Travel

You’re More Likely to Catch a Fridge Than a Fish in the Black Sea

I asked a couple of experts just how polluted the Romanian coastline is.

by Gabriel Botezatu
11 June 2015, 11:01am

Photo courtesy of the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania

Recently, after witnessing some coast guards flicking their cigarette buds into the Black Sea, I got to wondering just how much junk regular people throw in there daily. After doing some research, I was pretty shocked to find out that folks were dumping extreme amounts of crap into the ocean. So much so, that apparently there's actual islands of plastic bottles floating around in the Black Sea, while the likelihood of catching fish in there pales in comparison to that of reeling in a syringe or a massive fridge.

The situation is so bad that dozens of species of animals are fast becoming endangered. That said, at least they're finding new species: the very poisonous fugu fish for example. There's also a really good chance that if you swim in what's fast becoming a glorified toilet, you'll catch enterocolitis and dysentery.

I called up Mare Nostrum (a maritime NGO) and the Romanian Institute of Marine Research and Development to find out more.

Mihaela Cândea, Executive Director of Mare Nostrum. Photo courtesy of the author.

VICE: Is the Romanian coastline polluted?
Mihaela Cândea: If we're talking about the beaches, then yes. The situation is completely out of control. Besides all the ordinary household waste, we've also fished household appliances out of the water. Once we found a fridge. We're seeing a staggering increase in medical waste. Syringes, for example. Unfortunately, a lot of locals regard the beach as some sort of giant dumpster. They think that the ocean will just come and wash everything away.

What about the level of pollution out on the high seas?
Sadly, it's very expensive to monitor the pollution on the high seas and we have no real data about it. What we do know is that water pollution has multiple sources: inland waste, waste tanks onboard boats, oil leaks, oil platforms and so forth. Floating islands of waste have been spotted multiple times on the high seas. There's actually a lot of ships that just discharge their ballast water into the sea.

Why would they do that?
To avoid paying tax for their discharge, which, according to legislation, is supposed to be disposed of in a controlled environment. Most ships prefer doing this out at sea, where they won't be seen. It's basically the same as poaching.

How much of an impact does it have on underwater life?
It's not only underwater life. This affects humans just as much as it does the marine environment. The plastic that ends up underwater decomposes into very tiny particles and gets ingested by all creatures. This means that, when you're eating fish, you're also consuming plastic micro particles. Also, all the pesticides and fertilisers that end up in the river Danube eventually make it into the Black Sea. To put all of this into perspective, DDT – a very toxic pesticide that was used up until about 15 years ago – can still be found in fish that's tested today. Basically, any chemical substance that ends up in the sea is still traceable 10-20 years later.

Are there any endangered species along the Romanian coastline?
Sure, there's an entire list of endangered species in the Black Sea. The most famous are dolphins and sea horses. There's also a lot of fish, including the turbot, on that list.

Photo courtesy of Mare Nostrum.

From what I've gathered, noise pollution also affects the marine environment?
Yeah, that's correct. Noise pollution is caused by sea traffic, petrol drilling and military training, which are all actually getting more and more intense. All of this underwater noise messes up the fish's navigational systems so that they can't find food anymore. Noise alters their physiology and is a massive cause of the diminishing population.

Is the Romanian Ministry of Environment helping in any way?
They help a little bit. More on the research side, though. Other than that they don't really do much. They co-finance some European programmes, like this environmental one that aids the creation of different projects in protected marine areas.

Who implements these projects?
They're never directly implemented by the government, because they just don't have the capacity to do so. They're implemented by NGOs, institutes and even some private companies. We are seeing some results, but obviously they don't just come overnight. It takes years. Things would move a lot faster if the authorities were more involved. Or if there was less red tape. Right now, there's no one assuming responsibility.

Thanks.

Tania Zaharia, Scientific Director of the National Institute of Marine Research and Development. Photo courtesy of the author.

Which coastal areas have the highest level of pollution?
Tania Zaharia: If we are referring to chemical substances, the most polluted areas are the industrial, waterside and urban ones. Generally, the contamination level is still under control, but it depends where you take your samples from. For example, in our latest test, taken at Tomis Harbour, the level of contamination with toxic heavy metals and pathogenic bacteria was extremely high. People who eat oysters from there should be seriously careful.

Is it safe to go swimming in the Black Sea?
Well, anyone who takes a gulp of seawater could catch enteritis or enterocolitis. Besides that, the level of pollution found in the ocean could indirectly lead to dysentery. The oysters in that region act as a sort of filter and, if eaten, could easily cause damage.

Have any new species been found in the Black Sea?
Yes, but a lot have just disappeared too. Two species of crab were recently discovered. People have spotted a very poisonous Japanese fish off the Crimean coast. I'm talking about the fugu fish, which can be deadly if it isn't prepared by a specialist.