Massive clean-up operation to go ahead as Ria Formosa blighted by 14 km ‘foam slick’

Campaigning Ria Formosa islanders are calling for help this weekend as the estuary they have fought so long to remain a part of has been blighted by a mystery slick of yellow and white foam.

With the slick starting to appear shortly after New Year, it has rapidly gone from being ‘just 3kms long’ (reported by SIC television news) to at last count covering around 14 kms between Faro and Olhão (Lusa).

Barrier island beaches are awash with the stuff. It is “horrible and greasy”, said a Culatra island resident though for the time being initial reports from APA (Portuguese environmental agency) would suggest it is not toxic.

Olhão ports captain Nunes Ferreira inadvertently brought in the word hydrocarbons – synonymous these days with the threat of oil and gas exploration – by saying that the slick was “not hydrocarbons”.

Locals, however, believe that is exactly what it is.

Householder Almeirinda Morgado, who lives on the Farol nucleus of Culatra, told us: “This has almost certainly come from a cargo ship out to sea cleaning its holds. Every now and then we get naphtha slicks, and now this. It is all over the Ria, an environmental crime, but you can bet it will be almost impossible for anyone to detect which of the huge number of ships that pass our coast is responsible. The best thing we can do is publicise the problem, and try and pressure authorities to come and clean it up”.

With an inquiry by authorities already underway, and Lusa reporting that Faro and Olhão councils are being consulted over a collaborative clean-up operation, SOS Ria Formosa – the group that formed to save islanders from the threat of mass demolitions – has already sent out a block message over Facebook, calling on supporters to turn out in force this weekend and help authorities recover the beaches of affected islands.

Meantime, technicians from the ICNF (institute of nature and forestry conservation) have taken samples of the foam for analysis.

As Olhão’s ports commander explained, “indications are that it is not dangerous”, as there has been “no sign of dead fish or birds” in the areas affected. But according to islanders: “birds have started pecking at the stuff, thinking it is food”, so the ports authorities’ all-clear may be slightly premature.

For now, people are being told “not to touch” any of the foam that they find on the beaches, and in the absence of wind, the hundreds of thousands of squishy yellow and white foam balls appear to be remaining fairly static.

UPDATE: The slick is palm oil, Faro ports captain Cortes Lopes has been quoted as telling Lusa. Now the task ahead is to discover whether it was released by accident, or on purpose – and if so why. Meantime, the clean-up operation taking in barrier islands of Armona and Deserta will be going ahead in earnest over the weekend.

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