Russian conservationists have been alerted to the possibility that waters off the 25-mile stretch of the pristine Kamchatka peninsula may have become contaminated by an unknown toxic substance that is affecting surfers and killing countless sea creatures.
In mid-September surfers started complaining of vomiting, fever and coughing when they entered the water; some developed lesions on the corneas of their eyes and eleven people were hospitalized.
At the same time, the seawater changed color and started to smell. Several dozen sea creatures, including seals, octopus, starfish, and urchins, started washing up dead on the region’s shores.
Divers set out to inspect the waters at the bottom of Avacha Bay and what they found was disturbing: at a depth from 10 to 15 meters, 95 percent of creatures on the ocean floor were dead.
On dives in other areas nearby, researchers saw unusual brown foam in the water and what has been described as “massive remains” of dead seabed creatures. This, they warned indicated the contaminated area was much wider than the water they surveyed.
The area worst hit by the pollution is between the Avacha Bay in the south and Cape Nalychev in the north, which are 40 kilometers apart. The scale of the disaster is still unknown, but scientists do know that large swathes of the coastal area of the Kamchatka UNESCO world heritage site has been affected.
ALGAL BLOOM OR LEAKED ROCKET FUEL?
Right now, there are a number of, as yet, unconfirmed reports about what the cause could be. Seawater analyses detected an excess of oil products four times above acceptable limits and phenol – a type of organic compound – at 2.5 times higher normal levels. This in turn has led to speculation that ultra-toxic rocket fuel may have leaked out of storage facilities in former military testing grounds a few miles from the coast. Or, as some suggest, it could be due to leaking from toxic landfills in the area.
Others have suggested a harmful algal bloom may be to blame. Yet another theory says the animals could have died because of seismic activity, which is not uncommon in what is one of the world’s most volcanic regions.
WHAT RUSSA’S DOING TO FIX IT
Russia’s Investigative Committee has since launched a criminal investigation to establish the source of the unexplained pollution. Hundreds of water samples have been collected and sent for analysis to laboratories in Vladivostok and Moscow.
Using a sophisticated underwater drone, scientists and researchers from Kamchatka’s Kronotsky Nature Reserve have taken photographs of the ocean floor and a team of divers has collected samples in an effort to determine the extent of the disaster and its possible causes, though these efforts may have come too late.
“It’s so disappointing to hear that the Russian government reportedly downplayed the severity of this disaster for several days before taking proper action,” said David Barritt of Network for Animals (NFA).
“All possible sources of toxic chemicals should have been immediately investigated but this didn’t happen. The environmental wellbeing and the preservation of ecosystems should be any country’s top priority.”