As It Happens

Strange yellow clumps are washing up on France's shores — and shipping vessels may be to blame

Hundreds of thousands of yellow sponge-like balls have washed up on France's northern coastline.
Hundreds of thousands of these yellow spongy balls have washed up on the shores of France's Opal Coast. (Sea-Mer Association )
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Hundreds of thousands of yellow sponge-like balls have washed up on France's northern coastline, and one environmental group says shipping vessels are to blame.

The squishy substance is greasy to the touch and has blanketed beaches along France's Opal Coast, including La Slack, Wimereux, Le Portel, Equihen-Plage, Hardelot, Le Touquet, Stella and Berck.

"The quantity is crazy," Jonathan Hénicart, president of the environmental NGO Sea-Mer Association, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "The beach was really totally covered with these yellow things."

The substance has turned up on beaches from La Slack to Berck on France's northern coastline. (CBC)

Le Voix du Nord reports that French authorities have identified it as paraffin wax, a derivative of petroleum, coal or oil shale that's used in the manufacture of candles, lubricant, crayons, food additives and more. 

"This product is carried by ships, which are specialized for this, and once they have discharged their cargo in the port and once they leave the port, they are allowed to wash their tanks then to throw this residue overboard in the sea," Hénicart said.

He said the ships are supposed to do this in limited quantities far from the shore.

But the sheer abundance of yellow blobs along France's coastline makes Hénicart suspect somebody broke the rules and pumped a large quantity of the residue not far from land.

This is a piece of the substance that washed up on France's Wimereux beach. (Sea-Mer Association )

It has washed up on France's shores before in different colours and textures, he said —  last year as a bright pink substance and this winter as white stuff. 

"Paraffin does not present a danger to public health or fauna and flora. It has no impact on shellfish farms or on foot fishing," the Cedre Association in Brest, which specializes in analyzing hydrocarbon pollution, told Le Voix du Nord.

But Hénicart remains concerned.  In large enough quantities, it can be poisonous, he said. 

"Seagulls ingest this kind of product," Hénicart said. "The problem is also that even if we say that it is not toxic, the quantify, the enormous quantify, makes it toxic because the local wildlife will live with this.'

As It Happens has reached out to Cedre for comment.

In the meantime, Hénicart is calling for stricter international regulations about the dumping of paraffin wax residue into the sea.

"These regulations are too light. It's too easy for ships to be able to do what they want," he said. 

The Sea-Mer Association has identified the substance as parrafin wax residue and says it poses a danger to wildlife in such high quantities. (Sea-Mer Association )

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