Habitat Oder and Haff


Oder tour: The fish keep dying

In August, I was travelling on (and along) the Oder River, together with people from Germany and Poland who care about nature conservation, economic development, political cooperation or sustainable tourism. The mass fish die-off occurred shortly before the tour started. Read more in this interview about how this changed my trip – and about what steps we have to take now.

Your tour was planned long in advance and its original theme was “Oder an die Freude” (“Oder to Joy”, a play on words). What was your reaction when you learned about the mass die-off?

I was very concerned. After all, this is not just about the fish, but about many different animal species. For example, molluscs like mussels, which normally act as a kind of sewage treatment plant for the river, have been affected. When the fish die, they sink to the bottom of the river where they decompose. This process deprives the water of oxygen – which in turn leads to the death of even more animals. At the same time, many other animals, such as birds, feed on fish and molluscs. The river is one interconnected ecosystem. A problem in one area therefore results in a chain reaction with negative consequences in many other areas. That is why I was very worried.

Moreover, the mass fish die-off has once again made it clear that, unfortunately, the exchange of information between Polish and German authorities does not work very well. Actually, Polish authorities should have warned German municipalities about elevated levels of pollutants in the river and dying fish. However, this happened much too late, when dead fish were already turning up in Germany.

The original motto of my trip was now of course no longer suitable. However I was determined to still do the tour. After all, I now had the opportunity to draw political attention to the issue and bring to the fore those involved on the ground – for example, the many members of volunteer firefighting departments who collected the dead fish, or the environmentalists thinking about what to do next.

For my team, the new situation was quite a challenge, because many appointments had to be rescheduled. In the end, however, everything worked out well.

What was the situation like? What moments left the biggest impression on you, both in a positive and a negative way?

The most depressing thing was certainly the contrast between the beautiful Oder landscape on the one hand and the many dead fish on the other. They were floating on the surface of the water and had to be collected – as quickly as possible to prevent further damage to the ecosystem. During two hours, I helped with this task. There was an unbearable stench, and the sight of the mountains of dead fish was depressing. One has to know that those helping on site were busy from early in the morning until late in the evening. I hardly want to speak of “volunteers”, because nobody does this work voluntarily; but it had to be done, and time was pressing. I have the greatest respect for these people who saved the river from further damage and are still doing so.

One of the most beautiful moments was the dinner in Mescherin, where i.a. members of the volunteer fire departments from the German and Polish side were present. We communicated as well as we could, with the help of guests who spoke both languages, while a rainbow unfolded in the background. If there was one thing we agreed on, it was that we are indeed all in the same boat and need to work together to protect the river.

What do the people living at (and with) the river have to say about the disaster?

For the local people, not only has their livelihood been lost, it often feels to them as if a piece of themselves has been taken away. There is Helmut Zahn, for example, the last official fisherman in the Lower Oder Valley National Park: He does not know when he will be able to fish again – and whether anyone will then still want to eat fish from the Oder. At the same time, of course, he knows “his” fish very well, e.g. the habits and preferences of the different species. Now, he has to watch helplessly as they die. Then there is Frauke de Vere Bennett, who usually organizes canoe trips in the “Zwischenoderland” (landscape in the Lower Oder Valley): She does not only earn money with this; a main motivation for her is to sensitize people regarding the way we live with the Oder river and to make them aware of the beauty of its ecosystem. All this has become impossible for the time being.

Many people may have suspected that such a catastrophe could happen at some point if we dump more and more waste and chemicals into the river – but they may have suppressed this thought. Therefore, the catastrophe at first was a shock for everyone. Nevertheless, just a few weeks later, the commitment to a healthy river is already crumbling everywhere. The SPD (German Social Democratic Party) in Brandenburg does not want to stand up for a stop of the ongoing works on the Oder river. Yet we need to give the river a chance to recover, and stop putting even more stress on it. After such a massive die-off of fish, you cannot just carry on as before and once again hope that somehow, everything will be okay.

You have been monitoring the planned container port in Świnoujście for some time and are advocating for a cross-border environmental impact assessment (EIA). What is the present state of things in this area?

Following lots of pressure from various sides, including from me, the state government of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania finally registered its participation in a transborder EIA. After all, it is clear that the project will have an impact on both sides of the border. In the meantime, the call for tenders for the port construction has been published for the third time. For the first time ever, two investors with experience in this area have applied. They can be seen as serious investors, which, of course, gives rise to concerns that the project could now actually be implemented.

