Will there be another fish kill in the Oder?
Msometimes the fish kill is far away. Namely, when Henry Schneider doesn’t think about it. But at some point it comes up again, in a conversation or because a journalist asks, like it is now. Schneider says it’s actually smart to think seriously about whether it’s still acceptable for him to continue running the family business. Only: “Thinking about it is stressful,” he says. “And the closer it gets, the more emotional it is.” Schneider doesn’t know what else is in store for him. All he knows is that fish kills can happen again.
The 43-year-old is a fisherman on the Oder and is the fifth generation of the family to run his fishery. When he says that “it” is getting closer, he means the interaction that largely wiped out life in the Oder over 500 kilometers last summer. A gigantic toxic algal bloom in early August is estimated to have killed about 50 percent of all fish and 80 percent of all mussels in the river. Residents and helpers collected several hundred tons of carcasses over the course of days.
The Oder had bad luck back then. Prymnesium parvum is a brackish water alga and not native to rivers. The wind must have carried the microalgae from the Baltic Sea to the Oder. Normally, such an alga does not survive unless it ends up in the sea. But the conditions in the Oder were excellent: the river had low water due to the heat, and it was dammed up, and there are many barrages upstream in Poland. And there was salt in the river. Far too much salt from discharges from Polish industry.
The fishermen have forbidden themselves to fish
About seven months have passed since then. Actually a good time to ask: How are the people who live off the river doing now? But people like Schneider don’t think about the catastrophe in the past tense. For them it is a looming future. Rather, you have to ask them: how do they prepare for it? And why do they have to do that at all, is the interaction clear?
“We never thought something like this would happen. I would have thought the Oder would dry up,” says Schneider. His fishery is in Brieskow-Finkenheerd, a few kilometers south of Frankfurt (Oder) on Lake Brieskow, which flows into the Oder. If it hadn’t been for the fish kill, Schneider would be out on the water by now. But the fishermen have hardly gone out since then. “The bad thing is, there’s nothing you can do,” he explains. “If my car breaks down, I go to a workshop and they fix it, very simple. I can’t do anything here. This is where politics comes into play.” Schneider likes to compare the river to property, and that’s fitting, because according to independent fishing rights he’s allowed to fish 175 kilometers of the Oder – at least up to the German-Polish border in the middle of the river; this invisible passage is sacred to the fishermen.