International Team Combats Black Sea Decline

KALMAR, Sweden, October 10, 2001 (ENS) - The Black Sea is spiralling into decline as a result of chronic overfishing, high levels of pollution and the devastating impacts of alien species, an international team of scientists has warned at a meeting here.

The findings have come from a regional team who are members of the Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA), an initiative led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Their preliminary findings, some of the first to come from this global program, are being delivered at GIWA's first General Assembly taking place this week in Kalmar, Sweden.

The environment, wildlife and people linked with the Black Sea are also under threat from large discharges of raw sewage, damaging levels of coastal erosion and the suffocating impacts of dumping of sludges and muds dredged from ports, the GIWA scientists said.

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Black Sea (Landsat satellite image courtesy NASA)
The Black Sea is bounded by six nations - Turkey to the south, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine to the east and north, Romania and Bulgaria to the west. A Black Sea Convention came into force in 1994 and the GIWA research team has been working closely with representatives of the Black Sea Commission.

Initiatives are under way to reduce the levels of pollution pouring into the region's water systems from factories and cities as far away as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland and Slovenia.

Efforts are also being made to reduce the current levels of over-fishing and destructive fishing practices. During the past 20 years around a third of fish stocks have been lost, the GIWA team reports. Only six of the 26 species commercially exploitated in the 1960s remain in commercial quantities with decreases in sturgeon, salmon, gray mullet, sprats, horse mackerel and goby.

The impacts of pollution have been aggravated by overfishing and fishing along river mouths where young fish are passing from spawning grounds back to the sea. Other damaging activities have been bottom trawling which has damaged marine life including shellfish, the GIWA group found.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director says the Black Sea report is part of larger research effort. "We are in the process of assessing the health and environmental condition of 66 water areas across the world including seas, lakes, wetlands, rivers and ground waters," he said.

Dag Dagler, project manager of GIWA, said the Black Sea water system could be one of the first to benefit from the 66 research studies the results of which will be available in two years. The research findings will be used to draw up priorities for conservation and restoration and will help to marshal the funds needed to carry out such work.

Dagler says the Black Sea is "an acute example of the many problems facing water systems worldwide and could prove an ideal blueprint for saving many of them from terminal decline."

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The Danube River forms a delta as it empties into the Black Sea (Photo from space courtesy NASA)
The report on the Black Sea water system, which includes the nearby Azov Sea and rivers such as the Danube, Dnieper and Don which discharge into them, has been compiled by a team led by Professor Felix Stolberg. He is Head of the Department of Environmental Engineering and Management of the Kharkov State Academy of Municipal Economy in Kharkov, Ukraine.

Dr. Ahmet Kideys of the Institute of Marine Sciences, Erdemli, Mersin, Turkey, and a member of the research team, said, "Fortunately, the anchovy catch by the Turkish fleet has been showing signs of recovery over the past few years. But the sudden, dramatic fall, between the late 1980s and early 1990s shows just how vulnerable fisheries in the Black Sea can be to impacts such as pollution and introduced, alien, species."

According to UNEP, a $100 million scheme, targeted at the Black Sea and two of the major rivers that drain into it, is expected to be up and running by the end of the year.

The Black Sea Basin Strategic Partnership to help restore the body of water will involve organizations including the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, the European Union, and UNEP.

Part of this new project will include work towards developing a protocol to the Black Sea Convention aimed at reducing the levels of phosphorous and nitrogen entering the Sea. But scientists are warning that rises in economic activity in the region may overwhelm these improvements by 2020 unless a further international effort is made to address the sea's problems.

Toepfer said, "We have known for some time that the Black Sea, a water system of global importance, has been suffering, but these results bring into sharp focus just how damaged it is and the risks to the millions of people who depend upon it for food and livelihoods. The findings are a warning to the world that we cannot take the health of our water systems for granted."