In Romania’s isolated Danube Delta, traditional communities are struggling to survive in the face of reduced fishing, tighter regulations and economic migration. Kit Gillet explores the challenges that exist in one of Europe’s most bio-diverse regions.
By Kit Gillet
It’s close to midnight and the mosquitoes are out in force, yet Marius Nestor barely seems to notice, despite the fact they swarm around his head. Sitting smoking a cigarette outside a rundown fishermen’s bar in the isolated Romanian town of Sfantu Gheorghe, on the far edge of Europe’s second longest river, the 37-year-old talks about his life to date.
“I started work at 14; I gutted and cleaned the fish. From 17, my dad would take me out every day to show me how to catch fish,” he says, remembering a period in the early 1990s, soon after the fall of communism in Romania.
Nowadays, like many fishermen in the Danube Delta, perhaps the least inhabited region of Europe, Nestor struggles to make a living, caught between the dual pressures of those trying to preserve the Delta and its stunning wildlife and the traditional communities within it who are struggling to survive.
“They don’t allow us to fish where there is fish, because those are now protected areas,” he says.
A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1991, the Danube Delta is one of the most diverse regions on the planet – a unique habitat of canals, reed-beds, lakes and ponds that acts as an important breeding ground for hundreds of species of birds and freshwater fish, including several rare and threatened species. White-tailed eagles can be seen hunting for prey among the reed beds, while white pelicans and pygmy cormorants skim along the water almost playfully. Somewhere in the waters below many of the remaining wild sturgeon of the Danube live out their long lives.
The delta is the ending point of the Danube River, which snakes its way 2,800kms through the heart of continental Europe, through ten countries and four European capitals. The WWF considers the lower part of the Danube, including its delta, among the 200 most valuable eco-regions in the world, while its labyrinth of channels makes it one of the largest wetlands on the planet.
Yet for the traditional communities that live within, life has always been hard, and has become increasingly difficult in recent years as young people have abandoned the villages to find work elsewhere and efforts made by the authorities to regulate fishing and the cutting of reed beds — in order to preserve the nature before it is too late — have restricted their livelihoods.
“The people in the delta feel pretty powerless,” says Alexandra Panait, project leader in the Danube Delta for Rewilding Europe, an NGO focused on helping return areas of Europe back to their natural states.
Four hours from the nearest city and accessible only by boat, the 860 residents of Sfantu Gheorghe rely on a single ferry that docks every other day for any supplies that they can’t grow or catch themselves. Roads in the town are unpaved and streetlights spaced far apart.
At night, the men head out in their small fishing boats, hoping to catch enough fish to feed their families and then earn enough extra money to survive the cold winter months. They return in the early morning, to gut the fish and then gather at one of the bars to start drinking. Life can be monotonous.
“I have to fish all year around, even in the winter when the water sometimes freezes over. It’s the only income I have,” says Nestor, sitting under a single bare light bulb outside the fishermen’s bar. He quickly goes back to talking about earlier times.
“Once, together with five other fishermen I caught a sturgeon that weighed 220 kilos, with 58 kilos of fish eggs. I made 45,000 lei just from that one time, but that was in 2001. Life got harder since Romania joined the EU, not because of the EU but because of the Romanian government,” he adds.
For generations, local communities in the Danube Delta have survived mostly by catching fish. Yet over the last 50 years supplies of fish have dwindled steadily, as overfishing combined with the reclaiming of wetlands for arable use, particularly in the 1970s and 80s, impacted on spawning grounds and fish populations. Industrial and agricultural waste further added to the damage.
Sturgeon, a source of high-grade caviar which could, with one catch, make a local fisherman’s fortune when sold, are now an endangered species in the waters; in 2006, Romania placed a 10-year ban on catching sturgeon on the Danube, with neighbouring Bulgaria following suit in 2011.
“People in the delta need to try to find alternative ways of making a living,” says Dalia Onara, a researcher at the Danube Delta National Institute for Research and Development in the nearby city of Tulcea. “If things don’t change we can go to a museum to see the sturgeon in the future.”
Yet, with the opportunity to earn real money, Onara admits that illegal sturgeon fishing still takes place within the delta.
“We all know there is illegal fishing, and that it is tolerated,” she says. “On one of the bridges out of Tulcea you can see people on the roadside selling fish. Often that fish is a sturgeon.”
“The biggest sturgeon I saw was 400 kilos and three metres long,” says Vasile Ciumac, a 57-year-old local fisherman, talking about the years before the ban as he walks through a long-deserted building, “but books say there were sturgeon that weighed 1.5 tonnes.”
Ciumac has taken me to visit a former fish collection centre, now an abandoned set of buildings located down one of the small river channels a short distance from Sfantu Gheorghe.
Inside the main hall 80 large vats, which once would have been filled with the day’s various catches, stand empty. Cobwebs hang all around, while many of the building’s windows are smashed. The place was shut around 1995, after failing to meet European standards for the water used to clean the fish.
