The Black Sea was hard habitat for dolphins even before the shooting started
ISTANBUL, Turkey––That war kills animals as well as humans is scarcely in doubt, but whether war is worse than peace for Black Sea dolphins may be disputed.
Nearly three months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 2022, evidence is surfacing along the coasts of Turkey and Bulgaria that war––predictably––is hell for dolphins.
Yet Black Sea dolphins might also benefit from the Russian blockade of Ukrainian harbors, from the international boycott of shipping to Russia declared in response to the invasion of Ukraine, and from fishing vessels tending to stay out of possible lines of fire.
“More than 100 dolphins”
“More than 100 dolphins have washed up on the Turkish coast since February, a high number compared to previous years, according to Uğur Özsandıkçı, lead marine life researcher at Sinop University,” reported Naomi Cohen of NBC News from Istanbul on May 13, 2022.
Pavel Goldin, identified by Cohen as “a marine biologist specializing in dolphins at the Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology in Ukraine,” explained to her that “The low-frequency sonar of warships and submarines directly interferes with dolphins’ echolocation,” disrupting their ability to hunt and navigate around shoreline obstacles and floating mines.
“Crisis in biodiversity”
“These deaths and other war-related pollution could create a ‘crisis in biodiversity,’ according to the Turkish Marine Research Foundation,” Cohen continued.
“Satellite images published last month suggest that Russia may be using bottlenose dolphins to guard its Sevastopol base, but the claims were never confirmed,” Cohen went on.
The Russian military dolphin program began in 1965, six years after the U.S. military dolphin program. It was headquartered at Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula, home base for the Russian Black Sea fleet since 1783.
However, the Crimean peninsula became part of Ukraine after Ukraine left the former Soviet Union in 1984.
Russia reacquired the dolphin program by forcibly annexing Crimea in 2014.
Most of the combat dolphins died
“Ukrainian media reported in 2018 that most of the combat dolphins that Russia had seized at the Crimean base had died, likely of starvation,” Cohen said.
Of greater importance to the health of the Black Sea dolphin population as a whole, Goldin told Cohen, sonar and other noise associated with warfare might drive fish away from the waters frequented by some Black Sea dolphins.
This in turn might oblige the dolphins to leave their familiar habitat or starve.
But the limited available forensic evidence suggests that warfare might have had little to do with the reported surge in dolphin deaths.
“Özsandıkçı conducted a necropsy on four common dolphins that showed that most were tangled in fishing nets,” Cohen wrote. “He sent more carcasses to Ankara for further study to better understand why they were driven into the nets in the first place.”
The Bulgarian rescue organization Green Balkans meanwhile “reported that a lone common dolphin was found in a harbor in April, whereas common dolphins rarely break from their schools and usually stay in the open sea far from the coast,” Cohen recounted.
“Also, 52 harbor porpoises were found tangled in fishing nets in April, compared to 10 that were found last year. Bottlenose dolphins are usually too big and nimble to be caught,” Cohen said, “but Green Balkans said eight were found dead last month off the coast of Bulgaria.”
Fishing changed the Black Sea ecosystem
Thus, while hypotheses abound about dolphins and porpoises dying due to effects of warfare, the immediate cause of their deaths, when known, remains fishing activity, the same as in peacetime.
The World Wildlife Fund warned in June 2005 that fishing nets jeopardized the survival of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the Black Sea.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in July 2007 published a 50-year study by Georgi Daskalov and colleagues at the British Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture finding, BBC News summarized, that excessive fishing had gradually changed the entire Black Sea ecosystem.
Jellies took over
First, overfishing “effectively removed top predators––including dolphins, mackerel and bluefin tuna” before 1970, BBC News said.
“Without predation, small plankton-eating fish, such as anchovy and sprat, increased in number,” causing the Black Sea fishing fleet to refocus toward catching the then-abundant smaller species.
“By the early 1990s, there was a collapse of these stocks,” Daskalov told BBC News.
