Italy Copes With Summer Slime

Adriatic Algae

THE mayors of 10 Adriatic resort towns came to Rome this weekend carrying beach umbrellas, chaises longues, and buckets of thick, slimy algae. They set up their protest in the square in front of Italy's Parliament. The mayors' trip was part of a series of symbolic demonstrations last week to call for urgent action to combat the algae besieging the Italian Riviera. In what is viewed by environmentalists here as an ecological disaster, since early July a 125-mile swath of the Adriatic has been slowly strangled by a foaming mass of yellow, green, and brown algae that stretches 20 miles out to sea.

``Unless something is done quickly the Adriatic will die,'' warns Francesco Ferrante, the sea pollution expert at the Lega Ambiente, a leading environmentalist group.

Environmentalists consider the Adriatic the most affected body of water in the Mediterranean area, and blame the uncontrolled proliferation of the gelatinous algae largely on pollutants dumped there by rivers carrying the industrial and agricultural wastes of Italy's thriving northern plains.

Specialists are now warning of another imminent danger: As the algae hoard all available oxygen, thousands of fish could suffocate and wash ashore.

Damage from algae already extends beyond the environment to the economy. The once booming tourism industry of the Adriatic coast is now seriously threatened as wave after wave of cancellations has washed up amid news that the algae are not retreating.

Preliminary estimates by the hoteliers' association place the reduction in the number of tourists at 30 percent for June alone. Local hotel owners are appealing to the government for tax breaks for the losses they have sustained, estimated at roughly $400 million.

The Italian Health Ministry has refused to ban swimming in the area, claiming that laboratory tests show the algae are not toxic. But a host of qualifying warnings about the algae's potential risk to pregnant women, the elderly, the weak, and anyone with scrapes or wounds has raised questions about the ministry's decision. The Lega Ambiente has challenged the ministry's ruling and is performing independent tests.

The nation's strongest cooperative of fishermen, the Lega Pesca, has called on the government to declare a national disaster. Adriatic fishermen have docked the entire fishing fleet, since the algae cling to nets and clog the engines of boats. Fishing industry losses are estimated at $185 million.

The new Italian government headed by Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti is expected to place the cleanup of the Adriatic at the top of its agenda. Parliament is expected to give final approval to a $1 billion program to rescue the Adriatic, and on July 18 the government made available around $40 million for emergency cleanup operations.

Meanwhile, preliminary cleanup operations are barely making a dent. Every morning hundreds of truckloads of gooey sand are carted away. Six miles of rubber buoys have been linked together around swimming areas as barriers to the algae.

The rapid growth and decline of algae in the Adriatic is a natural phenomenon that comes in cycles, environmentalists readily concede. But Prof. Roberto Marchetti, an expert in ecology at the University of Milan, explains that this is only the third time in a century it has become a serious problem and never before of this magnitude.

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