An unprecedented environmental emergency appears to be unfolding in Russia’s Far East. Wildlife organisations have expressed concern after footage emerged on social media over the weekend of large numbers of sea animals washing up on the beaches of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Fish, octopus and even seals are seen lying dead in photographs from the province, which is a popular tourist hotspot known for its rich wildlife and volcanic beaches. There are also reports of surfers and divers in the area suffering from skin and eye conditions after being in the water.  Likewise, locals and visitors have complained that the sea in Kamchatka’s Avacha Bay has a strange smell and is “sticky, bitter and dirty.”

Photographs have emerged of hundreds of sea creatures lying dead on the beaches of Kamchatka – Anna Strelchenko/TASS.

At present, the cause of these events is unknown. The area has very little heavy industry, and, despite initial claims that it was the result of an oil tanker spillage, no maritime accidents have been reported. However, Russia’s Novaya Gazeta has added to the speculation, reporting that agricultural chemicals dating back to the days of the Soviet Union are stored nearby, and that military exercises are conducted on the coast. High levels of phenols and petrochemical products have been detected in the water, according to scientists leading an inquiry into the events.

Kamchatka is one of Russia’s most remote provinces. Dividing the Sea of Okhotsk from the Bering Sea, the peninsula is closer to the eastern seaboard of the United States than it is to Moscow. The Sea of Okhotsk, which Russia shares with China and Japan, is home to a vast array of natural life and is one of Asia’s most important fisheries. The country’s Natural Resources and Environment Ministry has described the sea as “Ali Baba’s cave”, due to the large deposits of minerals and oil reserves.

The volume of dead sea life has shocked environmental organisations and social media users. Greenpeace Russia, via Twitter.

The ecological catastrophe has sparked outrage among Russians, with many turning to social media to express their dismay. While local government initially claimed that there was no contamination of water and air in the region, governor Vladimir Solodov has since pledged to sack any officials who play down the crisis. In a visit to Avacha Bay over the weekend, he argued for stronger monitoring, and pointed to “systemic flaws” in Russia’s environmental protection policies.

This is not the first time that such flaws have become a public scandal in Russia. Over the summer, a string of ecological incidents in the Arctic Circle region of Norilsk came to light. Among them was the leak of more than 20,000 tonnes of fuel into local rivers, which ran red with pollution. Mining conglomerate Nornickel was said to be responsible, with Russian President Vladimir Putin expressing his frustration at the events, and the perceived coverup that followed.

However, ecology and environmentalism are less-frequently discussed in Russian media than elsewhere. Academic research has found a mismatch between Russian perceptions of environmental pollution and the scientific reality. While climate change becomes a major worry for citizens in European nations, polls have found Russians are among the least likely to say that climate change is a major threat, with fewer than half of those surveyed pointing to it as a significant concern.

At the same time, the country has not been immune from the kind of climate activism that has become prominent in the West with groups like Extinction Rebellion. While small, Russia’s environmental protest movement is tenacious, staging weekly protests in Moscow and organising across other cities. It has brought together young people intent on changing the narrative around environmental protection. And it appears that they are beginning to make ground.

Last year, the Russian Government became signatories to the Paris Agreement on climate change, having been one of the last major nations that had not joined the group. They did so only a few months after the United States decided to pull out of the same agreement. Unlike the US, Russia does not have large numbers of climate change deniers of conspiracy theorists, with around 90 per cent of Russians acknowledging the existence of climate change. However, there is no consensus that it requires urgent action or, crucially, economic sacrifice.

The fourth largest producer of greenhouse gases, the Russian economy is intimately linked to the production of oil and gas. Mining for minerals and metals is also a vital sector for Russia, with an estimated $75 trillion in resources still to be extracted. The dependence on energy and mining, as well as heavy industry, has however exerted a toll on Russia’s natural environment.

The country inherited a litany of pollution-related issues from the Soviet Union, and in 2010 more than half of Russians lived in areas with unsafe levels of emissions or chemical waste in the air. This has fallen dramatically in the past decade to be only around one in ten. At the same time, transparency around the environment has increased, with social media and internet blogs playing a critical role in raising awareness of incidents such as the one playing out in Kamchatka.

For millions of Russians, the beauty of places like Kamchatka is the main appeal for living in or visiting the Far East. While geographically it might be almost at the end of the world, its environmental problems don’t have to be unsolvable. As the shock and sadness at the scenes from Avacha Bay sets in, the question remains as to whether Russia is ready for tougher action on the environment.