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

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Smithsonian.com
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)
By Peter Schwartzstein
smithsonian.com
May 11, 2016
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

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Bulgaria. Ukraine.smithsonianmag.. Relations have soured to such a point that a number of governments have broken off some diplomatic relations. Dense. http://www. they’re now cut off from their colleagues in Kiev and Odessa and limited in their movements. according to shipping lines. This means that the fertilizer runoff concentrates on the sea surface. however. No longer in control of large swathes of their waters. Even now.” said Igor Studennikov. a feared tribe of warrior women. 700 miles-long and situated among Eastern Europe. and a member of Ukraine’s Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) Advisory Group to the Black Sea Commission.The Black Sea Is Dying. and scenery so tranquil that top Communist leaders. For the employees of the Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas (IBSS). Turkey and Georgia. It’s on a macro-level. the oval-shaped body of water. and Anatolia. but not now. 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. executive director of the Regional Studies Center in Odessa. Romania. whose secretariat sits in Istanbul. has posed unique complications for the sea. the system and environmental regulations don’t work.” 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. Under its careful supervision. maritime authorities carefully monitor the gas. hauling sheep from Azerbaijan to the slaughterhouses of Kiev..com/science-nature/black-sea-dying. “In this part of the Black Sea. the director of the IBSS. the Caucasus. by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. However. spurring the rapid blooms of microscopic algae and suffocation of marine creatures. whose organization is one of a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that has had no choice but to shelve key conservation initiatives. The legend of the Amazons. Headquartered in the Crimean port of Sevastapol. “It would obviously be much better and more effective if we could have open discussions.” said Victor Karamushka. And to complicate matters. At its healthiest. says blocked phone lines mean they’re largely restricted to communicating by email. “According to our action plans. and after each obituary. but we’ve obviously had no opportunity to implement these projects. often shifted their work from Moscow to their seaside dachas for the duration of the summer. the director of Georgia’s National Environment Agency. “The interest of governments of littoral [bordering] countries to the Black Sea environment is just getting weaker and weaker. Boris Alexandrov. the waters slowly began to recover. head of the department of environmental studies at the National University of Kyiv – Mohyla Academy..” said Victor Karamushka. the six shoreline countries. the Ottoman and Russian empires grappled for control of the rich. from Khrushchev to Gorbachev. the shifting borders have proven doubly debilitating. From the 1700s until the early 20th century. millions of holidaymakers flock to its stony beaches when the stifling August heat strikes. Serious talks at the Black Sea Commission have largely been put on hold amid the tensions. They formed the Black Sea Commission (BSC). which came into force in 1994.” said Tamar Bagratia. “And who the hell can live in that?” The Black Sea’s death knell has been sounded on several occasions in the past. With the Russian navy preventing non-Russian vessels from straying closer than 20 miles from Crimea. unscrupulous developers are free to act as they please in one of the region’s most built-up and abused areas. 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. salty waters flowing in from the Bosporus Strait sink to the bottom. we’re supposed to work around the Crimea. “In the 1990s. not anymore. they naturally produce hydrogen sulfide (H2S). has always mostly rebounded. The system is more complicated than most. while fresh river water that drains from five major rivers floats overtop. where some of the biggest changes have been felt. there’s a fear that 25 years worth of work in building up enforcement mechanisms is unraveling fast. soaking the soil with blood in the process. As the world’s largest reserve of H2S. to set aside their political differences to work for the sea’s survival. But the most recent bout of violence. As some governments redirect funds from environmental to military spending. At a time when dolphins and many native fish species are endangered. and War Might Push it Over the Edge | . “Without monitoring. Ukrainian environmental authorities say they are unable to keep tabs on the waste that seeps from stretches of their coastline.. which erupted in 2014 when Moscow threw its support behind separatists in the Donbass area of Eastern Ukraine and then annexed the Crimean Peninsula. and drew up the Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution. wheat-bearing steppe. of course everything had to be suspended. the sea supported a thriving fishing industry. as bacteria chow down on organics such as plants or dead creatures in this oxygen-less environment.” Animals 2 of 3 20/05/16 23:22 . is most frequently associated with a people who lived along either what is now Turkey’s northern coast or Ukrainian shores. It was this point that the newly empowered ex-Soviet states sprang into action. But what seemingly separates these water woes from most previous crises is the apparent inability of officials in Russia. it was looked at as a priority. “People would feel less responsible. whatever will might previously have existed to tackle environmental degradation has long since dissipated.” he said. making its protection a challenge.

