EIn the spring of the past 30 years, conservationists at Tuzly Lagoons National Park on Ukraine’s Black Sea have dug shallow channels from the coastal lagoons to the shoreline, connecting the bodies of water.
The streams, which used to be naturally occurring until industrial agriculture clogged the small rivers that fed them, are a busy transit route for billions of small fish, which hibernate in the sea and then return to the lagoons to breed.
No digging this year. The beaches are now littered with mines, laid by the Ukrainian army to repel a Russian offensive. Researchers have had to go on strike for decades, and the consequences for the more than 5,000 herons that feed in the lagoons each spring could be disastrous.
“For thirty years we have organized scientists to restore this area, save this steppe and support this exchange of water. Now there is no entrance from the Black Sea, no migration of these fish, and the egrets have to eat them,” said Ivan Rusev, the park’s head of research. “It really is a tragedy.”
It is just one of the countless environmental casualties in Ukraine, many of which will continue in a country devastated years after the end of the conflict by the human and economic toll of the war. With some of the most intense fighting taking place on the south coast, experts warn that the marine and wetland environments along the Black Sea and Azov Sea face a particular threat.
Oleksandr Krasnolutskyi, Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, says: “Nearly 400,000 hectares and 14 Ramsar sites [wetlands designated to be of international importance by Unesco] along the coastline and lower reaches of the Dnipro River.”
Billions of dollars in damage are already being done, he says, adding that their concerns set a precedent: When Russia first invaded Crimea in 2014, annexed Crimea and supported a separatist war in the Donbas, the Kremlin used a different environmentally sensitive area – the Kryva Kosa spit, in Meotyda National Park – as a landing zone for troops, destroying Europe’s largest breeding ground for the endangered Pallas’s gull almost overnight.
Rusev has counted more than 200 bombs that have hit the lagoons, disturbing waterfowl such as avocets and Dalmatian pelicans during critical migration and nesting periods. “Normally we have between 1,000 and 1,500 white pelicans, migrating from Africa,” he says. “Now we have only 300. They are very disturbed by the bombings.”
Dead dolphins also wash up en masse on the beaches of the Black Sea, not only in Ukraine, but also in Turkey and Bulgaria. Researchers suggest noise pollution is likely a factor in their deaths, including possible sonar interference from the Russian naval vessels along the coast.
Bomb craters also threaten coastal life. Invasive species benefit from freshly exposed sand, while chemicals can alter soil composition in fragile dune ecosystems, seeping into lagoons and the sea.
Doug Weir, director of research and policy at the UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory, said: “In general, in commercial weapons you will find heavy metals and TNT, RDX, HMX [chemicals in explosives].
“Heavy metals are very persistent in the environment. Most explosives are toxic to some degree. And some—like TNT—break down into other toxic chemicals when exposed to light.”
While the damage caused by these pollutants may not be immediately apparent, one of the most visible examples of damage to Ukraine’s coastline is the Kinburn Spit, a 25-mile stretch of sand in the Ramsar-designated Black Sea Biosphere Reserve. . In early May, rockets set fires — burning for more than a week and visible from space — across more than 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres).
The fires also revealed a broader consequence of war: the absence of environmental stewardship. Protected environments are threatened not only by combat but also by the inability of conservationists to access war-torn areas.
“Of course, under normal circumstances, the fire would have been brought under control and extinguished faster,” Weir said. “Most protected environments are heavily managed sites and they are often unbalanced ecosystems for whatever reason – be it pollution or overfishing. And that loss of oversight and support can have serious consequences.”
Similarly, Rusev says he and his team have not been able to assess the extent of damage to the dolphins in the Black Sea, as they cannot reach large swaths of Ukraine’s coastline and cannot say how many dolphins have stranded.
He estimates that up to 2,000 may have been affected. “It’s a tragedy because we have a very small population of three species of dolphins, so each individual is a rare individual,” Rusev says.
Remote monitoring also posed similar challenges around the Azovstal steel mill, Ukraine’s last stronghold in Mariupol, where large sulfite deposits could be leaking. “Because the Azov and Black Sea are landlocked, they are particularly susceptible to pollution,” Weir says. “On satellite images, it appears that the potentially sulfite-rich area has increased, but we can’t say for sure.”
Ukraine is determined to be held accountable for all this damage. Vira Porieva, who coordinates a task force gathering evidence of war crimes against bodies of water, is part of a wider group preparing an environmental case against Russia. In theory, the International Criminal Court can prosecute deliberate attacks that knowingly cause “widespread, long-lasting and serious damage to the natural environment.”
Thanks to an international grant, Porieva’s team collected and analyzed water samples from the Melitopol and Berdyansk regions to evaluate the impact of the war on quality. “Thanks to the brave inspectors of the national parks, who reside in areas occupied by Russia, we can do this work,” she says. Preliminary results are expected in two months’ time, but even with evidence, prosecution of environmental war crimes is considered virtually impossible by the ICC’s definition.
The shelling continues in the Tuzly lagoons. But Rusev works tirelessly on as many of his usual duties as possible, recording the damage where he finds it.
“Yesterday there were several bombs around – people are safe, but animals were disturbed again,” he says.
“Very few people really care about this, but I am the voice of the voiceless nature. I will fight to the end.”