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Contamination Assessment of the South Mediterranean Sea

Project Number: RAF/7/004

Duration: (2001-2004)


To establish a Marine Information System of the South Mediterranean Sea comprising contributions from all countries concerned in order to assess the present environmental conditions of the sea and to model future trends. Specifically, to develop a regional capability in North African countries to assess radioactive and non-radioactive contamination of the South Mediterranean Sea using nuclear and isotopic techniques in the investigation of marine processes in order to better understand water and sediment dynamics and the behaviour of contaminants; to synthesize data levels of radioactive and non-radioactive contaminants (heavy metals, organic compounds) in water, sediment and biota; to investigate processes in the water column affecting primary productivity in the sea and its potential impact on fisheries; to estimate spatial and temporal trends in contamination in the Sea and to develop computer models to investigate dispersion of contaminants.


The specific features of the Mediterranean Sea require that increased attention is paid to its protection against contamination from land-based sources or originating directly in the sea, which is a relatively shallow, semi-enclosed water body with only limited water exchange. The weak coastal current systems and lack of tides combine to reduce the dispersion of contaminants entering its coastal waters. The construction of dams on some major rivers has substantially reduced spring run-off, which tends to cleanse the shelf regions of their deposited contaminants. As a consequence of these oceanographic features, much of its water is very low in nutrients (oligotrophic) and generally poor in sea life. Isotopic techniques (tracer studies) have been shown to be a good proxy to study the behaviour and fate (for example: fluxes, residence time, geochronology) of many known chemical contaminants entering the marine environment.

Marine radioactivity studies and the use of isotopic techniques for the investigation of marine processes can effectively contribute to the better understanding of water and sediment dynamics and the behaviour of contaminants in the Southern Mediterranean Sea.

However, there are no data available on the distribution of radionuclides in this part of the Mediterranean Sea, and the few data available on non-radioactive contaminants are restricted to Coastal areas. Little is known about the sources of contaminants such as technologically enhanced natural radionuclides derived from phosphate mine tailing, oil industries, marine traffic and their release rates.

Because of the sea's special geographical setting and potential sensitivity to human activity, much more effort is required in studying its oceanographic and bio-geochemical structure and function. Recent trends have shown that the degree of understanding of these processes significantly improves when a multidisciplinary approach is applied. The socio-economic importance of the Mediterranean and its vulnerability to anthropogenic contamination has prompted both northern and southern Mediterranean countries to develop a joint regional approach to solve marine environmental problems.

To date, three international training courses have been successfully executed: one on organic contaminants (CITET-Tunisia, 15 students from five countries) the second on radionuclides in AEA-Egypt (15 students from five countries), and the third on oil hydrocarbons in ISMAL-Algeria (13 students). The latter course was on Radionuclides in the Marine Environment. Two scientific cruise missions were accomplished covering half of the South Mediterranean Sea that is, Morocco (1999) and Algeria (2001) coastal areas. In these missions, water column, sediment, and biota were sampled and analyzed for radionuclides, organic and inorganic contaminants. Spatial and temporal contamination trends are being studied. In addition, more than ten trainees have benefited from this programme, most of them in radionuclide analyses. The first North African Inter-comparison exercise (IAEA-RAF7004SMS) is taking place on sediments collected during the Algerian cruise mission. Capacity building has been successful in all the countries participating in RAF/7/004 through the procurement of state-of-the-art equipment for alpha and gamma spectrometry (radionuclide analyses) as well as atomic absorption spectrometer for non-radioactive contaminants. Four expert missions were also carried out to the participating countries. The project is being extended up to 2004 following the recommendations of the participating member states in order to carry out further sea cruises for training and sample taking in the southwestern part of the Meditrerranean Sea and to complete the first North African Inter-comparison exercise (IAEA-RAF7004SMS) using sediments collected during the Algerian cruise mission.

National Commitment:

Participating countries will provide infrastructure, human resources, and financial support to the project activities. Member States' strategies have been integrated into the Barcelona Convention (1976 and 1995), which provides the basis to:

  • Assist the governments of Mediterranean countries in the assessment and control of marine pollution.
  • Formulate their national environmental policies.
  • Improve the ability of governments to identify better options for alternative patterns of development.
  • Make rational choices for the allocation of resources.

Agency Input:

The Agency will provide expert services to assist in the design of marine surveillance programmes to advise on pollution assessment and data management, laboratory equipment, and training. Agency support to the national programmes will concentrate mainly on:

  • Upgrading equipment required for sampling and analysis of marine samples to the present state-of-the-art.
  • Provision of specific supplies required for carrying out analyses.
  • Assistance in quality management of analytical laboratories by individual training of fellows.
  • Organization of inter-comparison exercises; quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC); provision of reference materials, data evaluation, and reporting.
  • Expert missions to assist in the design of marine surveillance programmes, and to advise on analytical techniques, data management, pollution assessment, and marine modelling.
  • The Agency's contribution to the regional programme will concentrate on: Co-ordination of the regional programme for the South Mediterranean with other Mediterranean programmes and harmonization of methodologies used in marine assessment studies.
  • Regional training.
  • Joint follow up research and training cruises will be implemented.
  • Expert services on chemical contaminants (radioactive, inorganic, and organic).
  • Development of the regional database on marine contamination and the Marine Information System of the South Mediterranean Sea.
  • Development and implementation of computer models to investigate the dispersion of contaminants in the South Mediterranean Sea.

Performance Indicators:

Increment in both accuracy and precision (intercomparison data) and number of samples per laboratory of contaminant (radionuclides, heavy metals, and organic compounds) at sea measurements.

Increment in the number of radionuclide analysis that each participant is able to perform, particularly alpha emitters both natural and anthropogenic ones compared with the capabilities before the project.

Increase in the number of personnel formed to carry out radionuclide analysis, metals and organic compounds.

Identification and assessment of major source points for contaminants from each country to the South Mediterranean Sea.

Increment in the number and quality of data for the generation of database in each one of the countries participating in the programme.

Ability to generate and simulate dispersion model for a given contaminant entering the coastal area of the Member States participating in this programme.

Expected Results:

National capabilities to assess marine pollution will be developed and updated. Design of protocols for sampling contaminants at sea will be implemented and applied. National monitoring strategies will be established in function to national needs. Data analyses and data generation is expected from each of the participant counterparts to feed the Marine Information System. Participation in inter-comparison exercises is expected from each country counterpart.

Project Impact:

Improvement in the monitoring capabilities and skills of radioactive and non-radioactive contaminants in the marine ecosystems will provide powerful tools to assess the current conditions of the marine environment. This in turn will directly benefit the users (fisheries, industries, navigation, and tourism) with the generation of solid scientific information that will help to manage this natural resource in the coastal and open ocean. Good environmental practices will ensure the ability of governments to identify better options for alternative patterns of development, and make sound decisions for the use of their marine resources.