This is Molfetta, a small fishing village on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Vitantonio Tedesco is a fisherman who has been burned by mustard gas. But he’s not just worried about his burns, he’s worried about his livelihood.
He says: “We’ve suffered burns on the hands, skin inflammation, conjunctivitis, respiratory problems. It’s become almost impossible to continue our kind of fishing. We’ve been facing this problem for 10 years now, and it’s getting worse every year. We’ve reached the point where there’s a risk of a real shortage of fish.”
As in many other European seas, the Adriatic seabed is littered with thousands of mines, bombs and other munitions which were left over at the end of the two World Wars. The risk of explosion and the release of toxic chemicals poses a constant danger not only to the fishermen, but to the population at large, the environment and the food chain.
Lieutenant Commander Robert Cornick works for NATO and is all too familiar with the problems caused by old mines. He works for the NATO Undersea Research Centre – known as the NURC. He says: “The centre started off really in the 1950s by combining the efforts of several of the NATO nations to combat the growing anti-submarine threat that the nations could not deal with individually. From there, our work expanded in the late 1980s – early 1990s, to take on mine counter measures as well. And more recently we’ve realised that the sophistication of our sensors is only as good as the knowledge of the environment that we have.”
It is unknown exactly how much unexploded ordnance litters Europe’s seabeds but in the Baltic Sea alone, experts think there could be between 60,000 and 80,000 items dating back the the first half of last century. But for a small NATO member like Latvia, clearing these munitions is a huge job. A mission to tackle the problem started several years ago, but has not made much progress. In early 2008, the NURC gave the Latvian Navy information on the status of objects lying in its territorial waters.
But for Ilona Ekmane, from the Latvian Ministry of Defence, although NATO’s skills have been a great help to their operations, there still is a long way to go. She says: “Since 1996 the Latvian Navy has participated actively in different mine cleaning operations. If we count the average number of detected and neutralised unexploded objects during those operations, it’s around 30 to 50 different unexploded ordnances. Our navy, they mainly do the cleaning. Their routine work is mine-cleaning, but they do not possess the technology that would allow them to detect, to identify properly.”
Back in the Adriatic, the NURC team is carrying out a location and detection mission off Molfetta. It is a team effort, also involving the Italian Navy and the Port Authorities.
Says Lt Cdr Robin Cornik: “The vehicle is now in the rubber boat and we are ready to deploy it in the water to start its mission. While it’s there, it will be looking for targets of interest, not only to us but also to the coast guard. The vehicle has a very sensitive sensor on it, which picks up very small objects on the seabed, from the type of ordnance we are looking through, right through to detailed images of wrecks and other objects which have been dropped on the seabed. This information is then passed to other authorities such as the Navy E-O-D teams or to the hydrographic offices where the data can be entered into navigational charts, to make navigation safer for everybody.”
Maritime safety and freedom of navigation are at the heart of NATO’s original mission when it was created over 60 years ago. And although Europe’s seas are now free of war, NATO says unexploded ordnance poses a threat to some of its European members. But according to Capitano di Corvetta, Rocco Pepe, an Italian coast guard, the threat affects everyone: “It is estimated that about 80% of all goods traded are shipped by sea, which means this type of work is essential for commercial reasons. But it is also vital from the food safety standpoint, as the entire fish supply chain must be constantly inspected and monitored.”
Despite the vast seabed area, this job can be done by three men and the underwater vehicle. NATO says that this technology is effective, affordable and easy to deploy, but the sheer number of mines to be cleared means that the job will take many more years.
Says Lieutenant Commander Robin Cornick: “What this technology is aiming to achieve is to reduce the cost of conducting mine warfare operations for the nations, but also more importantly, to try and take more people out of harm’s way by putting robots in to do the really dangerous work and then allowing the ships to go in afterwards in the near term with the traditional system to relocate what we found and deal with it. But in the long term, our objective is to try and have robots do the whole mission.
There is also the issue of reducing the environmental impact of the mines. ISPRA is the Advanced Institute for Environmental Protection and Research. It is collaborating with the NURC to study the status of flora and fauna close to the munitions. The results so far are not good news.
Says Dr Luigi Alcaro, of the ISPRA: “It has been proven that chemical weapons also have a macroscopic effect, particularly in the case of chemical weapons containing mustard gas, which is an irritant that causes blisters. Our research has also identified liver and spleen lesions in fish caught in areas near the ordnance.”
The work done by the NURC and ISPRA will lead to a risk assessment model that can be used in other critical areas. The aim is to reassure professional seamen, because their health and the future of their professions depends on protecting coastal and marine areas.
Says a fisherman: “It’s true that we are starting to see results, but I hope we’re going to go beyond research and investigation. We want a lasting improvement in the situation, not a palliative to shut the discontents up. We want a complete clean-up, to solve this problem once and for all, because today I’m scared, really scared.”
NATO was created sixty years ago to protect Europe. Since then, the world has changed. But it is hoped that by clearing Europe’s seabeds of old toxic mines and other munitions, NATO can prove that it still has a role to play in Europe.
Its mission is far from finished.