What killed tons of fish in European rivers? The mystery deepens

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Laboratory tests following a massive fish kill in the Oder has detected high levels of salinity but no mercury poisoning in its waters, Poland’s environment minister said on Saturday as mystery lingered over what killed tons of fish in central Europe.

Anna Moskwa, Minister of climate and environment, said analyzes of river samples taken in Poland and Germany revealed high salt levels. Extensive toxicological studies are still ongoing in Poland, she said.

She says Polish state veterinarian The authority tested seven species of dead fish and ruled out mercury as the cause of the deaths, but was still awaiting results from other substances. She said the results of the tests carried out in Germany also did not show a strong presence of mercury.

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The Oder River stretches from the Czech Republic to the Polish-German border before flowing into the Baltic Sea. Some German media had suggested that the river had been poisoned with mercury.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Friday that “enormous amounts of chemical waste” were likely intentionally dumped into his country’s second-longest river, causing environmental damage so severe it would take years for the waterway to recover.

Volunteers collect dead fish from the waters of the Oder River on the German-Polish border in Lebus, eastern Germany, Saturday Aug. 1, 2019. 13, 2022.

Volunteers collect dead fish from the waters of the Oder River on the German-Polish border in Lebus, eastern Germany, Saturday Aug. 1, 2019. 13, 2022.
(Patrick Pleul/dpa via AP)

On Saturday, Morawiecki pledged to do everything possible to limit environmental devastation. Poland’s interior minister said a reward of 1 million zlotys ($220,000) would be paid to anyone who helps find those responsible for polluting the river.

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The authorities in the state in northeastern Germany of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania warned people not to fish or use water from the Szczecin Lagoon, as contaminated water from the river was expected to reach the estuary area on Saturday evening.

“The scale of the fish kills is shocking. It is a blow to the Oder as a waterway of great ecological value, from which it is unlikely to recover for a long time,” said Alex Vogel, Minister for the environment of German Brandenburg. State, along which the river flows.

The head of Polish waters, Poland’s national water management authority, said on Thursday that 10 tonnes of dead fish had been removed from the river. Hundreds of volunteers were working to help scoop up dead fish along the German side.

German labs said they detected “atypical” levels of “salts” that could be linked to mortality but would not fully explain it on their own.

Morawiecki acknowledged that some Polish officials had been “slow” to react after large numbers of dead fish were seen floating and washing up on shore, and said two of them had been fired.

“For me, however, the most important thing is to manage this ecological disaster as soon as possible, because nature is our common heritage,” said Morawiecki.

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His comments were echoed by the mayor of Schwedt, Annekathrin Hoppe, whose German town is located next to the Lower Oder Valley National Park. She called the contamination of the river an “environmental disaster of unprecedented scale” for the region.