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Bleak Story Of The Black Sea Highlighted In Global Assessment Of World's Waters

Kalmar/Nairobi, 12 October 2001 - One of the world's great seas is spiraling into decline as a result of chronic over-fishing, high levels of pollution and the devastating impacts of alien, introduced, species, an international team of scientists is warning.

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.

Initiatives are in hand to try and reduce the levels of pollution swilling 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 which, some experts claim, have seen catches in the Black Sea drop by a third from 814,000 tonnes in 1986 to some 523,000 tonnes.

A $100 million scheme, targeted at the sea and two of the major rivers which drain into it, is expected to be up and running by the end of the year. The Black Sea Basin Strategic Partnership will involve organizations including the Global Environment Facility, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Part of this new project will include work towards developing a nutrient 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 an extra, international, effort is made to address the sea's ills.

The findings have come from a regional team who are members of the Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA), an initiative led by UNEP.

Their preliminary findings, some of the first to come from this global initiative, are being delivered at GIWA's first General Assembly taking place this week in Kalmar, Sweden.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "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. 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. We cannot treat them as dustbins without far reaching consequences. I hope these initial findings will galvanize the countries bordering and using the Black Sea to act while there is time, "he added.

Dag Dagler, project manager of GIWA, said: "Our concluding findings from the 66 research studies will be available in two years time. They will be used to draw up priorities for conservation and restoration and will help to marshal the funds needed to carry out such work. The Black Sea water system could be one of the first to benefit. It is in many ways an acute example of the many problems facing water systems world-wide and could prove an ideal blue print for saving many of them from terminal decline".

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.

A Black Sea Convention came into force in 1994 and the GIWA report's team has been working closely with representatives of the Black Sea Commission.


"Pollution has devastated the Black Sea fishing industry, "the report concludes. Total catches for all the nations bordering the sea, which includes Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the Ukraine, have fell from 814,000 tonnes in 1988 to 213,000 tonnes in 1991. Since then they have risen to 523,000 tonnes.

During the past 20 years around a third of fish stocks have been lost. Only six of the 26 species commercially exploited 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 over-fishing 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.

Catches of anchovy by Turkish vessels suddenly decreased after 1988 from 295,000 tonnes to 79,000 tonnes in 1991 or about a four-fold drop with some improvement in recent years.

Dramatic reductions were also reported by the former Soviet Union anchovy fleet with catches falling from 237,000 tonnes to six thousand tonnes in 1991. Anchovy commercially disappeared along the Romanian part of the coast in 1989.

"Since these anchovy and other fisheries were extremely important sources of income and protein, their collapse will have adverse effects on the economy and protein consumption of people, particularly those inhabiting the Black Sea coasts. The decline undisputedly shows the seriousness of the Black Sea problem, "says the report.

Pollution has also contributed to a decline in oxygen levels. At times oxygen levels at the bottom of the sea are so low that "it results in the deaths of all species of animals and plants, "the report notes.

The collapse of some fisheries has taken a heavy toll on employment. In Romania, with only around 240 kilometres coastline, the fishing fleet is all but laid up.

Overall 150,000 jobs have been lost from the Black Sea fisheries with indirect losses from industries such as fish processing adding to the toll. Other marine-related industries, which harvest marine resources for natural dyes and raw materials for pharmaceuticals have also been hit as a result of the environmental problems in the Baltic.

Dr Ahmet Kideys of the Institute of Marine Sciences, Erdemli, Mersin, Turkey, and a member of the 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".

Algal Blooms

The ecological balance of the Black Sea region has also been dramatically altered by eutrophication, the swilling of nutrient chemicals such as nitrogen and phosphorous into the region. This favors the growth of tiny plant-like organisms called plankton and algae.

The report estimates that over 600,000 tonnes of such nutrients, the result of discharges from mainly household waste waters, industry and agriculture, are swilling in the Black Sea from rivers and the land. The levels of phosphorous are up to ten times in excess of maximum allowable pollution limits.

"In the past 25 to 30 years the Black Sea has been transformed from a diverse ecosystem supporting varied marine life to a plankton one, environmental conditions unsuitable for most organisms higher in the food chain, " says the report. For example, dolphin numbers have fallen five fold.

Introduced Alien Species

Fish stocks and wildlife in the sea have also been affected by the arrival of alien species such as the centophore Mnemiopsis which is a type of jelly fish. It thought that the alien arrived in the Black Sea in the ballast water of ships cruising between it and the North Atlantic.

The jelly fish was first recorded in Black Sea waters in 1987 and by the summer of 1989 had spread all over. The weight of this alien, marine, organism is estimated to be 900 million tons, bigger than the entire global fish catch.

Scientists believe its arrival has played a role in the anchovy collapse. It is thought the alien not only eats the food of the anchovy but preys on anchovy eggs and larvae.

Urbanization and Tourism

About 162 million people live in the catchment areas of the Black Sea and there are few if any proper sewage treatment works. This is leading to high levels of raw, untreated, sewage entering the water system.

The report highlights the Russian side of the sea where its population of 14.5 million is swollen by 15 per cent during the summer, holiday, months. All current water treatment works in the 175 towns do not work properly and in some towns there are no treatment works at all.

"Similar problems exist in virtually all coastal cities around the Black Sea. In no city along the Turkish Black Sea coast is there any treatment of wastewater, "says the report which adds that drinking water is often contaminated by polluted wastewater.

These, along with problems of haphazard development, are taking their toll on the region's tourist industry which has been famous for its beautiful beaches, medicinal muds and picturesque landscapes.

"The number of people vacationing on the Black Sea has fallen dramatically in recent years and the loss of income might be about $400 million, "the report says.


Notes to Editors

The first General Assembly of the Global International Waters Assessment (GIWA) will take place between October 9 and 11 at the University of Kalmar, Kalmar, Sweden.

Scientists from around the world will present preliminary findings on a variety of water systems which are part of the GIWA programme including the Black Sea, Yellow Sea, Caspian Sea and the East China Sea.

The catchment area of the Black Sea is over two million square kilometres covering 23 countries in Europe and Asia Minor. These are Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the Ukraine as well as Albania, Austria, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia and Switzerland.

The Black Sea's surface area is 423,000 square kilometres and is 1,200 kilometres wide at its greatest extent.

For more information please contact

Nick Nuttall, Head of Media Services, UNEP, on Tel: 254 2 623084 (in Kalmar 46 480 42 10 12), Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail: or Tore J Brevik, UNEP Spokesman/Director, Communications and Public Information UNEP, on Tel: 254 2 623292, E-mail:

The GIWA web site is and the UNEP web site is

UNEP News Release 01/100

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