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16 August 2022, Brandenburg, Schwedt: Andreas Hein, a ranger with the Brandenburg nature guard, stands with protective clothing in the German-Polish border river Westoder, near the branch of the main river Oder, and takes dead fish out of the water with a landing net. (Photo by Patrick Pleul, Picture Alliance, Getty)

160,000 Pounds of Dead Fish Create Tension Between Germany and Poland

The reason tens of thousands of fish died in the Oder River remains a mystery, for now. What is known is that something is creating an environmental disaster on the river, which flows from the Czech Republic into Poland before forming a 187-kilometer (116-mile) border with Germany and emptying into the Baltic Sea—a disaster that could take years to rectify.

At least 80 tons of dead fish have been removed from the river, and barricades—the type used to stem the spread of oil spills in water—were erected to try to prevent the dead fish from flowing into the Baltic Sea.

The incident is creating tension between Germany and Poland, however, with German officials saying Poland could have provided an earlier warning and that Polish officials did not act urgently enough to mitigate the disaster.

“German Environment Minister Steffi Lemke demanded a transparent and full investigation into the cause for the massive fish die-off in the Oder River after having met her Polish counterpart in the Polish border city of Szczecin on Sunday evening,” the Associated Press reported.

The two countries have created a task force to investigate the disaster and ensure there is an exchange of information between them.

Initial studies of the water and the dead fish have not found a cause.

“So far, at least 150 samples of water from the Oder River have been tested,” Polish Minister of Climate and Environment Anna Moskwa told the AP. “None of the studies have confirmed the presence of toxic substances. At the same time, we are testing fish. No mercury or other heavy metals have been found in them.”

During the weekend, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said huge amounts of chemical waste were likely dumped into the river and the Polish government is offering a reward of $200,000 to anyone with information that leads to discovering who is responsible. The prime minister dismissed two government officials for not acting quickly enough once scores of dead fish began surfacing in July.

“If I come to the conclusion that there was a serious breach of duties, further consequences will be drawn,” Morawiecki said. “For me, however, the most important thing is to deal with this ecological disaster as soon as possible, because nature is our common heritage. It is a national good,"

The river is experiencing low water levels, which would likely exacerbate the results of the spill, limiting the river’s resilience.

“We don’t know all the details but we can sum the whole situation up: the river simply broke down,” the website Notes from Poland quoted a biologist as saying. “The river’s capacity for self-regulation and self-cleaning reached its limit and an ecological bomb was set off.”

The Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany formed the International Commission on the Protection of the Oder Against Pollution in 1999, in accordance with the United Nation’s 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. Water—and particularly shared-use water sources—continues to be a potential flashpoint between nations.

Prior to the current disaster, the Oder was hailed as an ecological model. As Europe controlled pollution and industrial use of waterways, the Oder became a much cleaner river and fostered an important ecological area as it flows into the Szczecin Lagoon before emptying into the Baltic Sea. While the sea itself does not appear to be in any danger, the lagoon, which is an important estuary for plants and wildlife, could be devastated.