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Ecological disaster in Kamchatka

Forged by volcanos, shaped by the glaciers

You may have never heard about Kamchatka before. However this peninsula located in the Russian Far East remains one of the most bewitching natural sanctuaries on Earth. The“Land of Fire and Ice” is a haven for both terrestrial biodiversity and the myriad of aquatic species, fauna and flora alike.  

Kamchatka embodies the relationship between mankind and its environment and where water sports are symbols of harmony. There, surfing offers an experience where pristine beaches are as magical as the conditions are dire. Diving sites offer visibility that can exceed 20 meters and where the wealth of biodiversity has nothing to envy from the best spots in the Red Sea. 

Ecocide in paradise 

This idyllic picture was unfortunately disturbed in the early days of October9: immaculate pebble beaches were replaced by a desolate landscape. Seals, octopuses, fish, sea urchins, starfish, etc. – a genuine aquatic cemetery was lying before Anton Mazarov’s eyes, founder of the first local surf school. From the very first moment, the female surfer @yola_la realized that the damage was considerable: pollution was visible for more than 40km between Avacha Bay and Cape Nalidiev. 

95% of the seafloor’s species are said to have disappeared in the Avacha Bay – Photo credits Elena Vereshaka/TASS 

The pictures of the disaster circled the globe and NGOs mobilized their support for Greenpeace Russia while local citizens were struck by the terrible blow to one of the country’s most beautiful regions. 

As it often happens, the pollution was discovered by surfers and other water sport enthusiasts. Starting around the 30th of September, cases of nausea, vomiting, fever, and skin irritation made it impossible and even dangerous to enter the water. On the 1st of October, Anton sounded the alarm.  

“We first thought that it was a home infection. We were using eye drops and meds against diarrhea. I had a severe headache, a rash, and my whole body was itching.  

Water didn’t taste nor smell like the ocean – it was yellow and green, cloudy, and looked like gelatin. It is hard to describe but just after 20 minutes in the water, you started sensing a bitterness in your nose with a metallic smell as if you were inside a factory.  

We didn’t know if these substances were going to have an accumulative effect. For the first time in my life, I felt that being in the Ocean practicing water sports was dangerous.” 

Photo credits : Anton Mazarov

Unknown cause, truly lethal consequences 

Albeit the pollution is clearly visible, given that “this suspicious dark green foam has clear limits, does not disintegrate and progressively moves towards the south without reducing size”, its source remains unknown according to the scientist, Kirill Vinnikov.  

Authorities have opened a criminal investigation but still refuse to rule out natural causes. For the Russian investigation committee, “this mass mortality could be the result of toxins released by a dazzling algae bloom caused by changes in climate”, which wouldn’t be unusual in the region according to Russian Sciences Academy Vice-president, Andrei Adrianov. Spontaneous and natural developments of algae can indeed occur if the optimal conditions are aligned, which is the case for instance in the Mediterranean with the apparition of Ostroepsis Ovata.    

For the scientist Vladimir Burkanov, the source of the pollution could come from residue of rocket fuel. The Radygino testing site is located 10 kilometers away from the damaged area. This hypothesis, however, has been strongly denied by representatives of Russia Pacific Fleet. 

As for Vladimir Chuprov, head of Greenpeace Russia, it is still too soon to define the causes of this disaster:   

“Despite a certain delay, it is a good thing to receive the first results from governmental agencies. Nonetheless, the obtained results are not sufficient to shed light on what has happened. In the case of a certain number of elements, such as heavy metals, the analysis is still in progress. We are missing some extremely important results, such as laboratory tests on tissues and organs of dead animals. The collected materials have also not been tested for pesticides.”  

We are still waiting for the results of water samples, as well as remains of dead animals collected by the inhabitants and by the Greenpeace team. Everybody is worried about how slowly the process of selection and analysis of samples is going in Kamchatka. Greenpeace Russia does not benefit from State resources, but we do everything to obtain the missing data as fast as possible. Scientists help us to optimize this process”.

Whilst the mystery around the circumstances of this disaster remains, the consequences are truly visible.

Analysis of the Russian federal agency for the supervision of natural resources has revealed toxic rates of chemical substances, largely exceeding the recommended thresholds: 10.8x excess of phosphate, 6.7x excess of iron, and 2.9x excess of phenol. Analysis has also shown the presence of oil in the contaminated waters. The latest analyses, dated from October 15th, also show the presence of hydrocarbons in contaminated water alongside fatty acids, ethers, chlorides, diallyl sulfide, terpenes, and hexagol. However, its latest information is not sufficient to determine the source of the pollution; while some of its elements are used in industry, others can be found in the natural environment.  

In addition to the dead animals found on land, it appears that more than 95% of the seafloor dwelling species have disappeared in Avacha Bay, according to the Kronotsky Reserve and the Pacific Institute of Geography scientist, Ivan Usatov14. The damages on the trophic chain could be irreversible15. 

There is no doubt that sports practice remains risky on the sanitary level. According to reports from the regional governor’s cabinet16, nine people, including Natasha Danilina, a local surfer, have been hospitalized for corneal 1st-degree burns. Mayi Rudik and Dmitry Ilyasov, two members of the national Russian surfing team have thus decided to file a complaint about burns contracted during their training sessions in Kamchatka17. This disaster also raises concerns about the permanent risk of water quality issues for sports practitioners and actors of the aquatic and nautical area. For Marc Valmassoni, water quality expert for Surfrider Foundation Europe, it is important to highlight the importance of those problematics among the association’s current missions:   

“Surfrider Europe has initiated research in collaboration with academics and scientists to evaluate the impact of exposure to chemical pollutants in the aquatic environment to nautical activity practitioners.”  

A disaster at the doors of Europe  

Although the battlefield may be a far distance from Surfrider Europe’s sphere of influence and action, the Ocean connects us all and the struggle for better water quality is well known by the association’s environmental experts. If the powerful visual impact of the situation in Russia ignites public outcry, we must keep in mind that today similar events occur in Europe and Surfrider Europe acts every day to preserve the health of our shared waters: 

Victory against offshore drilling in Northern Germany 

Continous campaigns against poor Water Quality in Northern Portugal

Fighting Oil Drilling projects in the Balearic Sea

Surfrider Foundation Europe hereby calls for a thorough investigation to be pursued and demands that the health of water sportsmen and women be considered and ensured, and that justice be done for the environment!