disaster.

The article was first published in Arabic in Raseef22 on 13 March 2024.

Share On