Fears for the future after mass fish kills in Poland’s Oder River

Fears for the future after mass fish kills in Poland's Oder River
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WIDUCHOWA, Poland, Aug 20 (Reuters) – Thousands of dead fish washed up on the banks of the Oder River in the village of Widuchowa in western Poland on August 20. On July 11, the local population realized that the ecological disaster that started in the southwest of the country at the end of July is moving towards the Baltic Sea.

As residents of Widuchowa searched for tools to remove the lifeless bodies from the river, the government launched a crisis response that many scientists say came too late.

“It’s been the hardest five days of my life,” said Pawel Wrobel, the mayor of Widuchowa, about 400 kilometers (250 miles) from where the dead fish were first seen. “I never imagined I would experience a disaster like this, it’s something you see in disaster movies.”

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With the help of the local community, I collected dozens of forks used to lift potatoes and remove dead fish from the river that marks part of the Polish-German border.

“We don’t know how to do it or what tools to use, we learn from our mistakes,” Wrobel said.

On August 12, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki fired the head of Poland’s national water authority and the head of the general environmental inspectorate, saying their agencies should have reacted earlier. read more

Despite multiple tests of fish and water samples by Polish and foreign laboratories and a 1 million zloty ($211,775) reward for information on the source of the contamination, it remains unclear what poisoned Poland’s second largest river, the Oder.

Aleksander Brzozka, a spokesman for the Climate Ministry, said, “We are focused on stopping what is happening on the one hand, and on the other hand finding the cause of this situation.”

Researchers from the German and Polish Climate Ministry have pointed to an overgrowth of toxic algae as a possible cause of the mass die-off. read more

“The most likely hypothesis is that it is a combination of various natural factors,” Brzozka said.


Firefighters and territorial defense forces sent by the government to remove tons of dead fish were unprepared for what awaited them in the river, locals told Reuters.

According to the villagers, the water environment was so bad that most of them vomited during work.

Local businesses were also affected.

When Piotr Bugaj, a passionate fisherman and owner of boats, slips and rooms for rent on the Oder, heard about the arrivals, he knew it was time to call it quits.

He asked his guests from the Czech Republic to leave the water and canceled future reservations for customers who flock to Widuchowa from all over Europe for its desert and variety of large fish such as pike and pikeperch.

“If it’s possible with a tragedy like this, I’d really like to find out that only those on the surface died and nothing else. But so far no one has checked what’s at the bottom of the river,” he said.

The government has promised support to those affected by the crisis.

Local activist Piotr Piznal has dedicated his life to photographing wildlife around the Oder. For the past week, he has been documenting the disaster.

“It’s hard, because actually the world that my friend and I have been observing and photographing for the past few years is disappearing,” he says. “I think it’s going to take years to recover the ecosystem after what happened in the Oder… It’s all going to have to be regenerated to function the way it used to.”

Meanwhile, fear and uncertainty prevail among the residents of Widuchowa.

“The dead fish warned us that something was wrong,” said Silvia Palasz-Wrobel, the wife of the mayor of Widuchowa, standing next to her husband on the banks of the polluted Oder. “When the fish are gone, who will inform us the next time there is a disaster? We would like to know who is responsible.” ($1 = 4.7220 zlotys)

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Reporting by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska and Kuba Stezycki Editing by Alan Charlish and Alex Richardson

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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