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Is the Black Sea recovering?

“…To enable the population of the Black Sea region to enjoy a healthy living environment in both urban and rural areas, and to attain a biologically diverse Black Sea ecosystem with viable natural populations of higher organisms, including marine mammals and sturgeons, and which will support livelihoods based on sustainable activities such as fishing, aquaculture and tourism in all Black Sea countries…”

These are part of the aims of the Strategic Action Plan for the Rehabilitation and Protection of the Black Sea, an initiative agreed in Istanbul in October 1996.

In this short paper I would like to examine a number of key points that relate to the ecological conditions of the Black Sea region and the Black Sea Basin: issues connected with human, marine and animal life in the region, the serious problems facing the ecosystem of the Black Sea and ask whether the international efforts that are being made have been successful – is the Black Sea recovering?

The Black Sea region is steeped in history and culture and forms a vital trading area linking Europe with Asia. It is the world’s largest locked internal sea with a surface area of 423,000 кm2. Its water volume is 547,000 km3, and at its average depth is average depth 1,240 m) with its deepest point being 2,212 m. The total length of the sea shore is 4,838 km (Ukraine’s coast is 1,829 km).

The Black Sea is a place of natural beauty and home to more than just fish and people. Hundreds of species of plants and animals depend upon its state of health. The shore can comfortably accommodate five million tourists per year in its resorts. More tourism implies a stronger economy and more jobs. The sea sustains fishing catches of at least 30,000 tons per year: enough for 16 million people living on the sea coast and six million guests. And it is a road for the safe transportation of goods and people.

But the sea, the water itself, is only part of the story. The Black Sea’s Basin area is considerably larger: 2.3 million km2 – and is inhabited with 160 million people (16 million of which live in coastal area).

Within the Black Sea Basin lie the territories (or part of the territories) of Ukraine, Russian Federation, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey and Moldova. In addition the Dnipro River Basin countries (including Belarus) and the Danube River Basin countries of Austria, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy, Macedonia, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Switzerland also empty into the Black Sea Basin.

In the Ukrainian part of the Black Sea coastal area we have seen a significant decrease in population. In the region of Odessa for example, the population has fallen by just over 173,000 people between 1981 and 2001 (2,642,601 in 1989 to 2,469,057 in 2001). This is also true of other countries on the coast of the sea. Although there are marked rises in Turkey and Georgia, population projections show Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania will all suffer declines by 2030. (Source: Poulation Division of the United Nations, New York).

The Black Sea’s marine and coastal ecosystems have a number of characteristics. Salinity (salt content) is 17.5-18 grams per litre (in the depths this rises to 20-22 g/L). There is a stable temperature at the depths below 150 m of 8.5-9 °C. The water is saturated with hydrogen sulphide at depth below 150 m and there is a lack of lack of oxygen (a state known as hypoxia). There is a very restricted water exchange with neighbouring seas (only 0.1% of water volume per year). The sea is very deep - the shallowest area of the sea is the shelf zone in the North-Western quadrant. Because of the depth and the lack of circulation there is also very slow vertical water exchange (hundreds years). As a result of all these factors some 87% of the sea is either hypoxic or poisonous to life.

The biodiversity of the Black Sea ecosystem includes some 2,050 species of animals including Arthropoda (over 590 species), Molluscs (206), Echinodermata (14), Fish ( 184) and Mammals (4 species). Source: Yu. Zaitsev, 2006. The Black Sea wetlands (such as the Danube Delta) are of international importance as sites of reproduction, feeding and wintering grounds of numerous rare and commercially valuable fish species as well as migratory birds. The Strategic Action Plan for the Rehabilitation and Protection of the Black Sea (Istanbul, 31 October 1996) says: “The state of the Black Sea environment continues to be a matter of concern due to the ongoing degradation of its ecosystem and the unsustainable use of its natural resources.”

