Professor Jane Lubchenco
The Black Sea is a microcosm of Planet Earth. Its environmental problems are multiple and complex. They are the result of a broad spectrum of activities occurring locally, far upstream in the air- and watersheds, and even globally. This symposium focused on the Black Sea because solutions to its problems are urgently needed and because pathways to those solutions may enlighten, inform and inspire the global challenges.
The role of science in identifying and implementing these solutions is to provide information. Documentation of the changes that have occurred, understanding of the causes of different changes and analysis of the likely consequences of different possible actions will enable more informed decisions. Science alone is insufficient.
The unusual approach of bringing together scientific and religious perspectives to address environmental issues was reflected in Symposium I, Revelation and the Environment (Hobson and Lubchenco, 1997). Symposium I began the task of redefining humanity's relation to and responsibility for the environment. Symposium participants discovered common ground in their concern for the global trajectory and focused on the need for more responsible stewardship. They found energy in this common ground and a strong desire to build on that promising beginning. The goal of Symposium II is to take the next step - to work and learn together in order to share knowledge and to effect change. Building on the first symposium's global-to-local perspectives, this paper first summarises some of the most important global-scale environmental issues, then considers specific environmental problems of the Black Sea.
Human actions are altering the Earth in ways that are serious, startling and staggering. Scientists have recently documented the following global-scale changes (Vitousek and Mooney et al., 1997):
- Between one-third and one-half of the land surface of the planet has been transformed by human action (Vitousek et al., 1986, Kates et al., 1990, Daily, 1995);
- The carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by nearly 30% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (Schimel et al., 1994);
- More atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all natural terrestrial sources combined (Vitousek and Aber et al.. 1997);
- More than half of all accessible surface fresh water is put to use by humanity (Postel et al., 1996);
- About a quarter of the bird species on Earth has been driven to extinction (Olson, 1989, Steadman, 1995);
- Two-thirds of marine fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted (Botsford et al., 1997, FAO 1994).
The conclusion from this summary is inescapable: we live on a human-dominated planet. Our actions are causing rapid, novel and substantial changes to Earth's ecosystems and hence to people. These changes are happening faster than ever before; they cover a larger area than ever before; and many of them represent new kinds of changes - for example, the development of synthetic organic compounds (Lubchenco, 1998). We live in a fundamentally different world than has ever existed on Earth, a world transformed by human activities. Moreover, the world is changing at ever increasing rates - and faster than our abilities to understand the changes. The rate and extent of human alteration of the Earth must thus affect the way we think about the Earth, the way we think about our responsibilities to each other and to all of life on Earth.
When asked how we depend upon nature, most people will focus on the goods, the things we derive from nature: for example, food, fibre, medicines and genes. We are learning the hard way that we also derive essential services from nature. These services are provided by intact, functioning ecosystems. They include regulation of climate, control of floods, provision of fertile soil, purification of air and water, and provision of pollinators (Daily, 1997, Chichilnisky and Heal, 1998). We take most of these ecosystem services for granted. They have always been there, free of charge. We begin to appreciate them only when we lose them through disruption of the ecosystems providing the benefits.
Together with the goods, these ecosystem services provide the life support systems for all of life on Earth. Because we are dependent upon both the goods and the services, and because they are provided by intact functioning ecosystems, it behoves us to protect these ecosystems - the forests, coral reefs, seagrass beds, open seas, riparian zones, grasslands of the world. Our health and well-being depend upon these systems.
The global-scale transformation cited above and the consequent disruption of the provision of goods and services have immediate and long-term consequences for people. As we begin to appreciate the myriad and complex ways in which humanity depends on the environment, we are redefining what 'the environment' means. Specifically, the definition of environment is being expanded to include human health, the economy, social justice and national security (Lubchenco, 1998). All of these are environmental issues because human well-being, prosperity, justice and security depend upon intact functioning ecosystems.
Environmental degradation in the Black Sea has caused serious disruption to the ecosystems, and thus to the provision of goods and services for the peoples of the Black Sea. A brief description of the degradation illustrates these ecological linkages.
The problems of the Black Sea are not so different from elsewhere, but they are more obvious, in part because of the isolated, contained nature of the sea. Of all the seas in Europe, the Black Sea has the longest retention time, 140 years, compared to 80 years for the Mediterranean or one to four years for the North Sea (Stanners and Bourdeau, 1995). The Black Sea also has a large catchment, or drainage area - almost five times the area of the Sea itself (ibid). Thus the problems are generated not only by activities in the six countries on its coastline, but by the actions of the 171 million people in the 17 countries upstream (Zaitsev, 1992).
The problems range from nutrient pollution to introduced species, overfishing, chemical pollution, habitat destruction, loss of biological diversity and more. One of the most serious of these is nutrient pollution, too much nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrate concentrations increased five-fold between 1960 and 1975 (Mee, 1991, 1992, Stanners and Bourdeau, 1995). This nitrogen comes from a variety of sources: 20% from atmospheric deposition, 30% from agriculture, 20% from industry and 25% from domestic wastewater. More than half of it comes down a single river, the Danube.
