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Group: Impact of Lebanese Oil Spill Not as Bad as Feared; 'We Don't Have Corals Here'

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The impact on marine life of an oil slick off the Lebanese coast, caused by Israel's bombing of a power plant, might not be as devastating as had been feared, a Lebanese environmentalist group said on Friday.

Shellfish, fish larvae and baby turtles have been badly hit but larger fish have survived virtually unscathed, the group, Bahr Loubnan (Lebanon's Sea), said.

Bahr Loubnan said it was not trying to play down the impact of the slick, which it described as dire, but rather to inject a dose of realism into the debate over how to tackle it.

"This is not the Red Sea. We don't have corals here, we don't have sponges," said group member Mohamad al-Sarji, a professional scuba diver who led a team of divers in an assessment of the polluted Lebanese coastline this month.

"Even the fisheries are very limited in Lebanon -- the amount of fish found in the sea," he told Reuters. "The way this slick has been reported in the media does not reflect the accuracy of the situation."

The Swiss-based World Conservation Union (IUCN) said only one percent of the spilled oil -- estimated at up to 15,000 tonnes -- has been removed.

In a statement the group said the spill had left cancer-causing toxins on the shorelines which could cause the sudden collapse of fish populations years later.

Reporting on a week-long trip to the Mediterranean, IUCN found the oil had killed algae and other organisms that fish and turtles feed on, threatening marine life and migrant birds.

The slick was caused by Israel's bombardment of a power plant in southern Lebanon last month during its war with Hizbollah guerrillas. The heavy fuel oil has settled along a 140-km (87-mile) stretch of coast.

Some environmentalists have said the oil could kill large fish and even dolphins, but Bahr Loubnan said that was unlikely.

"People don't seem to want to look into the scientific aspects of this," said Manal Nader, a group member and director of the institute of the environment at Balamand University in northern Lebanon.

"The impact on fish larvae and immature fish is quite extensive because they live close to the shoreline, but big fish migrate to deeper waters where the oil is not mixing." Sarji, whose scuba team inspected 10 sites between the southern port of Sidon and the northern city of Tripoli, said the impact on marine life would have been worse had the slick occurred in winter, when the eastern Mediterranean can be choppy.

"We've got around three months before storms start churning up the waters," he said. "It's essential we start cleaning it up as soon as we can." Bahr Loubnan said it was safe to eat Lebanese fish.

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