“At some point there was so much fish that they just had to throw it on the floor here,” he says.
Some local villagers have had the idea of turning the buildings into a museum or a community-owned fish centre and market, but so far that has yet to happen, and so it stays as it is; a forgotten place only visited by a few people like Ciumac, who used to work there and who rows over in his ancient boat to visit the lone caretaker and his dog.
Fishing is the only livelihood most of the local communities in the Danube Delta have ever known, and finding an alternative is not easy.
Some in the delta have set up guesthouses and eco-lodges to try to take advantage of the interest from domestic and international tourists in the delta’s wildlife, returning to fishing in the tourist off-season.
In places like Sfantu Gheorghe, on the far end of one of the delta’s main channels and popular with visitors, this has worked to a degree, but it requires start-up capital that many are lacking. For those in communities only accessible by smaller boats, it is likely next to impossible.
Traveling between the isolated communities within the Danube Delta can be complicated. Beyond the daily ferries that go up or down the three main channels, reaching more isolated villages requires smaller boats able to navigate the thin and winding channels.
The journey from Sfantu Gheorghe to Caraorman takes around 90 minutes, passing through unmarked channels and under fallen trees. The boat navigates through freshwater lakes, skies filled with birdlife, and passes fish weighing stations where cats lazily eat discarded fish guts. Vast beds of reeds, some of which are being cut down to be used as roofing for locals’ houses, seem to glide by.
In the 1980s, Communist Romania had the idea of establishing a sand factory in Caraorman, and coming into the village along a manmade channel the skeleton remains of the factory, which was never operational, stand starkly against the skyline. Behind, a series of six-storey blocks of flats slowly fall into ruin; the never-occupied rooms empty but for loose wiring and graffiti left behind by local children.
Caraorman itself isn’t faring much better. Many of its houses are abandoned and its population is shrinking fast. The cemetery is overgrown with weeds.
“There are now 280 people here, when I was a kid it was around 1,500,” says Mihaela Ivanov, a polite, middle-aged lady who owns one of the village’s two shops. “Some left because it is difficult to find work here, but most died. Our priest has been here six years – in that time he’s buried 80, with just three born.”
Ivanov was born in Caraorman, and like most of the village she is ethnically Ukrainian. The delta region of Romania is made up of diverse communities, with Romanians joined by Ukrainians, Turks, Bulgarians and Lipovan Russians, old believers of the Orthodox Church who fled to the region to avoid persecution back home generations ago. Locals often speak more than one language, depending on whom they are talking to.
“Our language is screwed up, it’s not pure Ukrainian,” says Ivanov, speaking in Romanian whilst standing behind the counter in her spartanly stocked shop.
Most of the people in Caraorman are fishermen, and life is getting harder for them. Isolated delta communities like Caraorman are on life support. The local school has just seven children, including kindergarten, who study in two classes.
“There are 10 families in the village who have no kids; they prefer not to have kids because of the conditions here,” says Ivanov. “This year we were declared an ‘unfavourable area’. Taxes might drop from 16% to 3%. There are months when my husband doesn’t make any money from fishing. You can’t really survive on fishing anymore.”
Ivanov’s daughter lives in Tulcea, the gateway city to the delta, and works as a waitress in a hotel while studying law. Her 21-year-old son is still in Caraorman, but is thinking about moving away. “I’ve always thought about leaving, even now. It is hard to quit, but the idea is always in the back of my mind,” says Ivanov.
The name Caraorman, meaning Black Forest, has its origins in Turkish, and just outside the village the dark forest, complete with four-century-old oak trees, is one of the special features of the area. One local tells me that they hunt wild boar, illegally, in the forests, “though boars are plentiful everywhere. We hunt them with dogs,” he adds.
Sitting on the dock in Caraorman one afternoon, a lone boy sits dangling his fishing line in the still waters. He’s from the village but lives in Tulcea and is just visiting his family.
“Everyone young left, it’s only the old people now,” says 74-year-old Contzolenco Timofte, just back from placing his fishing nets overnight and busy repairing the wooden fence outside his house.
“It was better in communist times. Then everyone had work, nowadays so many young people are unemployed. They have a hard time making a living.”
During the last decades of communism in Romania, ending in 1989, industrial and agricultural development across the delta region, and further upriver, impacted heavily on the environmental balance of the entire region, with agricultural and industrial waste seeping into the water, causing far-reaching pollution and eutrophication. In addition, by transforming wetland into fishponds or draining it for agricultural use, the Romanian authorities also drastically affected the natural habitats and spawning grounds of various species.
“A lot of the wetlands were drained in the 1970s and 80s,” says Cristian Tetelea, Head of the Fresh Water department at WWF Romania, “approximately 80,000 hectares out of a total area of around 500,000 hectares.”
WWF Romania is currently working on a project in Mahmudia, a small village of 2,000 residents on the southern delta channel, upstream from Sfantu Gheorghe, where it aims to return wetland drained in the 1980s to its former state by breaching two existing dikes and reflooding the area.
