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Chapter Two: The State of the Environment - Europe and Central Asia

Marine and coastal areas

A characteristic feature of the region is that much of it is surrounded by semi-enclosed and enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean, Black, Azov, Aral, Caspian, Baltic and White Seas. These seas have limited or non-existent water exchange with the open seas, and are thus sensitive to the build-up of pollutants.

Contemporary pollution patterns were already established by the turn of the century; for example, industry was growing, mainly in Western European countries bordering the North Sea basin, oil fields were starting to develop in the Baku region on the Caspian Sea, and metallurgical and chemical factories were being built near the Sea of Azov.

After World War II, the rapid development of heavy industries, increasing use of chemicals in agriculture and rapid population growth led to increasing pressure on all the seas in and around Europe and Central Asia. These seas are also affected by pollutants and nutrients from agricultural and industrial sources generated far upstream, particularly along the Danube, Dnieper, Oder, Rhine, Vistula and Volga. Atmospheric deposition is also an important source of sea pollution.

With about one-third of Europe's population living within 50 km of coastal waters, urban and industrial development and tourism are resulting in growing pressures on already hard-pressed areas. The major issues of concern are eutrophication, contamination, mainly with heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and oil, overfishing and degradation of coastal zones (EEA 1998a).

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA 1998a), the most affected seas are the North Sea (overfishing, high nutrient and pollutant inputs), the Baltic Sea (high nutrient and pollutant inputs), the seas around the Iberian peninsula (overfishing and pollution from heavy metals), parts of the Mediterranean Sea (high nutrient inputs, coastal degradation, overfishing and the disposal of plastics), and the Black Sea (rapid increase of nutrient inputs and overfishing). In addition, the Arctic seas suffer from pollution from oil products, POPs and other materials. The Arctic Seas are dealt with in detail in the section on the polar regions.

Enclosed seas (such as the Caspian and Aral Seas) are facing rapid changes in sea level. Overfishing is also a serious problem in many seas.

North Sea

 North Sea fish stocks

(Click image to enlarge)

Source: UK DOE 1997

Some North Sea fish stocks areat historically low levels and most are overexploited

Two major problems affect the North Sea: eutrophication and overfishing. Phosphorus and nitrate discharges into the North Sea are increasing, mainly due to the run-off of surplus nutrients from agriculture, resulting in eutrophication of coastal waters. There was some reduction in the fishing fleet in 1995 and 1996 but most of the stocks of commercially exploited fish in the North Sea are in a serious condition. It has been estimated that the North Sea fishing fleet should be reduced by 40 per cent to match available fish resources (ICES 1996).

While other pollutants such as oil, heavy metals and persistent organic substances have been detected, particularly near point sources of emission, concentrations in biota and sediments are generally low. Total discharges of contaminated water from oil production facilities are increasing, however, as fields are getting older and more come into production. The concentration of oil in the water is still low, and dispersion and dilution is rapid (SFT 1996 and 1997)

Baltic Sea

Pollution of this shallow sea has been a serious problem throughout the second half of the 20th century. The high population in its basin - 77 million people (EEA 1995) - has resulted in high inputs of pollutants from surrounding countries, especially from Poland and the former Soviet Union. Until the late 1980s, major cities on its shores such as St Petersburg (4 million inhabitants) and Riga (800 000 inhabitants) had inadequate wastewater treatment facilities, and emissions from many industrial enterprises, including chemical factories, added to the problem (Mnatsakanian 1992).

Eutrophication is widespread, with algal blooms becoming more frequent and concentrations of toxic organic compounds growing (EEA 1995). Eutrophication has affected fish stocks, which have also suffered from overfishing and possibly, in the case of Baltic salmon, from organochloride pollutants (ICES 1994). Action to prevent the discharge of pollutants, by the Helsinki Commission, has, however, stabilized and even reduced the levels of some pollutants since the early 1990s (Ministry of Transport of the Republic of Latvia and Latvian Hydrometeorological Agency 1994).

Inputs of pollutants to the Baltic Sea will probably continue to fall as a result of major programmes to reduce emissions and bring production facilities in line with modern requirements under way in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and, to a certain extent, the Russian Federation.

