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News|24 Aug, 2022

The mass die-off of fish in Central Europe’s Oder River is a warning signal for the entire Baltic Sea area

At the beginning of June tonnes of dead fish were discovered in the Polish-German Oder River.
At the beginning of June tonnes of dead fish were discovered in the Polish-German Oder River. Photo: Mieczyslaw Ferdzyn

A massive fish kill has hit the Oder River, a transboundary river shared by Poland and Germany, this summer. WWF offices and partners around the Baltic Sea have written an open letter to all Baltic Sea governments. There they demand that the governments act within the framework of HELCOM – the Helsinki Convention – to protect and restore the Oder and counteract any effects on the marine environment of the Baltic Sea.

“The fish die-off in the Oder River is a very serious ecological disaster, which is a strong warning signal to the governments in the Baltic Sea region to prevent potential knock-on effects on our common sea,” explains Gustaf Lind, CEO of WWF Sweden.

In an open letter, WWF representatives around the Baltic Sea urge Baltic Sea governments to act jointly within HELCOM to manage the situation in the Oder and prevent similar disasters in the future.

At the beginning of June this year it was discovered that tons of dead fish were floating in the river. It’s still unclear the root cause, but it’s likely a combination of man-made impacts. Releases of pollutants combined with unusually low water levels and high-water temperatures, appear to have resulted in these dramatic consequences.

“Hundreds of tons of dead fish and other aquatic life have been affected. Since the Oder flows into the Baltic Sea, this environmental disaster is a common concern for all countries around the Baltic. The Baltic Sea, which is already heavily polluted, could be affected if measures are not taken quickly,” says Johanna Fox, Director of the Baltic Ecoregion Programme at WWF.

“Regardless of the causes behind the disaster, the priority moving forward should be to jointly deal with the urgent situation in Oder and monitor its state, set protocols to deal with these kinds of disasters in the future and take preventative action to reduce the risk of similar catastrophes occurring,” continues Fox.

The government of Poland has been heavily criticized by WWF and other organizations for the lack of systematic control and monitoring of water quality in the Oder River. There are several regulations that state what needs to be done – including the EU Water Framework Directive from 2000 and HELCOM’s ‘Baltic Sea Action Plan’.

WWF urges the Baltic Sea governments, within the framework of HELCOM, to:

  • decide on a joint response, monitoring and follow-up and restoration of the Oder ecosystem,
  • produce a joint protocol for handling similar events in the future, with guarantees of sufficient exchange of information, resources and expertise.
  • monitor potentially polluting activities, to provide early warning and rapid action throughout the Baltic Sea catchment area, to prevent further degradation of the sea itself.

Now it is especially important that the governments of Germany and Poland act. Here, all states around the Baltic Sea can contribute – either within the framework of HELCOM or in other ways. WWF calls for:

  • a special government programme, with associated funding, to restore the ecology in and around the Oder River.
  • a critical review of all plans for further development of the Oder River, whether it is water regulation or channelization for hydropower or inland navigation. Such measures risk being in direct conflict with the EU’s Water Framework Directive.

“The disaster in the Oder shows how fragile our ecosystems are. Now we must learn from this experience and accelerate efforts to improve the health of European rivers by preventing and reducing water pollution, barriers and flow alterations”, concludes Fox.

Notes to editor:

The natural disaster in the Oder – The Oder, which flows along the Polish-German border, is Poland’s second largest river and discharges into the Baltic Sea. In late July, reports began to come in of large amounts of dead fish in the river. In recent weeks, tons of dead fish have floated to the surface of the river and been picked along the banks. The cause of the mass death has not yet been established, but it is clear that the event is an environmental disaster, and that it may take many years before the Oder is restored. Determining the cause of the incident is of the utmost importance for the work going forward, WWF believes

HELCOM – HELCOM is an abbreviation of the Helsinki Commission, which is a regional environmental convention. It was signed in 1974 and has been in force since 1980, with the aim of protecting and preserving the marine environment in the Baltic Sea area. All countries surrounding the Baltic Sea have signed the convention, which deals with issues such as eutrophication, emissions of environmentally hazardous substances and biological diversity. The convention covers eight areas such as sustainable fishing, reduction of pollution from ships and response to pollution incidents, among others.

HELCOM is led by a chair country, – currently Latvia is holding the chairmanship from 1 July 2022 to June 2024.

For more information please contact:

Johanna Fox
Director of the Baltic Ecoregion Programme at WWF
+46 70 009 05 48

Hannah Griffiths Berggren
Communications Manager of the Baltic Ecoregion Programme at WWF

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Last modified 24/08/22

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