Massive marine die-off in Russian Far East threatens endangered species

September 14 was a rare sunny day at Khalaktyrskiy Beach. A seaward wind was whipping up the waves, and at 54 degrees Fahrenheit, the water was warmer than even the air. Conditions were ideal for surfing, at least by the standards of the “land of fire and ice,” Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, in the far east.

But half an hour after Katya Dyba, an administrator at Snowave, a local surf school on the Pacific coast, came in from riding the crests, her vision began to blur, and her throat became sore. One of her co-workers couldn’t open his eyes.

The surfers first blamed it on the sun’s glare or buffeting winds. As they began to suffer nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and fever in the ensuing days, however, they realized the poison was in the ocean itself. In total, 16 people went to the hospital; several were diagnosed with corneal burns.

Meanwhile mounds of lifeless sea urchins and starfish were washing up on Kamchatka’s eastern shores. Beachgoers picked up limp red octopuses by their tentacles. A patch of fetid yellowish foam hundreds of feet wide and several miles long floated down the coast. Divers estimated that in some places, 95 percent of bottom-dwelling organisms had perished.

“My reaction was absolute bewilderment, because we’re used to the water at Khalaktyrskiy Beach always being very clean, and nothing like this had ever happened before,” says Dyba, who is still suffering eye dryness a month later.

The problem has spread southwest, around the peninsula and up the food chain: Thousands of dead fish, mostly bottom feeders, were found on Kamchatka’s western shore this week, and several brown bears suffered severe food poisoning after eating them—just one example of the potential ripple effects this mass marine life die-off could cause.

While many initially suspected pollution, scientists now say the deaths were probably caused by an algal bloom. That raises even more troubling questions about how climate change is affecting one of the planet’s most biodiverse marine environments, home to endangered species such as steelhead trout and sea otters.

“We didn’t expect that the area of algal blooming [would] be so massive,” says Kirill Vinnikov, a marine biologist at the Far Eastern Federal University. “It is an unprecedented case.” (Last year, National Geographic chose Kamchatka Peninsula as one of its best trips of the year.)

‘The whole coastal zone is infected’

Hanging off Russia’s Pacific coast like a droopy tail, Kamchatka has the highest concentration of active volcanoes on Earth. Rivers cascade from these lava fields and glaciers into broad marshes and form the perfect spawning grounds for six species of ocean-going salmon, which in turn provide food for brown bears, spotted seals, orcas, and decreasing numbers of Steller’s sea eagles and Steller’s sea lions. The salmon often feed on zooplankton in the nutrient-rich Kamchatka current, as do gray whales and critically endangered right whales.

While Kamchatka is synonymous with salmon, it also has a huge variety of bottom-dwelling fish, mollusks, anemones, sea stars, and sea urchins that