Mediterranean Sea

The Mediterranean Sea is subject to pollution (including chemical and bacterial contamination and the spread of pathogenic micro-organisms) and eutrophication, mainly from inputs from rivers, especially along the African shores, the southern coasts of France and the North Adriatic (EEA 1995). The problems are mainly in semi-enclosed bays, some of which still receive large amounts of untreated sewage. Discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus is probably the cause of the phytoplankton blooms, the 'red tides' that are now frequent in certain parts of Mediterranean (UNEP/MAP 1996). The rapid growth of tourism is a major threat to the environment and biodiversity in much of the area. The sea has the highest species diversity among the European seas: some fish species are being overexploited, while others are thought to be within safe biological limits (FAO 1997b).

Black Sea and Azov Sea

The ecosystems of the Black Sea and the adjacent Sea of Azov have experienced drastic changes during the past ten years. About 170 million people live in the catchment area of the Black Sea (EEA 1995). Most pollutants enter it from international rivers (mainly the Danube but also the Dnieper, Dniester and Don), which bring down nutrients, oil, heavy metals, pesticides, surfactants and phenols. Eutrophication and overfishing, together with increased numbers of a species of jellyfish accidentally introduced in the 1980s, have led to a drastic decline in fish catches. Falling industrial activity since the early 1990s has resulted in less pollution of coastal waters (Ministry of Nature Protection of the Russian Federation 1996) but the construction of oil terminals in the Russian Federation and Georgia and the expected increase of oil tanker traffic are likely to increase pollution again.

The adjacent shallow Sea of Azov which, at the beginning of the century, had one of the richest fisheries in the world, has been under constant pressure from major industrial activities and high use of agrochemicals. During the past 30 years it has suffered from eutrophication and become practically devoid of fish (EEA 1995).

Aral Sea and Caspian Sea

 The fall and rise of the Caspian Sea

(Click image to enlarge)

Source: WCN 1997

The shrinking of the Aral Sea, caused by the construction of dams and irrigation networks which drastically diminished run-off in its basin (see GEO-1), has continued despite the international attention which the problem has received. Measures to return irrigation waters to the sea have not been sufficient to counter-balance evaporation, and the release of salt dusts along its shores continues.

The Caspian Sea possesses 85 per cent of the world's stock of sturgeon and is the source of 90 per cent of all black caviar. The sea is contaminated by a number of chemicals, including phenols, oil products and surfactants (Azerbaijan State Committee for the Environment and UNDP 1997). The water level of the Caspian fell during the 1960s and 1970s as its natural fluctuations were compounded by the construction of dams which slowed down water turnover. This was followed by rapid construction on exposed shores in the Russian Federation and the bordering Central Asian republics. But in 1978 the water level started to rise again and has now risen by some 2.5 metres (see graph). The sea level has now stabilized and may even be falling. While the changed levels of the Aral Sea are certainly due to mismanagement of local water resources, the causes of the changes to the Caspian Sea level are more complicated; global warming may be a contributory factor (WCN 1997).

These changes in level have serious effects on settlements, infrastructure and land resources, and especially on oil and gas extraction facilities (Dukhovny and Sokolov 1996). The problems are complex and potentially serious. On the political front, there is the question of establishing ownership of and responsibility for infrastructure if repairs are needed. Livelihoods and the local economy, particularly fisheries and the oil industry, are threatened, and there are environmental risks to fish stocks and water supplies, for example from leakages from broken pipes.

Pacific Seas

 Nuclear pollution in the Arctic

From the 1960s onwards, Soviet naval authorities dumped liquid wastes and buried solid nuclear wastes and obsolete reactors from submarines and nuclear icebreakers in the shallow waters along the eastern coast of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago and in the Barents and Kara Seas (Governmental Commission on Radioactive Waste Pollution of the Seas 1993). Although the wastes were often buried in special protective covers designed to prevent contact with sea water for several hundred years, at least in theory, these sites, together with the Russian Federation's ageing nuclear submarine fleet, represent an important potential threat of nuclear contamination (AMAP 1997).


Pollution along the Pacific coast of the Russian Federation, mainly by oil and oil products, heavy metals and pesticides, is concentrated mainly in ports and bays. In addition, pulp and paper factories are significant sources of pollution. Serious potential threats are presented by off-shore oil drilling at the northern tip of Sakhalin Island (Ministry of Nature Protection of the Russian Federation 1996), the dumping of liquid radioactive wastes in the open parts of the Sea of Japan and rusting nuclear submarines in naval bases along the coast north of Vladivostok.

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