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Better days for the Black Sea


    The Four Seas of Europe MenuThe coasts around the Black Sea have supported human settlements for thousands of years. For thousands of years different civilisations have depended on the rich diversity of plant and animal life in the sea and on the fertile soils on its coasts. The human population has increased steadily during that time but it is only in the last 40 years that the Black Sea has become unable to cope with our demands on it. Urban and industrial development has poured increasing amounts of waste into the rivers leading into the Black Sea and into the seawater itself. By the early 1990s the Black Sea was in the grip of an extreme environmental crisis. Nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides, added to agricultural land, were present at extremely high concentrations. These excess nutrients were causing massive blooms of micro-organisms. Heavy metals were building up as a result of unrestricted industrial output in eastern and central European countries and oil pollution and pesticide contamination was at an all time high. The combined effect of this mass off-loading had a devastating effect on ecosystems in the area. The fishing industry collapsed completely: fish populations were unable to survive the great change in conditions and this, combined with overfishing, reduced their numbers to practically zero. A species of jellyfish, introduced into the area accidentally, soon multiplied to fill the ecological niche that was left. Frequent outbreaks of serious water-borne diseases such as cholera and hepatitis A occurred in coastal areas and there were numerous hot spots of very high levels of heavy-metal contamination - so high that investigators checked their instruments for faults when they first saw the readings. When political events in central and eastern Europe led to economic collapse this proved to be a turning point for the Black Sea. A new spirit of co-operation developed in the months that followed and scientists from the European Union were allowed to see the extent of the environmental tragedy for the first time in 1993. All agreed that everything possible should be done to return the Black Sea to its former glory. Coping with such an enormous disaster is not easy, but progress is being made. Scientists from EROS, one of the major European projects dedicated to the task, began by studying exactly what had happened to the ecosystem whilst monitoring what was still happening. As it turns out, this was probably the very best course of action because the latest results from EROS show that the Black Sea is showing a great capacity to recover naturally. When results taken in Spring 1997 were compared to those from the 1995 EROS cruise, there were some very positive signs that the ecosystem was regenerating. Oxygen concentrations in the water at the upper levels had improved considerably. Some species of plankton and invertebrates, which were thought to have become extinct, were again common. Jellyfish numbers had stabilised while the number of anchovy eggs and larvae had increased. Now, on the solid basis of sound scientific data, we are taking more steps to help the Black Sea. For example, governments are working together to ensure that, by the end of 2000, all Black Sea discharges will be regulated through national licensing systems.

Over 10 million people are connected to sewage systems in the Black Sea Coastal region.

A sea under stress

  • Waste from 17 countries drains into the waters of the Black Sea
  • Almost two thirds of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the seawater comes in
    from the Danube basin
  • Over 10 million people are connected to sewage systems in the Black Sea Coastal region
  • 111 000 tons of oil enters the Black Sea each year from transport of oil through the Danube.



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