Conservationists at the Tuzly Lagoons national park on the Black Sea in Ukraine have been digging small canals from the coastal lagoons down to the seashore every spring for the past 30 years, linking the bodies of water together.
The rivulets, which used to be natural until modern agriculture clogged the little rivers that supplied them, are a busy through-route for billions of small fish that spend the winter in the sea and then return to the lagoons to reproduce.
There will be no digging this year. Mines have been deployed on the beaches by the Ukrainian army to deter a Russian invasion. Researchers have been forced to discontinue decades of effort, with potentially fatal effects for the more than 5,000 herons who feed in the lagoons each spring.
“For the past 30 years, we have organized scientists to restore this area, to maintain this steppe, and to promote this water exchange.” “Now that there is no access from the Black Sea, there is no migration of these fish, and the egrets need to consume them,” explains Ivan Rusev, the park’s research director. “It’s a true tragedy.”
It is only one of many environmental casualties in Ukraine, many of which may linger for years after the battle ends in a country already devastated by the human and economic toll of war. Experts warn that the marine and wetland habitats in the Black and Azov Seas are particularly vulnerable, with some of the most severe combat taking place on the southern shore.
“Almost 400,000 hectares and 14 Ramsar areas [wetlands classified as of international importance by Unesco] along the coastline and lower parts of the Dnipro river are under threat,” says Oleksandr Krasnolutskyi, Ukraine’s deputy minister of environmental protection and natural resources.
He claims that billions of dollars in damage have already been done, and that their fears are justified: when Russia invaded in 2014, annexing Crimea and supporting a separatist war in the Donbas, the Kremlin used another ecologically sensitive area – the Kryva Kosa spit in the Meotyda national park – as a landing zone for troops, destroying the largest European nesting site for the endangered Pallas’s gull almost overnight.
During important migratory and breeding periods, Rusev has counted over 200 bombs striking the lagoons, affecting water birds such as avocets and Dalmatian pelicans. “We usually have 1,000 to 1,500 white pelicans that migrate from Africa,” he explains. “Right now, we’re down to 300 people.” The bombing has caused them a great deal of distress.”
Dolphins have begun washing up on Black Sea shores in large numbers, not only in Ukraine but also in Turkey and Bulgaria. Sound pollution, particularly suspected sonar interference from Russian navy ships along the shore, is thought to be a cause in their deaths, according to researchers.
Bomb craters pose a threat to coastal life as well. Chemicals can alter the nature of the soil in vulnerable dune habitats, leaking into lagoons and the sea, allowing invasive species to take advantage of newly exposed sand.
Few people are concerned about this, but I am the voice of nature’s silence. I’m going to fight till the finish.
Tuzly Lagoons National Park, Ivan Rusev
“Generally, you find heavy metals and TNT, RDX, HMX [chemicals in explosives] in commercial weapons,” said Doug Weir, research and policy director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory in the United Kingdom.
“Heavy metals have a long lasting effect on the ecosystem. The majority of the explosives are hazardous in some way. And some, such as TNT, degrade into other deadly compounds when exposed to light.”
While the effects of these pollutants may not be immediately obvious, the Kinburn Spit, a 25-mile (40-kilometer) stretch of sand in the Ramsar-designated Black Sea biosphere reserve, is one of the most conspicuous examples of damage to Ukraine’s coastline. Rockets set fire to more than 4,000 hectares of land in early May, lasting more than a week and visible from orbit (10,000 acres).
The flames also exposed a broader war-related consequence: a lack of environmental regulation. Protected areas are threatened not only by conflict, but also by conservationists’ incapacity to enter war-torn places.
“Under normal circumstances, the fire would have been brought under control and put out much faster,” Weir says. “Most protected areas are extensively maintained, and their ecosystems tend to be imbalanced for whatever cause – pollution or overfishing, for example.” And a lack of control and assistance can have serious consequences.”
Similarly, Rusev claims that he and his colleagues have been unable to assess the extent of the injury to Black Sea dolphins due to their inability to reach broad portions of Ukrainian shoreline, and that they are unable to estimate how many dolphins have been stranded.
He believes that up to 2,000 people may have been harmed. “It’s a tragedy because we only have a limited number of three species of dolphin,” Rusev explains, “so any individual is a rare creature.”
Remote monitoring created comparable difficulties near the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol, Ukraine’s final stronghold, where massive amounts of sulfite may leak. “The Azov and Black Seas are particularly vulnerable to pollution pressures because they are contained,” Weir explains. “Based on satellite photographs, it appears that the potentially sulfite-rich area has grown, but we can’t be sure.”
Ukraine is adamant about prosecuting those responsible for the destruction. Vira Porieva is part of a larger group building an environmental case against Russia. She is in charge of a taskforce collecting evidence of war crimes damaging bodies of water. The International Criminal Court has the authority to prosecute intentional actions that create “widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment.”
Porieva’s team gathered and analyzed water samples from the Melitopol and Berdyansk districts thanks to an international grant to assess the war’s influence on quality. “We can conduct this work because of brave national park inspectors who stay in Russian-occupied zones,” she explains. The preliminary findings are due in two months, but even with evidence, prosecuting environmental war crimes under the ICC’s framework is thought to be nearly difficult.
Shelling continues in the Tuzly Lagoons. Rusev, on the other hand, works relentlessly at as many of his regular tasks as he can, documenting the harm as he sees it.
“There were numerous bombs nearby yesterday — people are safe, but animals were again upset,” he explains.
“Very few people are concerned about this, but I am the voice of nature’s silence.” “I’m going to fight till the finish.”
This article by Antonia Cundy was first published by The Guardian on 7 June 2022. Lead Image: Tuzly Lagoons national park on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, where thousands of herons, avocets and pelicans breed. Russian bombing has scared off much wildlife. Photograph: K Tkach/Alamy.
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