If one looks back over a thirty year period between the 1960s to 1990s one can illustrate this situation. The Black Sea ecosystem was and continues to be threatened by inputs of nutrients, heavy metals, oil and its derivatives, persistent organic pollutants, and radio nuclides. During the thirty year 1960-90 period 1,035,635 tonnes per year of effluent were introduced into Black Sea (85% of total amount was introduced via river transport); 53,976,963 tonnes per year of suspended solids (99% was introduced by rivers); and 111,000 tonnes per year of oil (48% was entering from the Danube river). The Danube is the biggest polluter and accounts 87.8% of the Biochemical Oxygen Demand in the sea (that is substances which are broken down by microorganisms in the presence of (and with the consumption of) oxygen - oxygen demand is then measured in terms of the oxygen consumed by microorganisms in this process). Source the Black Sea Transboundary Diagnostic Analysis (1995-1997).

The results of this pollution have been manifold. For example there has been a decline in commercial fish stocks. By the 1960s, 26 species of fish were considered as commercially valuable; by the 1980s this number declined to 5. Landings of fish drastically declined from 360,000 tonnes in 1971 to 250,000 tonnes in 1991 (total in the region). Ukrainian Black Sea landings declined from 129,000/74,000 tonnes of total/anchovy in 1975 to 42,000/18,500 tonnes respectively in 1995. An increase in landings of fish in Turkey was only due to a significant increase in fishing efforts.

The perceived major environmental problems of the Black Sea could therefore be described as follows.

Firstly a loss of habitats, notably wetlands and shelf areas, that were supporting important biotic resources. Phyllophora (a key-stone species which forms the nucleus of a biocenosis (community) of approximately 100 invertebrates and fish) decreased from 10,000,000 to 500 km2 while its biomass decreased from 10,000,000 to 400,000 tonnes. Perennial brown algae (Cystoseira barbata, the nucleus of a biocenosis of approximately 50 invertebrates and fish) was lost completely. The total biomass of the Black Sea mussel (Mutilus galloprovincialis) decreased to one third of its original amount; the total biomass of oyster (Ostraea edulis) was reduced to 1.4% of its original amount, the quantity of grey mullet (Mugil cephalus) was reduced to 0.8% of its original amount; and the population of Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) is lost from the Black Sea ecosystem.

Along side this loss or imminent loss of endangered species and their genomes there is a concurrent problem: the replacement of indigenous species with exotic ones. The most spectacular and unpleasant example is the introduction of an exotic ctenophore (comb jelly) Mnemiopsis leidyi. From 1982 (when the first specimens were reported) until the late 1980s, its total biomass in the Black Sea was estimated as close to one billion tonnes. Mnemiopsis feeds on planktonic crustaceans, mollusc larvae and pelagic fish eggs and larvae, resulted in a sharp decline in anchovy stocks in the Azov and Black Seas.

Beyond the effect of pollution on marine life there are other factors. There is inadequate protection of marine and coastal resources from maritime accidents. The state of the sea also causes unsanitary conditions on many beaches, bathing and shellfish-growing waters and a general degradation of the Black Sea landscape.

The underlying causes of environmental degradation are also various. Particularly pernicious are the overexploitation of natural resources, the invasion of exotic species and an increase in chemical nutrients (eutrophication). From the 1960s to 1990s, water transparency decreased by half, and the area of summer-autumn hypoxia zones increased more than 1,000 times. In summary the Black Sea has suffered a tragic decline in the last thirty years.

There have therefore been a number of international efforts of environmental protection of the Black Sea. The delegations of Albania, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Armenia, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Turkey and Ukraine adopted the Bosporus Declaration on the Black Sea Economic Cooperation in Istanbul in 1992.. In Bucharest, also in 1992, the Convention on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution aimed to protect the marine ecosystem against pollution from atmosphere, marine and land based sources. The signatories (Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russian Federation, Turkey and Ukraine) ratified the convention which came into force in 1994 along with 4 additional Protocols.

