Searching for clues to the mystery of the Polish-German border

Hundreds of tons of dead fish have already been removed from the Oder River

The men in waders looked serious as they dragged buckets of dead fish from a boat and placed the carcasses on a tarp spread on the river bank.

They did this for eight days near the city of Szczecin, their faces covered by the obnoxious stench. “I just feel numb now,” said one worker sadly.

Something is killing fish – by the thousands – in the Oder River.

The river forms a border between Poland and Germany. Despite weeks of investigation, experts from both countries have been unable to determine exactly what is to blame. Hundreds of tons of dead fish have already been removed.

Map of the Oder River

Map of the Oder River

Scientists suspect that someone contaminated the water with a substance that appears to have caused high salt levels. This encouraged the golden algae to bloom. The toxins it emitted killed the fish. The corpses then further reduced the water quality.

A deadly, chemical chain reaction that, they say, may have been exacerbated by a hot summer and low river levels. But they have yet to identify the original contaminant.

“It will be difficult to get a clear answer as to what caused it,” says Andrzej Kapusta, of the Inland Fisheries Institute. We joined him and his team on a small boat as they tested the water on the Oder.

“The scale of this ecological disaster is unprecedented in Poland. It’s a disaster. We’ve never found so many dead creatures, so many dead fish, clams or snails. It’s the first time it’s happened and it’s a serious warning.”

Researchers are looking into the possibility of someone polluting the water

Researchers are looking into the possibility of someone polluting the water

Hundreds of miles upriver, near the town of Gliwice, Ewa Sternal looks out at boats bobbing in a small marina and says she saw it coming.

Ewa runs the marina, which is located inside a working port. Cranes carry large metal containers near piles of coal on the opposite bank, as he explains that the water here flows, via the Gliwice Canal, into the Oder.

People here first reported the fish die-off and water change in March.

Ewa describes how the fish appeared to be trying to get out of the harbor, congregating near its entrance, “gasping for air, for oxygen.” When it happened again in June, she started investigating on her own.

Ewa Sternal (right) runs a small marine near the town of Gliwice

Ewa Sternal (right), who runs a small marina near the town of Gliwice, says she saw fish ‘gasping for air’

“All the signs and traces that I followed led me to the conclusion that the pollution got into the water directly here. I talked to a lot of people, I interviewed. My conclusion is that someone dumped chemicals in the harbor.”

But who? Suspicions have fallen, so far without evidence, on Polish industry and Polish mines.

Police have interviewed more than 200 witnesses and searched 12 locations. A reward of more than €200,000 (£170,000) for information leading to the arrest of an offender remains unclaimed.

Fishermen we spoke to near Gliwice, who told us they also saw fish dying in March, expressed skepticism that anyone would be caught. “Someone is responsible, someone is at fault, but we’ll probably never know who,” said one.

Researchers, however, have discovered nearly 300 unrecorded outflow pipes and are investigating nearly 60 of them in connection with fish kills.

Authorities on both sides of the Oder have acknowledged mistakes in their handling of the case. It is generally acknowledged that they were too slow to react to signs that something was wrong. And an undignified dispute between the Polish and German authorities about their respective approaches was unhelpful.

Experts, such as Andrzej Kapusta, say it is important to review the way the river is used. Worryingly, they warn it could happen again, particularly when the original source of pollution remains unknown.

“We need an accurate tracking system, an online tracking that will inform the appropriate authorities much more quickly,” he says. “A faster response is certainly needed to avoid such disasters.”

Meanwhile, the fish continue to die. Their bodies were collected and sent for cremation.

As workers near Szczecin drag large dead carp and catfish from the river, a pump is turned away in a desperate attempt to bring oxygen to the water. From here the river flows into a lagoon and then into the Baltic Sea.

It is hoped the sheer volume of water means the toxins will be diluted, but there are concerns that what some here describe as a “poison wave” will continue its deadly course downstream.

“Right now we have to wait for the worst to be over,” says Lukasz Potkanski, from the Polish Fishermen’s Association. “The more poisonous water must flow down and mix with the healthy water.”

Lucas gestured at the carcasses of carp and catfish and told us that the fish found here were sometimes 20 or 30 years old.

Life, he believes, will return to Oder. But it will be years, perhaps decades, before the river’s health is fully restored.

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