HELCOM: Baltic Sea Protection is Possible Only in Cooperation with Russia

Helsinki Commission, HELCOM unites nine countries: Germany, Denmark, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Estonia and the European Union in order to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea. The commission's recommendations refer to maritime and land transport, agriculture and fisheries. All participants must follow them to make the Baltic Sea cleaner. Johanna Laurila, CIO of HELCOM tells about what is already being done and about dangers which threaten the sea.

The essence of HELCOM's task has never changed: protecting the Baltic marine environment from all sources of pollution by the coastal nations. HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan was adopted in 2007, with the view to reach a Good environmental status for the Baltic Sea by 2021(Status implies, in particular, the health of trade fish populations, the minimum amount of impurities and marine litter, biodiversity conservation and minimal eutrophication - approx. Ed.). Working towards those objectives still are the basis for the main tasks. This year, HELCOM will launch 19 new indicators, jointly agreed by the countries, which will greatly help in assessing the status of the sea. Monitoring and assessment is overall a major component for HELCOM, as that is the only way to know how is the sea really doing, and which measures would be best for reducing pollution.

One central task concerns saving natural resources as well as preventing hazardous substances being released into marine environment. There are several processes involved, for instance: promoting recycling of nutrients and particularly phosphorus in agriculture; sustainable sewage sludge handling (new HELCOM Recommendation coming up); development of sustainable aquaculture (new HELCOM Recommendation under finalization); and prevention of polluting environment by organic compounds including pharmaceutical substances (new status report in preparations, expected release in 2016).

Combating eutrophication, which is the main threat to the Baltic Sea, is carried out e.g. through implementation of the HELCOM nutrient reduction scheme. There are annual targets to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen for each country and this fall, a new assessment on the progress so far will be released.

In shipping and oil response, preparatory work continues towards the full regional ratification of the Ballast Water Management Convention, to prevent the damage from invasive species entering the Baltic Sea. New developments on maritime spatial planning (MSP) are carried out e.g. through the recent sub-group on MSP data, as well as utilizing more fully the Automatic Identification System (AIS) data of ships, et cetera. Moreover, preparations continue for the second Holistic Assessment of the Baltic Sea, expecting completion in 2018, giving a comprehensive view of the entire sea area.

Красивые круизные лайнеры тоже могут быть источником загрязнения

Thankfully, most industries don't release anymore the seriously harmful substances to the environment (e.g. heavy metals). Also there are much less discharges from ships, as well as substantially improved urban wastewater treatment in the region when compared to the situation some decades ago. Among current damaging activities would be, among others, ships' sewage, as e.g. currently the majority of cruise ships' toilet waters end up in the sea, not to the reception facilities at ports. Fuels used and technologies deployed in the ships could be more environmentally friendly.

Agriculture and fertilizing practices, as well as manure management in farms, are still major sources for nutrients input. As per marine litter, consumer behavior plays a big part, and for instance littering recreational beaches is rather high, as also other household consumption. One human pressure is the unsustainable exploitation of nature resources, including biological resources. Moreover: while the coverage of marine protected areas in the Baltic Sea is relatively high, at 12 %, the management and ecological coherence of these areas has still room for improvement.

Protection of the Baltic Sea environment without cooperation with Russia would not make too much sense, because a remarkable part of the catchment area is within the borders of Russia and Russia conducts vast economic activities at the sea and on its shores. The cooperation is rather successful, for it brings feasible results e.g. in waste water treatment or promotion of clean shipping on one side, and establishes a dialog between experts and politicians on the other. But that concerns not only Russia but also the other members of the Convention. HELCOM cooperation is based on consensus between all its members and it has survived the test of time for over 40 years. The tradition for joint marine protection within HELCOM framework has a strong foundation.

Some species, living in the Baltic Sea, are in need of special protection.In the HELCOM Red List assessment of species published in 2013, 8 species were assessed as critically endangered i.e. at high risk of extinction. This includes e.g. European eel, harbour porpoise and red-throated diver. Three species are already regionally extinct: American Atlantic sturgeon, common skate and gull-billed tern.

Морских свиней в Балтике осталось очень мало

The nations, inviting along many industries, civil society and even private citizens, now have the key responsibility in the prevention of marine litter, by implementing the freshly adopted Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter of HELCOM. The Action plan lists the many actions needed to mitigate the litter originating from land or sea.

Pollution by the smallest particles of plastic is a serious problem. There are two types of microplastics that can be found in the marine environment: primary and secondary microplastics. The first category represents those particles manufactured either for direct use, such as for industrial abrasives or cosmetics (toothpaste) or for indirect use, such as pre-production of pellets or nurdles. A recent study - by GESAMP, the Joint Group of Experts on Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection - concludes that microplastics can be found inside the bodies of a wide variety of marine organisms including invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals. Plastics often contain chemicals added during manufacture and can absorb and concentrate contaminants such as pesticides from the surrounding seawater. There is also emerging evidence of transfer of chemicals from ingested plastics into tissues. While the ingested microplastics can affect the physiology of the host organism and potentially compromise its fitness, there is also a risk that it travels the food chain higher up, all the way to human consumption. 

The recently adopted HELCOM Recommendation 36/1 on the Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter identifies two specific actions to tackle the issue of micro particles, including micro plastic. The first one urges to establish an overview of the different sources of primary and secondary microplastics in the Baltic Sea, including products and processes that include microplastics, for instance cloth fibre, and act, if appropriate, to influence the legal framework concerned. The second one addresses waste water treatment plants, calling for investigation and promotion of best available techniques as well as research and development of additional techniques to prevent micro particles entering the marine environment.

It should be understood that Baltic sea will never be completely clean, because the economic activities for the sake of 80 million people dwelling in the Baltic Sea catchment area causes constant pressure on the marine environment. Also transboundary pollution remarkably contributes to the pollution loads. The major challenge is to keep an environmental pressure in the boundaries of Good environmental status (GES) in order to prevent the degradation of the marine ecosystems. The pressure on ecosystem consists of two parts – impact of ongoing economic activities caused by emissions, releases and exploitation of resources and, the accumulated damage or pollution from the activities in the past. The first task is to reduce pressure caused by current human activities to the GES boundaries where reduction is needed and to keep it in these boundaries for growing sectors. Thus implementation of the Baltic Sea Action Plan should lead to reaching of the pressure level which does not harm marine ecosystem. Then the focus could be shifted towards remediation of the accumulated environmental damage. But some remediation measures are to be implemented even now.

Photo: Noora Ojala, Shutterstock.

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