Russian Ecocide: Thousands of Dolphins Die in the Black Sea From Russian Attacks


Over the past six months, thousands of dolphins have died in the Black Sea, probably one-fifth of their total population. Carcasses emerge near the Odesa Region and the occupied Crimea, as well as on the coasts of neighboring countries. Experts believe that the deaths are being caused by sonars on Russian ships, which disorients animals. As a result, they can not find food and die of hunger or get beached. Ukrainian experts are already considering a plan to restore their population after the end of the war, and law enforcement officers have opened criminal proceedings for ecocide.

Before the full-scale war, there were at least 250 thousand dolphins in the Black Sea. There were five times as many marine mammals a century ago, but industrial fishing has significantly reduced their numbers. To prevent their extinction, the dolphins became protected by the Red Book of Ukraine and international conventions.

Starting from February 24, mass dolphin deaths have been recorded near the Odesa Region, the occupied Crimea, as well as in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania. Unlike before the war, when most of their deaths were caused by poachers’ nets, now they are primarily killed by Russian aggression: naval mines, underwater noise, and explosions.

The current number and condition of the animals are unknown. Experts cannot name the exact number of deaths, because the Russians continue to block navigation, and the Black Sea remains mined. 

According to Ivan Rusiev, the head of the research department of the Tuzly Estuaries National Nature Park, who assists in the pre-trial investigation (more on the investigation itself later), the death of the dolphins is associated with acoustic trauma from the hostilities. Russians use sonars on their ships, which create powerful sounds and adversely affect the health of animals. Because of this, they cannot find food and die of starvation, or become disoriented and get beached. 

“Mass deaths can be explained by two reasons. The first is acoustic trauma. It affects the inner ear and the dolphin becomes completely blind. It may stumble upon a mine, but most importantly, it cannot catch fish, leading to weight loss and immune system deterioration. Its body becomes susceptible to viruses and bacteria. The second reason is the heavy bombardment of the Black Sea. It forced the dolphins to swim quickly to the surface and led to decompression, i.e. pressure drop. Animals suffered bleeding or even myocardial infarctions,” the researcher said. 

Over the past six months, about 2.5 thousand dead dolphins have been found on the Black Sea coast, Rusiev added. Since about 5% of dead animals wash ashore, and the rest drown, the real number of their losses in the Black Sea can reach 50 thousand, a fifth of their total number.

The researcher called this figure catastrophic, because the increase in the population at least to the pre-war state will take more than one decade. To solve this problem, environmentalists propose to create a reserve on the Black Sea coast after the war and to set up an office on Snake Island (which does not conflict with the work of the border guard post there). On this territory, dolphins will be able to breed in a comfortable environment, and researchers will be able to monitor them. In addition, the Ministry of Environment wants to create a rehabilitation center for animals within the Tuzly Estuaries park, where after recovery they will be released into the natural environment. Such locations, according to the researcher, must be both environmental and touristic.

The criminal proceedings on the mass killing of dolphins in the Black Sea were initiated by law enforcement officers at the request of Ivan Rusiev and his colleagues from the National Park. Currently, prosecutors of the Specialized Environmental Prosecutor’s Office, academics, environmentalists, and veterinarians are involved. Experts have already conducted autopsies of six previously found dead dolphins and some samples are planned to be sent for research to their foreign colleagues: the University of Padua in Italy and the University of Hannover in Germany. In addition, law enforcement officers will be assisted in the investigation by experts from Bulgaria, Turkey, and Romania, whose legal assistance they have requested.

“In Romania, we found people who made similar autopsies of dolphins in their country. The results confirmed that it was an acoustic trauma. Because the deformation of the ear bones was visible through computed tomography. Yes, the dolphin had parasites and viral diseases, but these are secondary phenomena. Also, we are now negotiating with Bulgaria and Turkey on the organization of the reserve, and how it should function to restore the population. Because this is not a question of Ukraine alone, it is an international endeavor. And if we can unite, we will give the dolphins a chance to recover,” Rusiev said.

International humanitarian law considers such mass environmental destruction a war crime. This is stated in paragraph 2 of Article 8 of the Rome Statute. It states that an intentional attack that causes severe damage to the environment and is disproportionate to the expected military advantage is a war crime. 

In order to collect more relevant cases of criminal actions of the Russians, which not only destroy cities and civilians in the war with Ukraine, but also nature and, in fact, all living things, the Ministry of Environmental Protection has created a special application “Eco Threat“, where every Ukrainian can report Russian environmental crimes they have witnessed. 

Olha Ivlieva

This article was created by Bihus.Info as part of the project “EU Urgent Support for Civil Society” implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. The content of the article is the sole responsibility of Bihus.Info and does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union.

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