by Aleko Dyankov; photography by Stamen Manolov

40 years of Communist-style fishing and another 18 years of anarchy have robbed the Black Sea of life. It has no fish

Dead Black Sea.jpg

“There is no bluefish, the bonito is imported from Turkey and was frozen two years ago. We don't serve sprat!” No matter what restaurant you go to on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, this is what you'll hear. Talk to a fisherman and you'll get even more depressed. “There's no fish in the sea this year, apart from some lucky scad,” he'll say. Freshwater trout and North Sea salmon are now the standard in a country that has a sea of its own.

The Black Sea can't compare to the Aegean or the Mediterranean in terms of seafood variety. Fishermen catch mostly sprat, turbot, anchovy and goby, while in autumn there are (sometimes) schools of bonito, scad and bluefish - Mediterranean fish on their seasonal migration. The Black Sea mackerel has long since disappeared and the only octopus and squid you'll find in restaurants are imported frozen from Greece and are two, three or even four times more expensive than in Greek taverns.

The situation is at the least depressing. And it's getting worse. In the autumn of 2007 there was no bonito at all. At first, Bulgarians were not particularly anxious, blaming the warm weather, since “fish like cold water”. But when the sea cooled and the bonito was still a noshow, they started to worry. A leading Bulgarian daily reported that the year's bonito catch was a measly two pieces!


One of the reasons for the Black Sea's less-than-hospitable waters goes back 9,000 years. At that time the Black Sea was a lake that was salinified after the Ice Age. According to scientists Walter Pitman and William Ryan, the sea was formed when the Mediterranean spilled over at the present-day Dardanelles. According to their hypothesis, the people who lived on its shores immortalised the catastrophe in the story about The Flood, later recorded in many folk myths including the Bible.

Whatever its origin, it is a fact that the Black Sea is new and small, and is fed by major rivers such as the Danube, the Dnieper and the Dniester. Thus, its salinity of 17.3 per mil is twice as low as that of the Mediterranean - not salty enough for finicky marine fish.

There isn't much room for them in the Black Sea, anyway. Hydrogen sulphide appears at 150-200 m, or 490-660 ft, below the water surface and in this inhospitable, anoxic environment only a few types of bacteria can survive. Only about 10 percent of the entire sea is suitable for life, serving as home to about 180 species of fish and three species of dolphins.


Instead of protecting the Black Sea's frail resources, however, since the 1950s people have been destroying them at an alarming rate. The Danube, the Dnieper and the Dniester flood the sea with the synthetic fertilisers and debris they accumulate on their long courses. Many of the new hotels on the Bulgarian coast have no waste water recycling facilities. Ecological disasters occasionally occur, too. In November, for example, nearly 10 ships sank during a severe storm in the Sea of Azov, polluting it with dozens of tons of fuel oil and petroleum. “If you scuba dive to the bottom,” a fisherman from Ahtopol says, “you'll see that it is covered with plastic bags full of rubbish discarded from ships. Do you think fish will spawn in such a place?”

Industrial fishing has also played a significant role. Over the past 50 years, it has changed the whole ecosystem, as a study by Georgi Daskalov from the UK's Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science shows. Before the 1970s the overfishing of predators such as dolphins, mackerel and bluefin tuna increased the population of small fish such as anchovy and sprat. They were the next victims of industrial fishing and their stocks dwindled in turn during the 1990s.

Organisms alien to the Black Sea such as the comb jellyfish took over the fish-scarce waters. Arriving initially via ships' ballast water, in some places they now account for 90 percent of the sea's entire biomass.

“Bluefish and bonito are becoming increasingly rare. The main catch is sprat. Until recently it was entirely for the local market, but since the summer of 2007 there have been clients in Romania, too,” says Dzhemil Kadish, head of the Burgas branch of the National Agency for Fisheries and Aquaculture.

Fishermen have turned to veined rapa whelks. This marine gastropod hitchhiked from the Sea of Japan in the 1940s attached to ship hulls. The carnivorous snail quickly won a place in the food chain at the expense of the indigenous blue mussel. Initially, Bulgarians caught it only to sell the shell as a keepsake ashtray. In the 1990s, when they learnt that it was an expensive delicacy in Japan and Korea, they began fishing it extensively.

Black Sea shark is largely a thing of the past

Black Sea shark is largely a thing of the past

Bulgaria's accession to the EU will perhaps change the situation, though not in the near future. The moratorium on catching sturgeon, a globally endangered species, is not observed because expensive restaurants are always willing to pay for the occasional fish that gets caught in the nets. Bulgarian fishing boats are so old that the country was mercifully excluded from the list of EU countries that cannot replace the decommissioned ships in their fishing fleets with new ones.

The 80 million euro subsidy for the development of the fishing sector has yet to be utilised. The only sea farms in Bulgaria are for mussels, while the first experimental marine fish farm opened near Burgas in 2007, raising Barramundi, a sea perch from Australia.

When will Bulgarians and the other Black Sea nations realise that with their pollution and overfishing they are biting the hand that feeds them? Hopefully before it's too late. But while you're waiting for the Bulgarian bonito to turn up, get your dose of fresh sea fish in Greece.

The Black Sea

The Black Sea

436,000 Inhospitable Sq Km

The Black Sea has an area of 436,000 sq km, or 168,495 sq miles, and a maximum depth of 2,200 m, or 7,200 ft.

The annual inflow of seawater from the Mediterranean is 200 cu km, or 48 cu miles.

The countries bordering the Black Sea are Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and Turkey.

Because of its winter storms, the first Greek sailors called it the Inhospitable Sea. Later, when they got to know it and colonised its coast, they changed their mind and renamed it the Hospitable Sea.

For the ancient Greeks, Colchis, the land on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, was officially the end of the world. Jason stole the Golden Fleece from there.


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