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Walk out onto the ugly piers that line the proletarian bathing strands of Yalta and look into the water. You'll see them everywhere. Ubiquitous jellies of assorted shapes and sizes rising and falling in the rollers under the mountainous Crimean shores: undulating round jellyfish, ovoid comb jellies, finger-sized transparent creatures that feed on the specks of life that live in each drop of sea water.
Under your feet, bag-like comb jellies move about like automated vacuum cleaners eating anything in their path. There's one near the piling you're standing beside. It looks extraterrestrial, and it is in fact alien to the Black Sea. One end of the creature opens wide; its whole body convulses, refracting sunlight in a shimmering rainbow as it sucks everything in the vicinity into its formless insides. Larval clams, fish, and crabs, hapless juvenile moon jellyfish, and microscopic copepodswhole generations are falling before this endless alien herd.
You can see them from every pier and beach, each time you look over your ship's railing or wade in the murky surf. From the rainy shores of eastern Turkey to the dry headlands of Yalta you see them in countless multitudes, dotting the Black Sea like stars in the night sky.
They've grazed the sea nearly clean, these voracious comb jellies. Their numbers are unthinkably huge: a billion tons at last estimate, more than ten times the weight of all the fish landed by all the fishermen in the world in a year. In a few short years they've allbutconquered this ancient sea, starving out fish and dolphins; emptying fishermen's nets, and converting the web of life into brainless, wraith-like blobs of jelly.
* * *
The Black Sea Is nearly landlocked, the most isolated antechamber of the world ocean. Its only outlet is through the narrow Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits in Turkey, and these lead into the Mediterranean, which is itself connected to the Atlantic by a shallow, narrow strait. In some places, the Dardanelles and Bosporus are only 0.4 miles wide, and it takes 150 years for the Black Sea to replenish itself completely through these channels.
The Black Sea is a large, kidney-shaped body of water, 160,000 square miles, the same size as California. And it is deepseven thousand feet in some places; it contains several times more water than the Great Lakes combined. Unique to the world ocean, the depths of the Black Sea do not support life and haven't for many thousands of years. Below a certain depth there is no oxygen in the salty, water. All life lives in the sea's uppermost layers, a few hundred yards from the surface. Until very recently, life concentrated on a shallow shelf in the sea's northwest lobe between the low Danube Delta and the mountainous Crimean peninsula.
Humans have also concentrated near its shores, drawn to this and other sheltered seas by milder climates, bountiful food supplies, and an easy means of trade. Ancient Greece was built upon fish and grain supplies from its Black Sea colonies, and these supplies also sustained Byzantium and Imperial Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Union. Today six countries share its shores: Turkey to the south, Georgia and Russia to the east, Ukraine on the north, Romania and Bulgaria to the west. The waters of another dozen countries drain here via four massive river systems: the Danube, Dneister, Dneiper, and Don. These countries differ in culture, history, politics, and wealth, but they all share the Black Sea drainage basin. The activities of political and economic planners in Central Europe have serious implications for communities like Trabzon, Turkey, or Batumi, Georgia, located a thousand miles away in northwest Asia. Water, the world's most precious resource, respects gravity rather than political frontiers.
Many of the world's seas suffer from some or all of the same symptoms as the Black, but they cannot be understood in isolation from one another. The experience of the Black Sea is a warning of what is to come for other sheltered seas, indeed for the oceans at large. It shows that the seas will not survive if people continue to regard the oceans as a bottomless sewer into which wastes of all sorts can be endlessly deposited without ill effect, while we continuously extract food and other resources in ever-greater quantities. Everything has limits, and the world ocean is signaling that its carrying capacity has been exceeded. Human-caused stresses are weakening bays and harbors, gulfs and seas, coastal shelves and offshore fishing banks all around us. Marine scientists are frankly frightened by the scale and complexity of the emerging marine crisis. It is one that can only be averted if there is a dramatic change in our understanding of the ocean and its central role in maintaining life on Earth.
The Black Sea is a microcosm of what is happening to the ocean systems at large. The stresses piled up: overfishing, oil spills, industrial discharges, nutrient pollution, wetlands destruction, the introduction of an alien species. The sea weakened, slowly at first, then collapsed with shocking suddenness. The lessons of this tragedy should not be lost to the rest of us, because much of what happened here is being repeated all over the world. The ecological stresses imposed on the Black Sea were not unique to communism. Nor, sadly, was the failure of governments to respond to the emerging crisis.
