Could Houthi-sunk ship Rubymar spell eco-disaster for the Red Sea?

‘Time is of the essence’: Greenpeace director warns that urgent strategy is needed to protect the Red Sea from catastrophic environmental damage.

A satellite image shows the Rubymar cargo ship, before it was attacked by Yemen's Houthis in February. It has now sunk [Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters]

Rubymar, the Belize-flagged, British-owned cargo ship that was badly damaged in a Houthi attack in February, has almost completely sunk into the Red Sea, causing an oil slick and prompting serious concerns about environmental damage to the surrounding waters and their coral reefs.

Here’s a look at the sort of damage the Rubymar might cause:

What happened to the Rubymar?

The ship was hit by anti-ship ballistic missiles launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on February 18 while it was sailing through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. The crew escaped the ship, evacuating to safety when the attack began. The Houthis have said they will target any ships in this area that are linked to Israel, the United States or the United Kingdom to pressure them to end Israel’s war on Gaza, and they claimed the attack.

Early on Saturday, the US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) released an image of the vessel on its side in the water. A CENTCOM post on the social media platform X stated that the Rubymar had gone under the surface of the water at 2:15am on Saturday (23:15 GMT on Friday).


Rubymar is the first vessel to be sunk in the Red Sea since the Houthis began targeting commercial vessels in November.

What pollutants is the Rubymar releasing into the Red Sea?

Satellite images show that the Rubymar has been leaking oil into the sea for weeks, ever since its engine room was damaged in the assault.

“This ongoing leakage poses a threat to marine life, given the toxic nature of oil,” Julien Jreissati, programme director for Greenpeace MENA (Middle East-North Africa), told Al Jazeera. Oil spills can also make seafood unsafe to eat.

Oil spills are especially damaging to coral reefs and can impede “coral reproduction, growth, behaviour and development”, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Rubymar is also believed to be carrying more than 41,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, Greenpeace MENA said. “We have no information on whether the fertiliser cargo is leaking into the sea,” Jreissati said.

However, if the fertiliser is mixing with the water in the Red Sea, it could throw off the balance of the marine ecosystem, impacting multiple food chains that exist within it, according to a Greenpeace MENA statement published on Saturday.

Excess amounts of fertiliser in the water can cause ammonia toxicity and can kill fish, according to an article by Environment Management Specialists at North Dakota State University. If fish die, the catch will be low for Yemeni fishermen, who have already suffered in recent years due to war in the country.

The Greenpeace statement quoted Jreissati, who said that the disruption of marine ecosystems can have far-reaching consequences, “affecting various species that depend on these ecosystems and, in turn, potentially impacting the very livelihoods of coastal communities”.

Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, the prime minister of Yemen’s internationally recognised government, called the ship’s sinking “an unprecedented environmental disaster”. Bin Mubarak has long been viewed as an adversary of the Houthis.

Can the damage by the Rubymar be stopped?

At the moment, a small portion of the ship is still visible above the surface of the water, indicating that it has not yet sunk to the seabed. “The tip of the Rubymar’s bow seems to remain afloat, but this precarious situation could change swiftly,” Jreissati said.

Therefore, he added, “Time is of the essence.” If the ship descends to the seabed, any emergency operations to salvage it would become complex, he explained. “Every passing moment heightens the risk to both the environment and potential rescue efforts.”

He said swift action is imperative, adding that “an expert team is urgently required on-site to assess the extent of the damage and formulate a rescue strategy.”

Houthi revolutionary committee leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi posted on X that there is still a chance to prevent further damage if UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government act quickly to allow aid into Gaza. He stated they are responsible for the Rubymar attack because of their support for the war on Gaza.

“Sunak has a chance to recover the Rubymar by allowing aid trucks into Gaza,” he wrote, specifying that George Galloway, the rebel independent who opposes the war on Gaza and recently won a parliamentary seat in northern England, must sign a letter of guarantee. Al-Houthi did not elaborate on whether this meant the Houthis would allow a salvage operation to access that area of the sea.

Is climate change also affecting the Red Sea?

While global warming has caused the temperatures of the oceans to rise, damaging coral reefs worldwide, the reefs in the Red Sea are generally continuing to thrive. They are some of the only reefs in the world that might survive global warming, according to marine ecologists and biologists.

The main threats to the Red Sea remain overtourism and any future oil spills.


Source: Al Jazeera