I am therefore all the more pleased that the stakeholders in the region increasingly act in concert. At the information event in Ahlbeck (which was a part of my tour), I shared the stage with stakeholders from tourism and nature conservation, as well as the local mayor and members of the state and federal parliaments. People want us to talk to each other in a constructive way – Germans and Poles together – and for all interests to be taken into account: those of business, tourism and nature. Hardly anyone is against the port expansion per se, but it must be done in such a way that everyone can live well with it and that applicable laws are observed.

A major problem is that the Polish government wants the future investor to carry out the EIA. Yet how can this be done free from bias if financial interests are involved? When everything has already been planned and construction workers have been hired? In the past, there have been considerable doubts about the expertise of EIAs carried out in Poland on the Oder. Unfortunately, these were often expert’s reports by way of favours, which showed little expertise in species and environmental protection.

Moreover, the need for such a port has not even been conclusively clarified. How many containers will have to be handled in Świnoujście in the first place? How will the goods then be transported onward? There is only a small highway and hardly any train traffic. All these questions remain unanswered and even Polish logistics experts consider the project to be oversized.

With your tour, you also wanted to make a contribution to a better German-Polish dialogue. Do you believe that the tour was a success in this regard?

At the government level, understanding hardly seems possible at the moment, because the ruling Polish PiS party has identified Germany as the core of all evil – and that will hardly change in the run-up to the next elections in Poland.

However, at the local level, the situation looks different. I have already mentioned the event in Mescherin. So I not only got to talk to German and Polish actors on both sides of the border, but we also made sure that they had a direct exchange with each other. Certainly, this still happens far too little, which is partly due to language barriers and cultural differences. But on the ground, when solving problems on a daily basis, cooperation works much better than at the highest political levels. This also makes me very hopeful.

What consequences should be drawn from the mass fish die-off?

I believe it would be important for stakeholders from business, tourism and nature conservation both from Poland and Germany to come together and, based on the results of the German-Polish expert commission on the mass fish die-off (link in German) jointly think about the next steps. For example, the German-Polish intergovernmental agreement of 2015, which is the basis for the works on the Oder, urgently needs to be renegotiated: Its basic assumptions are simply no longer up to date in view of increasing droughts and low water levels and the state of the Oder ecosystem, which is now immensely strained.

It is clear that we need a joint solution to keep a better eye on the state of the river and its flora and fauna. It would be conceivable to establish a joint German-Polish monitoring of pollutants in the river, similar to the one set up for the Rhine after the chemical accident in Sandoz in 1986. We should now agree on what to measure, how to exchange the data and work out crisis response mechanisms, so that if something happens again, we do not point fingers at each other and waste time with protracted discussions.

Another issue that is becoming more and more pressing is the discharge quotas for wastewater by industry. These quotas are currently very rigid because they are based on mean values, not taking into consideration how the river is doing at a given moment. For example, if the river has low water levels due to a drought, it should go without saying that the amount of wastewater discharge cannot be the same as at times when the river carries a lot of water. The quotas should either be set relative to these benchmarks, or, alternatively, the upper limits should be based on the worst-case scenario.

One of the most important things is to stop the works on the Oder immediately. These works puts an additional burden on a very weakened ecosystem. We also have to look at the river as a whole: The work on the Klützer Querfahrt, the renovation or construction of groynes on the Polish side, or the planned harbour construction: all of this is putting more stress on the ecosystem, which already has to cope with many challenges. It has long been clear that transporting goods by rail would be a much better way than deepening the Oder River, which also comes with very high costs. In any case, the river would not be navigable during many months of the year – even the PiS party will not be able to make it rain in future to ensure higher water levels. Above all, there should be no EU subsidies for such absurd projects (link in German).

How will you ensure that the issue remains on the agenda?

I keep pointing out the problem, whether on social media or in conversations with journalists. The first wave of attention has subsided, but the fish and other creatures in the river continue to die. That is why we must persist. Therefore, I have also requested a plenary debate on the topic in the European Parliament – which will take place next Thursday.

Where do you see the Oder in 5 years?

I have not given up hope that the catastrophe will make it clear to everyone that we cannot continue to treat the river the way we have been treating it so far. The Oder is much more than just a sewage canal or a shipping route. The Oder is the lifeline of the region, the basis for fishing and tourism – and it is very vulnerable.

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