* * *
BATUMI GEORGIA, FALL 1997
It was a torrential downpour, a vertical blast of rain driven forth from the crevices of the Caucasus high above. My umbrella turned inside out as soon as I left the mud-splattered bus. I was soaked through by the time I reached the derelict concrete bridge spanning the nearby river.
I had traveled for four days by car, aircraft, train, ship, and bus to find myself walking through a muddy garbage dump outside Batumi, the largest port in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The city stands on the far eastern end of the Black Sea, where Europe and Asia meet on a bit of Near Eastern coastline at the corner of Turkey and Georgia. It's part of a country that's home to one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, tenaciously surviving alongside more powerful neighbors and pushing aside would-be invaders. Georgians say that when God divided the Earth among its peoples, the Georgians were sleeping after a long night of partying. By the time they finally showed up, God was out of land. But He had enjoyed their party so much that He gave them the bit of land He had been saving for himself: a wedge of warm beaches, green river gorges, and rugged snow-capped mountains. Unfortunately, God hasn't been so generous to Georgians since.
The dumping ground was littered with old Christmas tinsel, rusty cans, a cheap aluminum fork, and the plastic torso of a discarded doll. Chunks of machinery and vehicles were strewn among corroding storage drums. A pair of grazing cows were feeding on weeds growing on top of a decaying Russian bulldozer. The dump's orange-vested attendants, seemingly embarrassed that foreigners had seen the livestock here, encouraged the beasts to leave by throwing rocks at them. The cows retreated into a garbage-strewn depression nearby to continue their feeding.
From the bridge I could see racing gray water through tractor-sized holes in the roadway. This Soviet-era solid waste dump was eroding into the river, the rain-soaked soil sloughing off the embankment as we watched. Oil, battery acid, and whatever was in the storage drums was seeping into the watershed, which emptied into the Black Sea. This had been going on for years.
Fortunately the problem had the attention of the government of newly independent Georgia. In fact, Deputy Environment Minister Tengiz Gordeladze had brought us here and was now standing in our midst and yelling at the top of his lungs so as to be heard over the gale.
"We need help from the outside world," Gordeladze was shouting over the howling wind. His suit was completely soaked and rain streamed off the end of his nose. "Something has to be done."
It rained all that day in Batumi, which had been the rainiest place in the USSR when there was such a country. In town, green algae grew along the damp walls of buildings. Beggars took shelter under concrete awnings. Water puddled in the broken pavements until a passing vehicle splashed it out onto unlucky pedestrians. The mountains remained shrouded in mist. French sailors in the last century called Batumi "Le pissoir de la Mer Noire" because of the rain. These days this could apply equally well to the untreated human sewage pouring into the sea from rivers and sewer drains.
The main street was a mix of old and new. Drab state-owned stores stood their ground amongst little new boutiques selling cheap goods brought across the nearby border with Turkey. It was difficult to tell which stores were open because nobody turned the lights on until well after dark. A war refugee was squatting in the doorway of the bookstorean old man wearing a dirty, worn suit who'd repaired the frames of his thick glasses with masking tape. The cardboard box in front of him was covered in plastic to protect it from the rain. I noticed it was full of bank notes. "Change money?" he asked with little enthusiasm.
The old Soviet guidebook I purchased inside showed pictures of happy tourists packed onto palm-tree-lined beaches. A smiling young couple shared a bottle of wine in a hotel restaurant, he in a gray suit and sideburns, she wearing a burnt orange dress and lots of makeup. Concrete hotel towers stood behind a sunlit beach in a picture captioned "Contemporary architectural achievements ensure comfort?
Outside we found some teenagers standing under umbrellas on the pebbly beach on the way out of town. Josef and Costa, the photographers I was with, took their pictures and invited them to have a coffee at a stand-up cafe. They turned out to be refugees from Abkhazia, a region the size of Long Island that had seceded from the rest of Georgia in a bloody war. They lived ten-to-a-room in one of the nearby hotels, now a refugee hostel. Only one had a parent who was employed. Another had a brother who worked on commission for a Turkish "businessman" changing money on the streeta popular occupation, judging from the number of moneychangers hanging around the main market.
