The Black Sea Faces Dark Times

Overfishing, pollution, and too many jellyfish have weakened the nearly landlocked ecosystem

When Lucian Ionescu was a boy in the early 1970s, the waters of the Black Sea were clean and clear, dolphins frolicked off the coast, and Constanta County's beach resorts were packed with tourists from Britain, Sweden, and Siberia.

Today the dolphins and tourists are gone, and the polluted waters of the Black Sea are turgid and almost lifeless.

"I started seeing huge algae blooms about 10 years ago," recalls Mr. Ionescu, head of local environmental group Mare Nostrum. "Since then, when you go for a swim the water has a slimy feel, and the surface is often covered with dead fish."

The Black Sea has nourished civilizations since antiquity, but in the space of only three decades, modern industry, agriculture, and fishing practices have caused a collapse of the entire ecosystem. Starved of oxygen and light, 20 of 26 commercial fish species have vanished since 1970, the anchovy harvest has fallen by more than 95 percent, and dolphin and porpoise populations have fallen by four-fifths. In their place are monstrous blooms of phytoplankton (which feed on human wastes) and invading North American jellyfish.

Still some hope

"The Black Sea is very severely damaged, but it's not yet dead," says marine environmentalist Laurence Mee, head of the international Black Sea environmental task force in Istanbul. "It can still be saved, but we must act quickly because there is very little time."

Technical innovations during the past 40 years industrialized fishing and agriculture in the sea's enormous drainage basin, home to 160 million people in 17 countries.

The virtually landlocked sea had always served as a sink for human and natural wastes dumped into its tributaries - the Danube, Don, and Dneister Rivers. But the vast increase in chemical fertilizers, pesticides, industrial wastes, and untreated human sewage proved too much for the sea to bear.

The increased nutrient loads yielded an overproduction of phytoplankton, which in turn blocked light from reaching pastures of sea grasses and algae on the coastal shelf. As these undersea meadows vanished, so too did the mollusks, crustaceans, and flatfish that lived there. And other fish species - already decimated by overfishing - lost their primary breeding grounds. Already weakened by oil spills, toxic dumping, and pesticide runoff, the ecosystem began to collapse.

About this time, the Mnemiopsis jellyfish arrived from North America in the ballast water of a passing freighter. It thrived in the weakened ecosystem, devouring fish larvae and the tiny animals eaten by small fish. The jellyfish population quickly reached a total mass of 900 million tons - 10 times the annual fish harvest of the entire world - and has begun spreading to the Aegean Sea, having eaten the Black Sea nearly bare. Romania and Bulgaria have sold their commercial fishing fleets to Greece. "Traditional fishing continues, but with smaller and smaller yields," says Ionescu.

So serious is the environmental catastrophe that many have feared the sea will never recover. But new scientific studies commissioned by the Black Sea task force indicate that many "keystone" species such as sea grass and red algae have survived in tiny numbers. "If the habitats of these species can be protected, and further damage avoided, the sea may slowly recover from the bottom up," says Dr. Mee. "The sea will never be the same because many species were lost for good, but it can recover if we act now."

Leaders of the six countries that share the sea - Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, and Turkey - signed an agreement Oct. 31 to coordinate efforts to save the sea. Operating under the aegis of the Black Sea task force, the countries have divided research responsibilities and agreed to set up joint regulation of fishing, shipping, pollution, and coastal development. They are also drawing up lists of priority pollution "hot spots" that require immediate attention.

Funds greatly needed

Most hot spots will require major investments to build new wastewater treatment stations, improve agricultural practices, and modernize industrial facilities. But five of the six coastal states are undergoing difficult economic and social transformations and have few funds of their own. And as similar programs for the Baltic Sea and Danube River (from which much of the Black Sea's pollution arrives) have found, sources of international funding are few and far between.

So far the list of hot spots for priority investments is being compiled. A preliminary list of emergency sites - most for municipalities requiring emergency wastewater treat- ment facilities - already runs more than $400 million. "We are first focusing on actions that can yield tangible improvements with little or no investment." Mee says. "This will improve skills and confidence in the recipient countries, thus building toward their being able to implement bankable projects."

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