The Black Sea Is Dying, and War Might Push it Over the Edge

Surrounded by six countries, all with their own agendas, the massive body of water is at risk of becoming another casualty of regional strife

The Black Sea's fish stocks have been plummeting as of late and may be beyond repair. (suc / iStock)
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It was a little before 11 a.m. on a breezy mid-April morning when the Crimean coastline finally hove into view. Rising sharply from the water, its sheer cliffs and distant jagged peaks cut a stunning sight amid the Black Sea’s otherwise unrelenting grayness. As our ship, the Greifswald, drew closer to shore, a few stray dolphins emerged from the depths and danced along in the foamy wake.

To the crowd of young truck drivers, who’d rushed the top deck at the first glimpse of land in days, it was all a welcome respite from the monotony of Turkish soap opera re-runs and the competitive rounds of backgammon that raged in the galley.

“Here, eat this, Flipper,” one giggled, hurling an apple core at the trailing dolphins. “They’re fast little things, aren’t they?” murmured another, as our ferry churned northwest towards Odessa at a steady 11 knots.

But to the old timers, who’ve plied their trade transporting wine, vodka and livestock to and from Georgia and Ukraine for years, the sight of a few solitary creatures in one of the Sea’s main porpoise and dolphin breeding grounds was no cause for celebration. A decade ago, this entire sea was alive with beasts, birds and fish, they say. Now, amid the pollutants and clusters of floating debris that litter the murky waters, they feel we were lucky to even snatch a glimpse of marine life.

“Trash, oil, and shit. That’s all this is,” said Ruslan Shavov, who devotes much of his spare time to big sea fishing when not hauling sheep from Azerbaijan to the slaughterhouses of Kiev. “And who the hell can live in that?”

The Black Sea’s death knell has been sounded on several occasions in the past, and after each obituary, the oval-shaped body of water, 700 miles-long and situated among Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Anatolia, has always mostly rebounded. At its healthiest, the sea supported a thriving fishing industry, and scenery so tranquil that top Communist leaders, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, often shifted their work from Moscow to their seaside dachas for the duration of the summer. Even now, millions of holidaymakers flock to its stony beaches when the stifling August heat strikes.

However, by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, water quality had hit such a low ebb from the inflow of industrial strength agricultural fertilizers that some scientists wondered aloud whether the Black Sea might become the first major waterway devoid of life. It was this point that the newly empowered ex-Soviet states sprang into action. They formed the Black Sea Commission (BSC), whose secretariat sits in Istanbul, and drew up the Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution, which came into force in 1994. Under its careful supervision, the waters slowly began to recover.

The system is more complicated than most, making its protection a challenge. Dense, salty waters flowing in from the Bosporus Strait sink to the bottom, while fresh river water that drains from five major rivers floats overtop. This means that the fertilizer runoff concentrates on the sea surface, spurring the rapid blooms of microscopic algae and suffocation of marine creatures.

This lack of mixing also leaves nearly 90 percent of the Black Sea naturally devoid of oxygen—strictly limiting the range of critters that live in the waters. And to complicate matters, as bacteria chow down on organics such as plants or dead creatures in this oxygen-less environment, they naturally produce hydrogen sulfide (H2S). As the world’s largest reserve of H2S, maritime authorities carefully monitor the gas.

But what seemingly separates these water woes from most previous crises is the apparent inability of officials in Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Georgia, the six shoreline countries, to set aside their political differences to work for the sea’s survival. Relations have soured to such a point that a number of governments have broken off some diplomatic relations. At a time when dolphins and many native fish species are endangered, whatever will might previously have existed to tackle environmental degradation has long since dissipated.

“The interest of governments of littoral [bordering] countries to the Black Sea environment is just getting weaker and weaker,” said Victor Karamushka, head of the department of environmental studies at the National University of Kyiv – Mohyla Academy, and a member of Ukraine’s Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) Advisory Group to the Black Sea Commission. “In the 1990s, it was looked at as a priority, but not now; not anymore.”

War

Black Sea states and their neighbors have often been at odds with one another ever since Jason and his Argonauts supposedly sailed to modern-day Georgia looking for the Golden Fleece. From the 1700s until the early 20th century, the Ottoman and Russian empires grappled for control of the rich, wheat-bearing steppe, soaking the soil with blood in the process. The legend of the Amazons, a feared tribe of warrior women, is most frequently associated with a people who lived along either what is now Turkey’s northern coast or Ukrainian shores.

But the most recent bout of violence, which erupted in 2014 when Moscow threw its support behind separatists in the Donbass area of Eastern Ukraine and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula, has posed unique complications for the sea. No longer in control of large swathes of their waters, Ukrainian environmental authorities say they are unable to keep tabs on the waste that seeps from stretches of their coastline. With the Russian navy preventing non-Russian vessels from straying closer than 20 miles from Crimea, according to shipping lines, unscrupulous developers are free to act as they please in one of the region’s most built-up and abused areas.

