The human death toll from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is believed to be in the tens of thousands so far. But marine mammals in the Black Sea, directly to the south of Ukraine, are also dying in droves, and scientists think the loud sounds that accompany battle are to blame. Per a report from the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS), there was an "unusual increase" over the spring and summer in strandings and unintentional catches by fishermen of dolphins, harbor porpoises, and whales, with "more than 600 deaths" in 2022 along the coast of Ukraine, as well as Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey.
Erich Hoyt, a research fellow at the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation who corresponded with the ACCOBAMS researchers, tells Insider the death stat actually totals more than 700 sea creatures, while yet another scientist estimates the number could be much, much higher, per Newsweek and Ukrainska Pravda—up to 50,000, says biologist Ivan Rusev, who heads up Ukraine's Tuzly Lagoons National Nature Park, in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa. Although some of the dolphins that have been beached appeared to have burns or other wounds suggesting they'd been caught up in bombing or gunfire, scientists are looking more closely at another possibility: intense noises, either from warfare or even from Russian ships and submarines, that might be loud enough to throw off the animals' navigational skills.
"Dolphins and porpoises rely on sound to navigate, find their food, and communicate with each other," Hoyt tells Insider, noting that he leans more toward the more powerful noises of war rather than those from watercraft. "The sounds of explosions at the surface or underwater could disorient, wound, or kill dolphins and porpoises within a few [miles'] range or cause increased numbers of strandings or bycatch." Unfortunately, gathering more data to further probe what's going on has been challenging thanks to the war, including due to drifting mines. Whatever the casualty numbers, it's clear that the war is having a deleterious effect offshore as well as on. "Russia's war against Ukraine ... puts the entire Black Sea basin under a huge threat," the ACCOBAMS report reads. (Read more dolphins stories.)