That enabled comb jellyfish to take over the habitat.
Collapse of fishing allowed fish to recover habitat
“A European Environment Agency report in 2005 found that comb jelly, which arrived in the Black Sea via ships’ ballast water, accounted for 90% of the Black Sea’s entire biomass at one point,” BBC News continued.
“As fish stocks fell, many [people] left the fishing industry,” BBC News continued. “This allowed the populations of plankton-eating fish to stage a recovery and compete with the jellyfish for the zooplankton.”
Without that transition, there might not have been enough fish left to support much of a dolphin population.
By August 2009 there were several reported mass dolphin deaths along the Turkish coast of the Black Sea, but Black Sea Marine Mammal Board chair Alex Birkun told media that “It seems this is the result of morbillivirus infection,” previously known to have hit Black Sea dolphins in 1994.
“Contraband dolphin hunting”
Ukrainian film maker and animal advocate Igor Parfenov, however, suspected fishing activity. “Now I am shooting a new feature film about contraband dolphin hunting in the Black Sea,” Parfenov told ANIMALS 24-7 in December 2010.
“Illegal destruction of dolphins is done by fishing boats that kill dolphins as their competitors, parasites, who catch too much fish,” Parfenov explained. “After catching dolphins in nets,” in which the dolphins drown, “they throw them overboard.”
Despite Parfenov’s efforts, and the efforts of many others, Black Sea dolphin deaths continued––and increased in number and frequency.
Dolphin crisis in 2012
Reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on May 28, 2012, “Hardly a day goes by in Sochi, Russia’s picturesque Black Sea resort, without a dead dolphin washing up on the beach.
The dolphin carcasses are also turning into a real holiday spoiler for vacationers drawn to the region’s scenic beaches and pristine vistas.
“The dolphins started washing up along Russia’s Black Sea coast several weeks ago,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty continued. “They have also been spotted on Ukrainian shores. Environmentalists are now talking about the biggest dolphin die-off to date in the region, with an estimated 300 dead so far.”
War & Peace
Training wild-caught dolphins for warfare in the Black Sea has historically attracted much more attention than the effects of ordinary human activity on dolphins still in the wild.
In March 2000, for instance, the world wondered why Iran bought 27 animals formerly trained by the Russian Navy from Ukraine, including dolphins, walruses, sea lions, seals, and a beluga whale, and hired their longtime chief trainer, Boris Zhurid.
Zhurid had founded an oceanarium and tried to keep the animals himself after they all were mustered out of military service, but the oceanarium reportedly went bankrupt.
What became of the dolphins and other animals who went to Iran is unclear. Zhurid, as of 2020, was directing Agadir Dolphin World, a dolphinarium in Morocco, also stocked with former Russian military dolphins.
No CITES protection
Two years after the animal sale to Iran, the German Dolphin Conservation Society, German Association of Scuba Divers, and Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry in 2002 reportedly persuaded Egyptian authorities to block the proposed acquisition of two former Russian military dolphins by the Sindbad Beach Resort in Hurghada.
Marine mammal advocates hoped to add the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin population to Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species [CITES] in December 2002, meaning that trading in Black Sea dolphins would be globally prohibited.
The nation of Georgia, formerly part of the Soviet Union, bordering on the Black
Sea, introduced the motion to put Black Sea dolphins on Appendix I, with U.S. support.
Needing 48 votes from CITES member nations to pass, the proposal failed by getting just 40 votes, with 31 “no” votes and 39 abstentions.
Opposition to the proposal was led by Russia, Japan, Canada, and Cuba, the four nations which at the time exported the most bottlenose dolphins to exhibition facilities worldwide.
The threat to the exporting nations, if Black Seas bottlenose dolphins had been put on Appendix I, was that other bottlenose dolphins might also have been added to Appendix I as lookalike species, in effect killing the entire dolphin export business.
Traffic in Black Sea dolphins and orcas and beluga whales captured in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk is believed to have continued, via the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station, at least until 2018.