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Death hangs over Black Sea: Polluted by the effluent of 16 countries, it is now the 'most damaged sea in the world'

THE Black Sea is dying. For all their boisterous calls to commuters struggling home through the rain-streaked traffic of Istanbul, even the fishmongers in the little harbours along the Bosporus know it. The silver fish glittering under arc-lights barely fill two of the five rows of red barrel-tops ranged behind them. Few people stop. In a country whose 4,400 miles of coast have made fish a staple for millenniums, even a kilo of local red mullet now costs a week's minimum wage.

'There used to be lots of types, lots of fish. Our shops were full, full,' said Ahmet Celik, 34, who has been in the business 18 years and now finds he has to flesh out his offerings with mackerel from Norway. 'There's virtually nothing left.'

Stalwart and indebted captains of Turkey's Black Sea fishing fleet still chug up the Bosporus to chance their luck. But their way of life has collapsed. The total Black Sea annual catch is now about 100,000 tons, down from a peak of 800,000 tons in the 1980s.

'It's the most damaged regional sea in the world,' said a marine chemist, Laurence D Mee, noting that the Black Sea's last few monk seal were about to vanish. Dolphins and porpoises could be next.

The Black Sea is now a cesspit for the six riparian states of Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Romania and Bulgaria. The rivers of 10 other countries also bear the effluent of 160 million people living and working in a catchment area that covers the poorest half of continental Europe. By the time the 'Blue Danube' reaches the sea in Romania, that great river alone discharges 60 tons of mercury, 1,000 tons of chromium, 4,500 tons of lead and 50,000 tons of oil every year.

Peculiar geography has always made the Black Sea's deep waters the largest anoxic body of water on the planet: it has no oxygen and only primitive bacteria. River flow and plentiful rain have only one exit, the Bosporus strait. Which is the equivalent of draining an Olympic swimming pool with a garden hose.

As long as the ecology was in balance, the low salinity of surface water and a wide coastal shelf along its northern shores helped the Black Sea to a productivity five times that of the salty Mediterranean. Huge fields of sea grass aired the water and clams and mussels filtered the mess.

All this has changed in just three decades. Dams have cut the flow of main rivers by up to a half. Rising salinity has condemned the Sea of Azov in the north-east. The level of lifeless, sunless water has now risen up to 120 metres below the surface, suffocating the once fertile north-western coastal shelf.

The marine food chain, already under severe pressure from overfishing, was hit by a parallel invasion of jellyfish. Local Aurelia medusae bloomed to a biomass of 350 million tons from a million tons in the 1960s. The coup de grace was the arrival in ships' ballast of Menmiopsis leidyi, a gelatinous tube and ecological dead- end that gobbles up the primary food and fish larvae and is, so far, eaten by nothing else.

Oyster beds were the first resource to disappear, attacked by an invading Japanese sea snail in the 1940s. Nearly 30 kinds of marketable fish have dwindled to half a dozen. Tourist beaches have to be closed when they turn brown and smelly. And the sea grass fields in the north-western coastal shelf have shrunk to a 50- square kilometre patch, 5 per cent of their former extent. 'The sea grass was the lungs, the mussels the kidneys. Once this ecosystem starts to break down, you have a disaster,' said Dr Mee in his office in Istanbul.

For years the Black Sea's agony was hostage to Cold War suspicions, and lacked any co- ordinated approach. But even though the region is wracked by economic crisis and even wars, environment ministers have at last started to act. In April 1994, a first region-wide convention against pollution entered force. A first Fisheries Convention will soon be signed.

The career of Dr Mee, an energetic 43-year-old from Ipswich, has concentrated on the Black Sea for years. Working close to the screaming jet engines of Istanbul airport, scientists and visitors radiate enthusiasm - a vital ingredient since there is little more money.

Dr Mee estimates the clean-up of the Great Lakes between the United States and Canada cost dollars 13bn ( pounds 8bn) over more than 15 years. Halving the phosphates feeding into the wealthy Rhine River basin took 15 years.

Despite the participation of US institutions and even Nato, Dr Mee has about dollars 25m and just three years.

Much has already been achieved. An emergency response centre is operational in Bulgaria. The first co-ordinated pollution monitoring equipment will be in place everywhere by the end of the year. An 'Infoship' is being organised to tour Black Sea ports next year. A joint programme on fish-farming starts next week. Encouraged by Dr Mee's policy unit in Istanbul, each of the six states has set up a centre.

'If people see some kind of action on the environment, it stimulates actions in all sorts of areas,' Dr Mee said, noting that the collegiate atmosphere he was fostering was the only way to sustain joint action through the decades of work still to be done.

Ultimately, local wealth will be vital. The programme plans fish-farming and tourism development. A self-sustaining regional fund into which polluters would pay port taxes or beach- entry fees is being debated. Scientists are also studying the controversial possible introduction of new species to attack the jellyfish.

'In the Black Sea, the environment is already devastated,' said the unit's first newsletter. 'The concept of environmental management is one which may offer the only alternative to an economically value-less system.'

(Photograph omitted)