We ate tasty potato dumplings under florescent lights in a worker's cafeteria. Several tables had been drawn together to allow a second grade class to celebrate their classmate's birthday. The children wore homemade sweaters, clean button-down shirts, and wool jackets. Two men at the next table spooned soup silently, occasionally staring at us with blank faces and sad, brown Georgian eyes. Josef included their table in the round of beers he ordered in his native Czech. They solemnly toasted him when they were served. "To your health," Josef suggested.
"Better to drink to the children," the older one said in Russian. "For us it is too late."
* * *
CONSTANTA, ROMANIA, SUMMER 1990
Batumi had been popular because it was the southernmost resort in the old Soviet Union, but for decades the resorts of the Romanian coast were the most coveted destination in the entire Eastern Bloc. The industrial working class packed Romania's beach resorts on their annual break from the gray factories and coal mines of Britain, Bulgaria, and Belorussia. They came by the millions each summer to bask on fine sand beaches and while away the nights over bottles of Dobrudgean wine and high-octane Tsuica in the open-air restaurants lining the shore. Two weeks at a Black Sea resort was one of the great perks afforded to the proletariat, and in the late 1970s Romania was the most prized destination. Those were heady days for the Romanian socialist utopia, when the hardest-working laborers of the socialist world came together in the hive-like concrete vacation complexes of Constanta County for a party that lasted all summer long.
In the 1970s, when Sorin Strutinsky was a boy, the waters of the Black Sea were still clean and clear. His family lived in Constanta, the ancient Greek port of Tomis, which for thirty years served as the main staging ground for the summer tourist invasion. For Constanta residents it was easy to take in the mud cures at Eforie Nord or whisk the children off for a day on the beaches of Saturn, Neptune, Jupiter, or Venus, a chain of high-rise beachfront resorts stretching south to the Bulgarian border. It was a childhood spent in the midst of Lenin's "Daytona Beach" among topless women, naked, screaming children, and tipsy Ukrainian machinists.
One summer, while Sorin was still in high school, the sea began to change. The water had a sticky, slimy feel. It smelled badlike rotting eggsand there were lots of dead fish in it. After a swim in the Black Sea, bathers found their bodies covered in a strange coating. Afterwards, some became sick, and others stopped swimming in the sea altogether.
By the time of my first visit to the Romanian coast, the party was definitely over. It was late June 1990, and weeds surrounded the high-rise concrete hotels that stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the thin sandy isthmus of Mamaia, Romania's answer to Miami Beach. The hotels were all owned by the Ministry of Tourism and their dreary employees sat in the lobbies watching reruns of Dallas, which was the rage in Romania that summer. There was very little traffic along the strip, no cars or buses in the parking lots. Restaurants and bars had little more to offer than domestic brandy and greasy pork cutletsthere was no beer, wine, juice, or even mineral water. Nor were there any tourists to serve them to.
Sorin was then twenty-two and the editor-in-chief of an independent newspaper started by his university friends in the aftermath of that winter's bloody revolution. They'd watched television images of the fighting in Bucharest, where huge crowds braved freezing cold, tanks, and sniper fire to ensure the end of a dictatorship that had destroyed their lives. "We celebrated for a week," he recalled. "Until we realized that the new government was being run by the same people who ran the last one. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu are dead, but democracy's yet to be born."
So they'd started a newspaper in a rented basement and that summer had taken to denouncing the new government and concocting conspiracy theories as to what had really occurred that winter. When I came by their musty office to talk about it they piled everyone into an aging taxi and sped up to Mamaia for "lunch." This turned out to be an all-day affair, a procession of pork cutlets and watery brandy that I was usually appointed to pay for. We wandered from one restaurant to another, although they all served the same meal prepared exactly the same way, served on ubiquitous Romanian Tourist Office dishware beside aluminum forks on soiled, mustard yellow tablecloths. The entire townall ninety high-rises with their accompanying restaurants, bars, and shopshad been built en masse in 1960-1963 following a Communist Party decree. It was really one gigantic hotel.
