Black Sea More Polluted Than Ever

Photo source: Constantine Alexander's Journal

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

The Black Sea is dying, and its impacting the world around it. Under the current  environmental conditions, more than one hundred sixty million people in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russian Federation, Romania and Turkey are exposed to its alarming dangers.

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 holiday makers 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 fertilisers that some scientists wondered aloud whether the Black Sea might become the first major waterway devoid of life. 

The amount of marine litter in the Black Sea is twice as high as in the Mediterranean Sea. The concentration of some toxins exceed their threshold value, according to results of the Joint Black Sea Surveys presented by the EU/UNDP-funded project “Improving Environmental Monitoring in the Black Sea: Selected Measures” (EMBLAS-Plus), and the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine at a press conference in Odesa on July 29, 2019. The surveys were held in 2017 – 2019 in the coastal waters of Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia, and in the open sea. 

The litter flowing into the Black Sea, studied by EMBLAS, mainly comes from four major rivers: the Danube (which flows through the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine in the eastern Neighbourhood region), the Dniester (Moldova and Ukraine), the Don (Russia), and finally the Rioni, which flows through Georgia.

The research by EMBLAS has it that eighty three percent of marine litter found in the Black Sea is plastic namely bottles, packaging and bags. Large rivers such as Danube and Dniester bring to the sea from six to fifty items of litter per hour. Micro plastics have also been found in the sediments of Black Sea both in its shelf parts and in the depths of more than 2,000 m. Some hazardous chemical substances are also present, which makes it the most polluted sea in the world. These substances include benzo(a)pyrene, several pesticides, insecticides, mercury, and flame retardants in fish. In addition to that, over one hundred twenty four chemicals, dangerous for the sea ecosystem, and human health, were identified including persistent organic pollutants, metals, pesticides, biocides, pharmaceuticals, industrial pollutants and personal care products. These substances had not been observed earlier, and they are now proposed to be included for regular monitoring.

In history, it was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Black Sea ecosystem suddenly collapsed. There were vast amounts of dead plants, and animals that covered the beaches of Romania, and western Ukraine, and between 1973 and 1990, losses were estimated as sixty million tons of bottom animals, including five million tons of fish.

The most significant factor attributing to Black Sea’s pollution has been the massive over-fertilisation of the sea, by compounds of nitrogen and phosphorus, largely as a result of agricultural, domestic and industrial sources. This over-fertilisation produces eutrophication, which has changed the structure of the Black Sea ecosystem.
Eutrophication is the over-enrichment of water bodies with organic matter that results in lack of oxygen, and severe reductions in water quality, and in fish and other animal populations. The effects of eutrophication were felt across the entire Black Sea.
As a process, the nitrogen and phosphorus compounds enter the Black Sea from sources from around seventeen countries in its drainage basin, particularly through rivers. It is estimated that the six Black Sea countries contribute about seventy percent of the total amount of the substances flowing to the Black Sea, as waste from human activities. Rest of the remaining thirty percent, from the other eleven non-coastal countries, enter the Black Sea through the Danube River.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, water quality of Black Sea had dwindled from the inflow of industrial strength agricultural fertilisers. At that time, scientists warned aloud that Black Sea might become the first major watercourse devoid of life. It was this point that the newly empowered ex-Soviet states came up with an 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.
Protection of Black Sea is a challenge, as the systems are complicated. 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 fertiliser runoff concentrates on the sea surface, stimulating the rapid progress of microscopic algae, and suffocation of marine creatures.
This lack of mixing also leaves nearly ninety percent of the Black Sea naturally devoid of oxygen, limiting the range of species that thrive in the waters. And, to complicate matters, as bacteria feed themselves 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, every now and then.
For years, the Black Sea's agony was hostage to Cold War suspicions. But, what seemingly separates these water woes from most previous crises is the apparent inability of leaders and 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 become rancorous to such a point that a number of governments have broken off some diplomatic relations. Whatever good had existed to tackle environmental degradation has long since melted into thin air.

According to an article by Hugh Pope in The Independent: ‘Dams have cut the flow of main rivers by up to a half. The level of lifeless, sunless water has now risen up to one hundred twenty metres below the surface, suffocating the once fertile north-western coastal shelf. The marine food chain, already under severe pressure from overfishing, was hit by a parallel invasion of jellyfish. Oyster beds were the first resource to disappear, attacked by an invading Japanese sea snail in the 1940s. Nearly thirty kinds of marketable fish have dwindled to half a dozen. Tourist beaches have to be closed when they turn brown and smelly. And the sea grass fields in the north-western coastal shelf have shrunk to a fifty- square kilometre patch, five per cent of their former extent.’

During the war in 2014, when Moscow threw its support behind separatists in the Donbass area of eastern Ukraine, and then annexed the Crimean peninsula, there were unique complications for the sea. No longer in control of large swathes of their waters, the Ukrainian environmental authorities ascertained that they were unable to keep a watch on the waste that seeped from stretches of their coastline. Increased Russian and naval exercises have had also led to the closure of some parts of the Sea to civilian traffic, preventing environmental groups from conducting surveys.

In the sea, the dolphins now are  endangered. The monk seal has already disappeared from Black Sea 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 economically relevant. With the result, victimised by overfishing, six out of the seven sturgeon species are now seriously endangered.

To counter environmental degradation, some policy planning has also been adopted, in the past, most notably the GEF Strategic Partnership on Black Sea and Danube Basin, launched in 2001, a major initiative. The partnership was a multilateral structure established with the cooperation of the World Bank (WB), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and other financiers, as well as basin countries, to address the degradation of the Black Sea, and Danube Basin region.

The GEF Investment Fund for Nutrient Reductions, managed by the World Bank, was another initiative established to catalyze investments, and accelerate action by other stakeholders interested in the recovery of the Black Sea. It aimed to leverage $210 million to complement $70 million GEF grant funds for nutrient reduction investments in the agriculture, and municipal and industrial wastewater treatment sectors, and for wetland restoration.
Quite recently, in October 2019, a team of seventeen marine scientists from four countries, including Turkey, have joined forces in a new project aiming at evaluating the degree of pollution in the Black Sea Scientists on board the research vessel “Mare Nigrum”. They carried out sampling of water, sediments and marine organisms to evaluate the health of the sea, which marks the majority of Turkey’s northern border. The project, “Assessing the vulnerability of the Black Sea marine ecosystem to human pressures” (ANEMONE), was launched with the Black Sea Joint Scientific Cruise. The aim of the Marine scientists is to study this data, through laboratory work, including processing of samples, data analysis and assessment. The results will serve to map the bottom habitats, and to assess the biodiversity, and integrity of the seabed, under the requirements of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. The results will be shared, collated and published as the report on the “Status of the Environment of the Western Black Sea.”
The project, ‘Waste Free Rivers for Clean Black Sea’, will also be implemented throughout the period 2018-2020, using €1,008,497 in financial aid, allocated by the European Union, under the Joint Operational Programme (JOP) Black Sea Basin 2014-2020. It involves three countries, and facilitates cross-border cooperation between Georgia, Moldova, and Romania, for the introduction of modern waste management practices, in order to help enhance the quality of the environment, and contribute to reducing river, and marine litter in the Black Sea Basin countries.


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