More than 700 dolphins in the Black Sea have died since the start of the war in Ukraine. Scientists believe that fighting paralyzes their ability to navigate, find food and talk to each other.

A bottlenose dolphin in the Black Sea near Ukraine.imageBROKER / Andrey Nekrasov / Getty Images

  • There has been an increase in dolphin stranding around the Black Sea since the start of the war in Ukraine.

  • Dolphins and porpoises speak and navigate through the sound, which can be interrupted by the loud noises of war.

  • Long-term impacts are still unclear, as ongoing fighting makes it difficult to study the situation.

Along with the thousands of men, women and children who have died since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, there have been hundreds of deaths in the Black Sea among resident populations of dolphins and porpoises.

Scientists studying the region have reported an “unusual increase” in stranding and bycatch – when animals are caught unwittingly by fishermen – of dolphins, porpoises and whales, in the spring and summer of 2022, according to a recent report by ACCOBAMS. , or the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the contiguous Atlantic area.

“The escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine in February 2022 puts the entire Black Sea basin under enormous threat. Military activities in marine and coastal areas can affect the region’s marine biota, including cetaceans,” the report states.

According to Erich Hoyt, a researcher at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation who consulted with scientists from ACCOBAMS.

Researchers are working to determine the cause of the deaths that have been observed, but the ongoing war – and the potential threat posed by adrift mines – make data collection and investigation of boats difficult.

This photograph, taken on August 28, 2022, shows a dead dolphin in the Limans Tuzly Lagoons National Nature Park, near the village of Prymorske, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This photograph, taken on August 28, 2022, shows a dead dolphin in the Limans Tuzly Lagoons National Nature Park, near the village of Prymorske, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.Dimitar Dilkoff / AFP / Getty Images

There have been reports of dolphins washing ashore with physical injuries, such as burns, which could be a direct result of being caught in the crossfire. Ivan Rusev, research director at Tuzla Estuarine National Nature Park in Ukraine, said earlier this year that the dolphins were washing ashore with burn marks from bombs or mines, while others appeared unable to navigate or as if they haven’t eaten in days.

But the increase in strandings and dolphins caught in bycatch could be a direct consequence of the loud noises associated with warfare.

“Dolphins and porpoises rely on sound to navigate, find food and communicate with each other,” Hoyt told Insider. “The noise of increased ship traffic can have some impact, but the sounds of explosions on the surface or underwater could disorient, injure or kill dolphins and porpoises within a few miles or cause an increase in the number of strandings or by-catches “.

Dolphins, porpoises, and whales have a keen sense of hearing and use echolocation to map their environment. They emit short, pulsating “clicks”, similar to the snap of fingers, that travel through the water until they encounter an object and bounce off the dolphin. But the dolphin’s extraordinary ability to interpret the returning sound to identify food and understand their environment can be interrupted by loud noises.

Dolphins also use sound, similar to a whistle, to communicate with each other and have even been documented using verbal labels to address each other, in one word: names.

Sounds also travel much farther and about four and a half times faster in water than in air, making the impact of explosions at sea even more damaging.

Although scientists are working to confirm the reasons for the increase in deaths, Hoyt said the noise interruptions could disorient the dolphins, leading to an increase in the fact that they get stuck on the shore or caught in a fisherman’s net.

A beached dolphin on the Black Sea.

A beached dolphin on the Black Sea.rai36de / Getty Images

Another factor could be that the fighting is driving the mammals away from familiar Ukrainian waters and taking them to unfamiliar areas in search of food, where they are more likely to end up in a web or run aground.

The situation is also exacerbated by the fact that experts have identified coastal areas near Ukraine as vital to some dolphin and porpoise populations. Hoyt co-chairs the International Union Task Force for the Conservation of Marine Mammal Protected Areas of Nature, which seeks to identify areas important for marine mammal conservation.

Several locations around Ukraine, including some that have been the subject of fighting, have previously been designated as important habitats, including areas around the Crimean Peninsula, the Kerch Strait and the Sea of ‚Äč‚ÄčAzov, as shown in this interactive map. .

The areas have been identified as important habitats for three species that the IUCN classifies as threatened or endangered: the Black Sea common dolphin, the Black Sea porpoise and the Black Sea bottlenose dolphin.

“Of course, there are concerns that dolphins and porpoises known to use these areas year-round have been killed or hunted,” Hoyt said. “But since no research can take place there now, we simply won’t know until the war is over.”

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