I didn't learn much about the revolutionSorin's conspiracy theories were crazed and contradictory when he was sober and incomprehensible after several glasses of brandy-and-coke. Instead I watched one of his friends dive fully clothed into a brackish green swimming pool. When he surfaced he began singing along with the synthesizer-crazed band out on the patio. The tune was Abba's "Dancing Queen" but the lyrics were unintelligible.
"It's sad to see my town like this," Sorin said, leaning back in his chair to gaze up at fifteen stories of darkened hotel windows. "It's never going to be the sameand I don't mean just because of the end of communism. The sea has also changed, it's dirtier and uglier than before."
He paused and smiled wryly. "And so are we."
The next day I ditched Sorin and company and explored Mamaia on my own.
The beach was deserted except for some local teens rough-housing in the surf and a young East German family lying burnt-red under the afternoon sun. There were a few dead fish on the beach. Up the coast the Mediora Voda Chemical Plant could be seen spewing yellow smoke into the air and who-knows-what into the water. But when in Romania ...
The water was cool and refreshing and I swam submerged out from the beach. Then I floated lazily on my back, semi-weightless like an unborn child. After a few minutes I noticed that I had drifted into an enormous slick of brown-tinged scum. The water was viscous and covered with bits of unhealthy brown foam. Algae mixed with human sewage, a slick the size of a football field stretching along the beachfront twenty yards from the water's edge. It was my first and last swim in the Black Sea.
Other tourists weren't coming to the Black Sea coast at all. Traian Arhip, the managing director of the state firm that operated Mamaia's strip of state-owned hotels, lamented the collapse of one of his country's most important industries. "Arrivals are off by ninety percent," he told me in his hectic Bucharest office. Hot, exhaust-laden air drifted into the third-story window from the busy boulevard below. A faded poster of a rather intimidating concrete resort complex hung on the drab wall. "The British made up more than half of our business before, but now they won't come on account of the shortages and political instability. The Soviets don't have any money, and the East Germans and Czechs are off seeing the West for the first time. It's a real disaster."
Romania's economic and political crisis had scared its tourists away. But on my future visits to the Romanian and Bulgarian coast I learned that Black Sea resort operators were discovering a new problem in winning tourists back. The sea that had drawn these herds of cash cows to their shores was now scaring them away. Fecal contamination and toxic algae blooms forced regular beach closures at the height of the short summer tourist season. There were outbreaks of cholera and hepatitis. The wind carried blankets of decomposing fish onto shore, to the consternation of vacationers and authorities alike.
"Repeat business," Arhip said dryly, "is way off."
* * *
It's ironic that the is sea bringing Death and malaise to Constanta, Batumi, Varna, and other ancient cities. For it was the sea that nourished the civilizations that grew upon its shoresthe Greeks and Scythians, Ottomans and Russians, modern Turkey and Ukraine. It gave them food, moderated the climate, transported their cargo, and absorbed their wastes.
The Ancient Greeks named this the Euxine, or hospitable, Sea. Jason and his Argonauts came here in pursuit of the Golden Fleece. They discovered this enormous sea at the other side of a treacherous, narrow, and previously unknown strait, the Bosporus, where a strong current runs towards the Mediterranean. Running against the current in tiny Greek coastal craft was no easy feat, and the Argonauts' Bronze Age journey would not be repeated until the eighth century B.C.
Emerging from the long, difficult passage through the straits, the Greeks found fish and timber in great abundance. On the shores of the Crimea and what is now Russia and Ukraine the colonists planted wheat. Fish, grain, and lumberthree resources the city-states of Hellenic Greece had long since exhaustedwere plentiful around these new colonies, including Tomis (Constanta). Independent traders kept Greek civilization going, delivering the bounty of this most Euxine region.
Like the civilizations that followed them, the Greeks' survival depended in large part on the healthy functioning of vast communities of life on the shore and within the salty depths. The Euxine Greeks caught and ate fish, cured them, and traded them with Hellenic merchants in exchange for olive oil and manufactured goods from Athens, Egypt, and beyond. The hungry city-states of the Aegean were exhausting the arable lands outside their walls and increasingly relied on the Black Sea trade for their sustenance and for lumber to build the ships that maintained these lifelines. Later they planted wheat on the great Russian steppes, the first seeds of what would remain the breadbasket of the Western world for almost three thousand years.
