How healthy is our Black Sea?

Is the environmental situation of the Black Sea bad? What are the biggest pollutants? How can the situation be improved?

Biologists, chemists and hydrologysts have conducted the first-ever large-scale survey of Black Sea ecology at the territorial waters of Ukraine and Georgia using modern EU methodology and equipment and are now sharing their findings with the public.

 “The water quality of the Black Sea is not perfect. Near big coastal cities, authorities recommend people refrain from swimming for five days after heavy rains because significant rainfall carries many pollutants, including oil products, from the city to the sea,” says Viktor Komorin, director of the Ukrainian Scientific Centre of Ecology of the Sea. But he assures that the situation is not as dire for humans as it may sound. Pollution primarily endangers the ecosystem itself. Marine organisms live constantly in the sea, accumulating dangerous amounts of harmful substances.

“You won’t get sick after swimming in the Black Sea,” reassures marine biologist Eugen Dykyi. He sees another problem:

  • Our latest research revealed toxic substances in fish and mollusks. So far, we are safe only because our bodies are big enough not to accumulate a critical amount of toxins from eating fish. But if you regularly eat Black Sea fish, you will start accumulating these toxins.

Another problem is that no one conducts comprehensive monitoring of the sea in Ukraine. The Ukrainian sanitarian and epidemic service uses methodology from the 1940s and checks only levels of E.coli and cholera bacteria. In contrast, EU countries use comprehensive methods to monitor more than 2000 pollutants in the water.  Last year we started implementing these methods in Ukraine for the first time.

In spring 2016, a team of Ukrainian, Georgian and EU scientists set sail on the multipurpose research vessel, Mare Nigrum, to perform an environmental survey of the Black Sea using modern techniques and equipment. This expedition was made possible by the EU-UNDP EMBLAS II project on Improving Environmental Monitoring in the Black Sea, which has a total budget of €2.7 million, and did not cost Ukraine a dime.

Mare Nigrum research vessel

The results of the survey show that 73% of the Black Sea waters meets the criteria for “good environmentalstatus,” while 27% is in poor condition.

In addition to oil products, the Black Sea is also polluted with pharmaceutical and cosmetic products, as well as the excessive enrichment of organic nutrients (nitrates and phosphates). Dykyi explains:

  • Too much organic nutrients cause marine blooms, a rapid increase in the algae population. This is harmful for fish, because a massive algae population uses a huge amount of oxygen when decomposing. Fish simply suffocate and die.

Our research revealed that most  pollution gets into the Black Sea with large rivers, such as the Danube River. This means that countries along the Danube should make more of an effort to reduce their emissions of nitrates and phosphates into the river. But to be more precise and detect where exactly the pollution originates, we need to monitor the rivers and the Sea further. We plan to do this research in the future.

Jaroslav Slobodnik, team leader of the EMBLAS II project, says that the quality of the Danube River is improving:

  • Within the last decade, the EU has invested €13 billion to reduce pollution in the Danube River. I would dare say that it is thanks to these investments that the environmental situation of the Black Sea is improving.

To help improve the health of the Black Sea, Komorin says Ukraine should implement two EU directives: the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and Water Framework Directive.

  • These directives provide instruments to improve the marine and riverine environment: how to monitor current environmental status, desirable environmental standards and how to achieve them, and methods for monitoring the results of such efforts.

These are innovative directives. Old Ukrainian legislation focused on specific pollutants and how to reduce them. These directives go one step further, focusing on the ecosystem as a whole and its biodiversity, with the goals of ensuring all elements of the marine food chains are present in normal quantities, and controlling concentrations of pollutants below toxic levels.

This approach takes into account that each sea has its own unique indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

Ukraine will implement the two EU directives in the context of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The results of the EMBLAS II project are expected to be incorporated into future Marine Strategy which will become a part of national water legislation following  modern EU environmental approaches, which will result in better health for the Black Sea.

But for everyday Ukrainians, there is no need to wait for the EU directives’ implementation to start taking care of the environment. Big things start with small steps: do not litter, recycle plastic, and clean up beaches.

photo – QHA