Countdown on the Baltic Sea Will Baby Herring and Conservationists Delay Russo-German Pipeline?

Preparations are fast taking shape for the construction of the controversial Nord Stream natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany this spring. But it still faces a legal challenge in Germany from environmentalists, and critics say the project could disrupt the spring spawning of the herring found in the western Baltic Sea.


By in Rostock

Preserved in formaldehyde and lying there in the stereo microscope's white light, the three fish larvae look like soybean sprouts. They're just one very small part of the spring-spawning herring found in the western Baltic Sea. In Germany, they are probably best known in the form they take much later: the tasty German snack known as Rollmops, a marinated herring fillet usually served rolled up around a pickle.

But these larvae are still far from meeting their maker. Measuring the larvae, which were caught about a year ago in very fine-meshed net, they are barely 10 millimeters long.

"Here you can already see the head, the eyes and fins," says Christian von Dorrien. The biologist works for the Von Thünen Institute for Baltic Sea Fishery in the old harbor in Rostock, a Baltic Sea port city in the state of Mecklenberg-Western Pomerania. And while the water of the Warnow River estuary flows by the laboratory window, von Dorrien's colleague Dagmar Stephan is pre-occupied with lists of numbers, recording the size of fish larvae.

The work is tedious and tiring. But von Dorrien and his colleagues need the long lists in order to make important forecasts: When can the fishing industry expect a good herring season? And when will their nets remain empty? Around 80 percent of the season's herrings begin their lives in the Bay of Greifswald. From there the fish make their way to the North Sea -- some even make it as far as the coast of Norway, where they feed. Many will return to the area; Herring can live for as long as 30 years.

Since 1977 the scientists working in Rostock have been journeying out into the bay in their small cutter, the Clupea, spending as many as 16 weeks taking samples which they later use as a base for their herring catch predictions. The last results were not particularly inspiring. "We are certain that, at the moment, the herring population is going through a tough phase," von Dorrien says. And nobody knows exactly why the last few spawning seasons have been so bad. It could have something to do with the fact that climate change is warming up the waters of the Baltic Sea -- but this has not yet been conclusively proven.

Herring Spawn Endangered by Gas Pipeline

And this year the ailing fish nursery is likely to face another big challenge: Work is set to being on the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline and this will involve burying pipes in meters-deep trenches in Greifswald Bay. Work on the mammoth project could ostensibly start at any time but right now, but the herring are holding up construction. Because of the presence of the baby herring, workers are only permitted to start digging trenches here in the middle of May. "We have committed to this time frame because of the herring spawning season," Ulrich Lissek, the spokesperson for the Nord Stream consortium, confirms.

In the meantime, though, the preparatory work continues, and with all the force of an unstoppable juggernaut. And there is nowhere better to experience it than in Sassnitz's ferry harbor, on the northeast coast of Rügen island. An arctic wind whistles between truck trailers driving along the slushy roads. Of the many commercial buildings built here by the East Germans, a few are still empty. Under a giant canopy of cranes stand decommissioned locomotives, their red paint slowly fading. And everywhere else: Pipes, pipes and more pipes -- black on the outside and red on the inside.

At various storage areas around the ferry harbor, around 45,000 pieces of pipeline -- each one around 12 meters (39 feet) long -- are being stored. That is 550 kilometers (around 342 miles) worth of pipeline. Since the spring of 2009, workers at a factory built by the French company Eupec especially for the purpose have been coating the pipe segments with concrete. This treatment doubles the weight of each pipe to around 24 tons and ensures that the pipes won't float to the surface. When the pipeline eventually goes into operation, it is expected to carry Russian natural gas to Europe for at least 50 years without problems.


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