These chemical changes trigger biological responses. To an enclosed area like the Black Sea, these vast increases in nutrients spell unmitigated disaster. These nutrients favour and stimulate certain types of microscopic plants or phytoplankton to grow explosively. Many of these phytoplankton are not very good food for the formerly common zooplankton, resulting in changes at higher levels in the food web (Zaitsev, 1992, 1993). The high biomass of phytoplankton also cuts out much of the light reaching the bottom in shallow waters such as the north-west coastal shelf regions of the Black Sea. Some such areas have seen massive losses of shallow water seaweeds as a result. Three species of a red seaweed, Phyllophora, have decreased ten-fold on the shelf since the 1970s (Zaitsev, 1992, 1993).
These seaweeds provide critical services and goods to the ecosystem and to people. Like trees in a forest, these plants created a habitat - in this case a unique one inhabited by 118 species of invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp, sponges, worms and snails and 47 species of fishes (Zaitsev, 1993). As the plants disappeared, so too did most of these animals. These Phyllophora plants did other things beside create homes. They generated oxygen, as much as 2x106 m3/da (Zaitsev, 1993). In addition, the seaweeds were collected by people to extract agar (Abbott, 1996). Agar is a useful group of chemicals that are commonly used to thicken food and keep food from separating and to make agar plates for the culturing of bacteria for medicinal and pharmaceutical purposes. In the Black Sea, nutrient pollution triggered a set of changes which led to the demise of the seaweeds, their communities of other plants and animals, their contribution of oxygen and their provision of a useful product for people. Loss of the algae means loss of both goods and services.
Unfortunately this chain of disasters was exacerbated by multiple other simultaneous changes, for example, the accidental introduction of a comb jelly Mnemiopsis, via ballast water in the early 1980s. This jelly-fish like creature quickly grew to dominate the seascape: 700 million tons by 1987 (Zaitsev, 1993). It is a voracious predator, feeding on fish eggs, larvae and many species of zooplankton upon which the adult fish depend for their food. Lacking predators of their own, these comb jellies reduced the zooplankton ten-fold, helping to precipitate the crash of economically important fish species including anchovies and sprat (Zaitsev, 1993). The decomposing carcasses of Mnemiopsis caused yet another problem: hypoxia, or very low oxygen levels, which in turn triggers yet other problems (Mee, 1991, Zaitsev, 1992, 1993).
These interconnected and synergistic events are but two of the serious problems in the Black Sea. Both the input of nutrients and the introduction of alien species in ballast water are preventable. Moreover, neither problem is limited to the Black Sea. Most coastlines around the world are seeing vast increases in nutrients transported from land-based activities. Introduction of alien species by ballast water is an equally insidious problem around the world and a major contributor to the loss of biological diversity (Carlton and Geller, 1993, Cohen and Carlton, 1998).
The problems of nutrient pollution and alien species are but two of those highlighted in the Black Sea Transboundary Diagnostic Assessment (Global Environment Facility, 1997). This Assessment concludes that the patient - the Black Sea - is indeed very sick. It is not dead, however, but is at a critical point where action is needed. This crisis is an opportunity. The Black Sea Transboundary Diagnostic Assessment and the Black Sea Action Plan (Global Environment Facility 1996) provide a solid basis on which to begin a cure.
The Black Sea Action Plan, signed by the six Black Sea countries on October 31, 1996, is a strong statement of desire to cooperate and address common problems. Formidable challenges remain. There is an urgent need for both individual and institutional ownership of the problem and acceptance of responsibility to ameliorate it - not only by the six countries, and not only by the 171 million people in the catchment, but indeed by the world.
The Black Sea illustrates the need to expand our views of the environment. Its ecosystems have historically provided goods and services to people and other living creatures. Overfishing, chemical pollution, habitat destruction, and loss of biological diversity - in addition to the nutrient pollution and invasive species problems mentioned above - have transformed the Black Sea into an ecological wasteland. This wasteland cannot produce the needed goods and services. Hence:
1. The economy of the Black Sea is beginning to be recognised as an environmental issue: between 1986 and 1993, the fishing industry is reported to have lost 150,000 jobs due to the collapse of fisheries. The tourist industry is reported to have lost $300 million in revenues from the degraded state of the environment (Tass, 1997).
2. Human health in the Black Sea region is being recognised as an environmental issue: toxic viral and bacteriological disease outbreaks throughout the Black Sea region are directly linked to water quality and fish and shellfish contamination (Stanners and Bourdeau, 1995).
3. National security will come to be recognised as an environmental issue in the Black Sea: international tensions rise as resources like fish are in short supply and competition intensifies. The prospect of ecoterrorism is very real. Severe environmental degradation can lead to social disruption and migration.
4. Social justice is an environmental issue in the Black Sea: regional shortages of drugs and medical care to cope with disease outbreaks illustrate the disproportionate impacts of environmental disasters. The consequences of rising prices of food and clean water are borne differentially by poor versus better-off individuals and nations.
Just as people of the Black Sea region depend upon the sea for their well-being and prosperity, so too do people everywhere depend on upon Earth's ecosystems. Understanding these connections is a first step in devising solutions to these problems.