relations remain civil among many of the experts. (The expansion of trade to western Europe in the 19th century. some of the most severe complications for wildlife have arisen as a consequence of a breakdown in the enforcement of environmental regulations. Some environmental officials are. war will continue to reshape the Black Sea. this is a great opportunity to build oil platforms and pipelines. and with Moscow in the advanced stages of building a multi-billion-dollar bridge to connect the Crimea to the Russian mainland. they can still talk about the environment. 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. but ideologically. to bypass quotas and renew their practice of destructive fishing techniques.” Paiu said. As tensions have mounted. noting also that on several occasions pods of dolphins have seemingly been killed during live fire training. led to caviar’s current status as a luxury item. but efforts to revive certain species and even to quantify the damage have been stifled by the situation in Ukraine. the director of IBSS. 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. Black Sea sturgeon were so numerous that caviar was thought of as a food for the poor among some coastal peoples.. we have no problems. In the absence of effective governance. It is seen as being softer. 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. and War Might Push it Over the Edge | . the truck driver. I visited the Black Sea Commission. The monk seal has already disappeared from these waters over the past decade. “Sometimes we have limitations in who we can contact. “Just watch: they’ll make the Black Sea even blacker.” Boris Alexandrov. 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. This collapse in marine life has been a long time coming and pre-dates recent hostilities. preventing environmental groups from conducting surveys. Fishermen in Ukraine and Georgia say their Turkish counterparts have seized upon the collapse in cross-border cooperation.” said Roman Morganshtern.” says Marian Paiu. They cannot catch their prey.” To concerned conservationists this is all a disaster.The Black Sea Is Dying. are seemingly on their last legs. after a series of tourist resorts laid claim to its last cliff-side habitats in Bulgaria. they’re better off doing that.” said Georgia’s Tamar Bagratia. six out of the seven sturgeon species are seriously endangered. nevertheless.  Like this article? SIGN UP for our newsletter Email 3 of 3 SIGN UP 20/05/16 23:22 . While. None of this [chaos] is the decision of the people. http://www. so they cannot see where they are going. if these countries are not able to speak about economic affairs.) Battered now by overfishing.. Everything from dolphins to turtles have subsequently washed up in their nets. and all of us had productive meetings. “Environmental issues are a kind of public diplomacy. Closed borders have already led to an uptick in shipping. “A week ago. they fear their treasured waters’ days as a living. nor are they upbeat about a return to the pre-war boundaries. a Romanian NGO. like those on board the Greifswald. experts say. which took another turn for the worse last November when a Russian fighter jet was shot down over southern Turkey.. it’s the politicians. as truckers. “Any kind of instability affects the ferry business. “A lot of these things affect their locator systems. functioning part of the regional ecosystem are numbered. 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.” And on the scientific front too. told me in late April. “For example. But as with efforts to monitor water quality. In the 14th and 15th centuries. dolphins in particular appear to have suffered from the uptake in the use of sonar and military hardware. “Economically. “For Russia and Turkey.” But until the impasse is broken. with trust low. an ecologist and specialist in environmental impact assessments at Mare Nostrum.” said Ruslan Shavov. Stocks of anchovies. Increased Russian and NATO naval exercises have led to the closure of some parts of the Sea to civilian traffic. take to the water in order to deliver their wares.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/black-sea-dying. a favored delicacy from coast to coast. the marketing and project director for UkrFerry.. however. still holding out hope that talks about the Black Sea’s plight might be a means of breaking the ice.