But it was the creatures of the Black Sea that brought human civilization here and allowed it to prosper on its shores. In the lagoons at the mouths of the great rivers one could easily net pike, salmon, and shad. Schools of enormous sturgeon rushed into the estuaries to breed, and the females were harvested for the huge quantities of black caviar found within; these fish eggs were so plentiful that in fourteenth-century Byzantium caviar was the food of the poor. So productive were the sturgeon of the. Danube, Dneiper, and Dneister estuaries that today the words "Russian" and "caviar" are linked in the popular mind.
Schools of anchovies circumnavigated the sea each year. So timely were their migrations that fishermen could predict their annual arrival near their home ports within a day or two. These enormous schools fattened themselves on the northwest shelf, then circled the south coast, consuming tiny floating animals, and wintered in the warmer waters off Batumi and Sukhumi. They were pursued all the while by bonito, mackerel, tuna, and dolphins, part of a food chain topped by fishermen seeking to net them all. The fishermen's job was made easier by the massive springtime migration through the narrow Kerch Straits into the spawning grounds of the Sea of Azov. One had only to stand on the shore here or at the entrance of other bays on the northern coast to catch as many nets full of fish as one could carry. Farmers spread anchovies on their fields as cheap fertilizer, and fishing ports around the sea prospered with each harvest of the great migrating herd.
The anchovies, their predators, and the fishermen all depended on the remarkable sea-grass meadows and kelp forests of the northwest shelf. Inside any bay or inlet that afforded protection from the waves grew great submarine pastures of Zostera grass, which sheltered a cornucopia of life: amphipods, isopods, and shrimp; mollusks, crabs, and pipefish; feasting grounds for sprat, turbot, mullet, whiting, and rays. These or their larvae provided food for open-water fish like the anchovy; many species were delicacies for humans as well.
As the Zostera meadows petered out in deeper water, gravelly banks of broken mussel shells sheltered huge quantifies of pearl-producing oysters. Still farther out, the sea was ringed with a thick carpet of sea mussels. These flourished in the Black Sea in unusually large numbers, growing fat by filtering the rich nutrients emptied into the sea by the great rivers of Europe.
But the center of this vast ecological web lay still farther offshore. In the middle of the shelf grew an enormous forest of brownish-red Phyllophora kelp, a rooted cousin of the famous sargassum that can grow to a height of twenty feet. Here it covered fifty-eight hundred square miles and had an aggregate mass of as much as six million metric tonsthe largest concentration of rooted red algae in the entire world ocean. This forest was one of the keystones of the Black Sea's living community; it fed and sheltered 170 animal speciessponges, anemones, shrimp, and crabsmany of them found only in this body of water. It also was a principal source of oxygen on the northwest shelf, where most marine life is found. Yuvenaly Zaitsev of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences estimates that it produced two million cubic meters of oxygen a day, which is enough to fill three Superdomes with pure oxygen. Humans harvested the tops of the kelp forests for agar, the stuff that encapsulates your vitamin E pills; keeps pre-packaged coffee cakes soft for weeks at a time; and assists in the healing of burns, the preservation of canned meats, and the cultivation of laboratory bacteria.
* * *
All this is gone. The Phyllophora forests have died, taking their residents with them. The mussel fields and oyster banks have disappeared, as have shrimp and crabs. The anchovy herds are all but destroyed. Wild sturgeon are endangered, the monk seal is probably extinct. It's become a most inhospitable sea for any creature more complex than a floating jelly.
This disaster was caused by the ignorance and indifference of countless people. Austrian farmers and Turkish fishermen, Serbian, Slovak, and Romanian hydro-engineers, Bulgarian hotel developers and Soviet party planners, oil company executives and shipping magnatesall share blame.
The sea endured many stresses, but the worst were the increasingly poisonous injections it received from its own tributaries. Four major rivers empty into the Black Sea and its companion, the Sea of Azov. One, the Danube, accounts for more than half of the total flow of fresh water and pollution into the sea. It is there, hundreds of miles from the Romanian coast, that one must begin looking for the causes of the Black Sea's ecological collapse.