“According to our action plans, we’re supposed to work around the Crimea, but we’ve obviously had no opportunity to implement these projects,” said Igor Studennikov, executive director of the Regional Studies Center in Odessa, whose organization is one of a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that has had no choice but to shelve key conservation initiatives.

For the employees of the Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas (IBSS), the shifting borders have proven doubly debilitating. Headquartered in the Crimean port of Sevastapol, they’re now cut off from their colleagues in Kiev and Odessa and limited in their movements. Boris Alexandrov, the director of the IBSS, says blocked phone lines mean they’re largely restricted to communicating by email. “It would obviously be much better and more effective if we could have open discussions,” he said.

It’s on a macro-level, however, where some of the biggest changes have been felt. Serious talks at the Black Sea Commission have largely been put on hold amid the tensions. “In this part of the Black Sea, of course everything had to be suspended,” said Victor Karamushka. As some governments redirect funds from environmental to military spending, there’s a fear that 25 years worth of work in building up enforcement mechanisms is unraveling fast.

“Without monitoring, the system and environmental regulations don’t work,” said Tamar Bagratia, the director of Georgia’s National Environment Agency. “People would feel less responsible.”

Animals

In the 14th and 15th centuries, Black Sea sturgeon were so numerous that caviar was thought of as a food for the poor among some coastal peoples. (The expansion of trade to western Europe in the 19th century, however, led to caviar’s current status as a luxury item.) Battered now by overfishing, six out of the seven sturgeon species are seriously endangered.

The monk seal has already disappeared from these waters over the past decade, after a series of tourist resorts laid claim to its last cliff-side habitats in Bulgaria. Stocks of anchovies, a favored delicacy from coast to coast, are seemingly on their last legs. So low are most other fish stocks that Romanian conservationists say their country’s fishing fleet has largely switched to hunting sea snails and other critters in order to stay afloat. “Economically, they’re better off doing that,” says Marian Paiu, an ecologist and specialist in environmental impact assessments at Mare Nostrum, a Romanian NGO.

This collapse in marine life has been a long time coming and pre-dates recent hostilities, but efforts to revive certain species and even to quantify the damage have been stifled by the situation in Ukraine.

Increased Russian and NATO naval exercises have led to the closure of some parts of the Sea to civilian traffic, preventing environmental groups from conducting surveys. As tensions have mounted, dolphins in particular appear to have suffered from the uptake in the use of sonar and military hardware. “A lot of these things affect their locator systems, so they cannot see where they are going. They cannot catch their prey,” Paiu said, noting also that on several occasions pods of dolphins have seemingly been killed during live fire training.

But as with efforts to monitor water quality, some of the most severe complications for wildlife have arisen as a consequence of a breakdown in the enforcement of environmental regulations. Fishermen in Ukraine and Georgia say their Turkish counterparts have seized upon the collapse in cross-border cooperation, which took another turn for the worse last November when a Russian fighter jet was shot down over southern Turkey, to bypass quotas and renew their practice of destructive fishing techniques. Everything from dolphins to turtles have subsequently washed up in their nets, experts say.

What’s next?

Most political analysts have little expectation that the insurgency in eastern Ukraine will be brought to a peaceful conclusion any time soon, and with Moscow in the advanced stages of building a multi-billion-dollar bridge to connect the Crimea to the Russian mainland, nor are they upbeat about a return to the pre-war boundaries.

Some environmental officials are, nevertheless, still holding out hope that talks about the Black Sea’s plight might be a means of breaking the ice. “Environmental issues are a kind of public diplomacy,” said Georgia’s Tamar Bagratia. “For example, if these countries are not able to speak about economic affairs, they can still talk about the environment. It is seen as being softer.”

And on the scientific front too, relations remain civil among many of the experts. “A week ago, I visited the Black Sea Commission, and all of us had productive meetings,” Boris Alexandrov, the director of IBSS, told me in late April. “Sometimes we have limitations in who we can contact, but ideologically, we have no problems. None of this [chaos] is the decision of the people; it’s the politicians.”

But until the impasse is broken, war will continue to reshape the Black Sea. Closed borders have already led to an uptick in shipping, as truckers, like those on board the Greifswald, take to the water in order to deliver their wares. “Any kind of instability affects the ferry business,” said Roman Morganshtern, the marketing and project director for UkrFerry, whose service from Batumi in Georgia to Ilyichevsk in Ukraine is chock full of drivers who are unable to cross the mostly shut Georgia-Russia frontier.

While, with trust low, some Black Sea residents suspect that it’s only a matter of time before maritime states take advantage of the situation to dirty the waters even more.

“For Russia and Turkey, this is a great opportunity to build oil platforms and pipelines,” said Ruslan Shavov, the truck driver. “Just watch: they’ll make the Black Sea even blacker.”

To concerned conservationists this is all a disaster. They’ve worked hard to reverse some of the worst in Soviet damage to the water quality and to revive some species that had been fished to the point of extinction. In the absence of effective governance, they fear their treasured waters’ days as a living, functioning part of the regional ecosystem are numbered. 

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