According to Tetelea, the earlier attempts to create more arable land across the delta region were largely unsuccessful; the land at Mahmudia was initially used for crops but the soil became very dry and it was then turned over to grazing for sheep and cows, “but it wasn’t good for that either,” he adds.
“We are now trying to recreate the previous channels that will give the communities better connections to the internal delta and its resources. It is a long process to convince the authorities and landowners; to make them understand that it is good for nature but also good for them.
“After it’s flooded, nature takes back control. In one to three years the wetland can recover,” he adds.
In the largest population hub in the Danube Delta, Sulina, population 3,600, the riverfront bristles with restaurants and bars. Young couples, families and tourists stroll along the promenade in the afternoon, as others settle down to eat and relax. A large, heavily loaded cargo vessel, the Kafkametler out of Istanbul, moors up to be inspected before it can continue its long journey up the Danube River towards the heart of Europe.
In 1856, at the end of the Crimea War, the international powers established the European Committee of the Danube, a multinational body based in Sulina with authority over the Black Sea gateway to the Danube River. In the late 19th century the commission, under the leadership of British engineer Charles Hartley, began straightening and dredging the Sulina channel, the central one of three main branches than run through the delta, to allow access for commercial shipping. Sulina, as the gateway to the Danube became an important stopping off point on the journey.
“Legends say that Greek pirates were cast away here and that is how the community of Sulina first started, around 945 AD,” says Maria Sinescu, the 41-year-old caretaker of the Lighthouse of the European Commission. “After 1856, the European Commission took it over from the Russians. Everything in Sulina was built then and the architecture is very interesting because of this.”
From the top of the Commission’s lighthouse it is possible to look over the church roofs and the 19th century European architecture, and then in the other direction out towards the mouth of the Delta and, a few kilometres beyond, the lighthouse at Mile Zero, out in the Black Sea and the official endpoint of the vast Danube River.
Domestic tourists still flock to Sulina to enjoy its beaches and to take daytrips into the Delta, but like elsewhere in the delta other aspects of its economy have suffered. Thirty years ago there were thousands of people employed in the local fisheries, fish canning factories, ship repair yards and the naval barracks in Sulina. Now there are just 3,600 in the entire town, and the factories are long gone.
Cargo ships still pass by regularly, stopping for supplies and inspection, but two large cargo vessels stand high above the waterline across the channel from the town and look like they’ve long been abandoned there, while the rows of factory buildings, on the same shore, also look deserted.
“I’m among the very few from here who manage to get by,” says Adrian Oprisan, the 48-year-old owner of a small guesthouse in the town of Crisan, a two hour ferry ride from Sulina along the delta’s central channel.
Crisan, population 1,200, is little more than a single road that runs along the water’s edge; it didn’t even exist until the late 19th century, when engineers began straightening the central channel. Nowadays it’s a picturesque small town increasingly reliant on tourism.
Oprisan organises canoeing trips through the delta for visitors, with trips often lasting three or four days. “In ten minutes you can learn to use a canoe,” he explains. “We have route maps and people can just rent the boats, or they can be guided by me, my brother or my son. Whatever we catch we cook, and everyone eats the same. Guaranteed fresh, no menus,” he says, with a smile.
Oprisan started the business back in 1999 and in 2004 got a loan to build the current guesthouse (before tourists were just offered rooms in his parents’ house). In 2012 he began working with Rowmania, an organisation set up by Ivan Patzaichin, an Olympic gold medal canoeist, to promote canoeing in the delta.
Oprisan doesn’t have a huge number of guests – he estimates 60 in the first half of the year – but he says it’s enough.
“I can’t live anywhere else,” he tells me, sitting 20 metres from the riverbank. “I’m qualified as a Slavic language teacher and taught for a few years near Tulcea, but I missed the quiet and nature of this place.” His brother qualified to become a dentistry technician but also came back.
Nowadays, communities in the delta are cautious when it comes to outside involvement or help, which in the past — whether it was the communist government or those that have come since — has often had an ultimately negative effect for the local population.
“Authorities don’t generally involve locals in their decisions,” says WWF’s Tetelea. “The environmental regulations put in place over the last few years have had positive impacts – species have recovered or stabilised – but locals complain there are too many regulations; that they can’t compete anymore. There is a truth to this.”
Sitting in his office in the centre of Sfantu Gheorghe, Valentin Sidorencu, a former forestry worker and the mayor of Sfantu Gheorghe since 2008, is adamant that things would be better without outside interference.
“We don’t need to be helped – we need to be left alone to do what we’ve always done. We understand nature, live among it, know how to guard it.”
Outside his door, one of Europe’s most important, isolated and diverse regions stretches outwards.
This article was reported with the help of a Europa grant from the Romanian Cultural Institute.
British journalist Kit Gillet has been based in Romania since 2013, reporting from the region for the likes of the Guardian and the New York Times. This month he delves into the world of the Danube Delta, visiting many of the small communities that dot this impressive natural landscape.