The Ups and Downs of the World's Most Isolated Sea

black sea turkey trabzon photo

The Black Sea is an integral part of millions of peoples' lives. Photo of Trabzon, Turkey, by Whewes via Flickr.

With its watershed covering almost one-third of continental Europe, an area home to some 160 million people, there are plenty of opportunities for pollution to run into the Black Sea -- and only one outlet to the world's oceans and seas, the Bosphorus straits in Turkey. It's little wonder, then, that a dozen years ago, it was described as "facing an environmental catastrophe." More surprising, perhaps, is that conditions in the Black Sea have shown any improvement at all.This weekend, government, academic, and NGO representatives gathered in the Turkish city of Samsun to participate in workshops about the threats still facing the sea and efforts to protect it as part of International Black Sea Action Day. This annual regional event commemorates the signing of the Strategic Action Plan for the Protection of the Black Sea on Oct. 31, 1996, and brings communities from Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Romania together to celebrate -- and safeguard -- their shared environment.

First Signs of Recovery
International cooperation, coordinated by The Commission on the Protection of the Black Sea Against Pollution, has brought about the first signs of recovery: decreasing amounts of pollution and untreated water flowing into the sea; fewer and smaller oil spills; reduced levels of phosphorus and other nutrients, an excess of which can lead to harmful algal blooms; greater numbers of the zooplankton and small pelagic fish that form the basis of the marine food chain; and the reappearance of species that hadn't been seen in more than two decades, along with greater abundance of once rare seahorses and turbot. Warns the commission, however:

The above changes are still in the early stages, are unstable and still far from the strategic target: that is to bring the conditions of the environment back to those that were observed in the 1960s. With any additional pressure, they can revert and the environment of the Black Sea would be endangered.

Fisheries, Tourism Need Safeguarding Too
Protecting the Black Sea is not just a matter of environmental responsibility; this vulnerable, isolated ecosystem is also a key economic resource for people in the countries that surround it. A prime fishing area for ancient Greece, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, and Imperial Russia, the sea's fisheries, if healthy, could sustain a catch of at least 350,000 million tons annually -- enough, writes marine biologist Laurence D. Mee, "for all 16 million people that live in the coastal zone and another six million guests, to enjoy a really good fish dinner ever week of the year."

Coastal tourism is another industry that could be strengthened by a clean environment, and ruined by a dirty one, though it too needs to be managed properly lest poorly regulated construction add to the problem.

"The municipalities along the Black Sea coast... have a very special role in protecting the sea," Mee writes in his guide to the Black Sea Action Plan. "The sea has a profound influence on the ecology of the land near the coast and its use by humans. Human use has a profound influence on the ecology of the nearshore sea... The Black Sea environment does not come to a sudden stop where the waves break on the shore."

More about the Black Sea:
Black Sea Floods a Not-So-Natural Disaster
Can Turkey's Trashy Coasts Be Transformed?
Oil Spill in Black Sea Strait Could Be Region's Worst Environmental Disaster
Jellyfish: Coming to a Beach Near You

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