A Ministerial Declaration made in Odessa 1993 was signed by the Ministers of Environmental Protection from Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russian Federation, Turkey and Ukraine. This declares political obligations regarding protection and sustainable use of the Black Sea resources and specifies practical steps on implementation of the Bucharest Convention (mentioned above).

The UNDP-GEF Black Sea Environmental Program (BSEP, 1993-1998) with a programme budget of $30 million brought together Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russian Federation, Turkey and Ukraine with the overall purpose to develop long term measures of control and prevention of the pollution of marine ecosystem and rehabilitation of the environmental economy in the region. A Strategic Action Plan for the Rehabilitation and Protection of the Black Sea (Istanbul, 1996) again signed by Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russian Federation, Turkey and Ukraine focused on the sustainable development of the Black Sea region

A second UNDP-GEF scheme, the Black Sea Ecosystem Recovery Project BSERP, a programme I am engaged in, was initiated in 2000-2007 with a project budget of $20 million. This involves Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russian Federation, Turkey and Ukraine and aims to provide a framework for coordination, dissemination and replication of successful measures for coastal zone management, protection of habitats and marine ecosystems and sustainable exploitation of resources.

This and other schemes have created institutional frameworks for Black Sea environmental cooperation that are now well-established and operational. There are a number of coordinating structures in place such as the Black Sea Commission Permanent Secretariat, a network of Activity Centers, Advisory Groups and research institutions. The structures and institutional framework has established a Black Sea Information and Monitoring System. This inter-government collaboration also ensures that environmental policy at regional and national levels is developed and strengthened and that a strong investment program for pollution control and prevention is in place. In addition there are research and educational programs and public information and participation mechanisms.

So is the Black Sea Ecosystem recovering?

The “State of the Environment of the Black Sea: Pressures and Trends, 1996 – 2000” report states:

“The environment of the Black Sea including its fragile and vulnerable ecosystem and recreational and aesthetic value as well as the wellbeing of the coastal population shows the first attributes of recovery:

Inputs of pollution from the priority sources of pollution are decreasing

Inputs of insufficiently treated waters are decreasing

Number of oil spills and volume of spilled oil show decreasing trends

Content of nutrients in the marine waters are getting lower - phosphorus has reached the levels of 60s, although nitrogen is still higher than in 1960s

Concentrations of trace metals, persistent organic pollutants, radio nuclides do not have a global importance and are mostly related to bottom sediments and biota that more likely are accumulated over the past

The algae bloom are becoming less heavy and less frequent

The biomass and abundance of Mnemiopsis leidyi has been reduced following the invasion of the Beroye ovata that feeds on this destructive species

The abundance of fodder zooplankton is increasing

An increase in the stocks of small pelagic fish was reported in the last couple years”

According to research by C. Domitrake in Constanta, biota are recovering and the species numbers of macrobentos near Danube Delta is increasing. The Ukrainian national network for cetaceans monitoring and conservation (NNCC) scientific expeditions (summer 2003, spring 2005 and summer 2006) observed that many hypoxic zones had been eliminated, Phyllophora fields are recovering, and molluscs colonies are recovering. Overall indicator species are being observed in former habitats and new areas.

The State of the Environment of the Black Sea: Pressures and Trends, 1996 – 2000 report concluded that:

“The political will and commitments of the governments of the Black Sea coastal states expressed in Strategic Action Plan for the Rehabilitation and Protection of the Black Sea proved its efficiency in spite of difficulties of transitional economies that most of the Contracting parties are currently experiencing.”

Further Information

Black Sea Commission
Black Sea Ecosystem Recovery Project
Danube River Commission
Black Sea Day

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Viktor Karamushka

General Eastern Europe, Turkey, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Russian Federation

„Sustainable Development of the Black Sea Region: The Environmental Context“

Dr. Victor Karamushka of the UNDP-GEF Black Sea Ecosystem Recovery Project (BSERP)

„The Black Sea Environmental Crisis“


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