31 Aug 2017

HELCOM report: A dynamic snapshot of the Baltic marine environment

By Monika Stankiewicz, HELCOM Executive Secretary

A satellite image of algal bloom in the Baltic Sea. Photo: ESA Earth Online

What comes to mind when someone mentions the environmental state of the Baltic Sea? Perhaps it’s algal blooms, sewage treatment, litter, mercury levels in fish, or the threat of oil spills. But which of these issues affect the marine environment the most, how have they developed in recent years, and what consequences do they have for us who live along the shores? These are some of the questions that the new HELCOM State of the Baltic Sea report attempts to answer.

A healthy Baltic Sea environment by the year 2021–that is the ambitious goal of the Baltic Sea Action Plan. The plan was adopted in 2007 by the nine Baltic Sea coastal countries and the EU, working together through HELCOM, also known as the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission.

In order to achieve this goal, policy makers need a solid understanding of the current environmental state as well as the most important issues facing the sea. For decades, HELCOM has spearheaded the development of methods and tools for this purpose. An initial holistic assessment of ecosystem health was published in 2010, and since then, hundreds of experts from all the countries around the Baltic Sea have contributed to refining the assessment methods.

The second holistic assessment was published in July this year. This report, titled “State of the Baltic Sea”, presents data collected for the period 2011–2015. The assessment is based on a set of core indicators, from water clarity to the size of seal populations, combined with economic analyses and geographical data on species, habitats, and human activities.

Improvements not visible yet

The findings show that, in spite of some signs of improvement, pressures continue to be high and the overall state of biodiversity is not good: out of 28 core indicators, only four achieve the threshold value in all assessed parts of the Baltic Sea. Worst off among the species groups are birds, marine mammals, and fish. The greatest impact is caused by nutrient inputs, followed by contamination from hazardous substances, underwater sound, non-indigenous species, and fishing.

The Baltic Sea countries are continuously improving management and putting new measures in place, but as it takes time for the environment to recover, the effects are not yet visible.

For example, in the past 10­–20 years, the input of nitrogen to the Baltic Sea has decreased by 13% and phosphorus by 19%. However, eutrophication still affects more than 95% of the sea area, and it causes a cascade of harmful changes to the ecosystem, including blooms of blue-green algae.

Billions to be gained

For ages, the vulnerable Baltic waters have brought employment, welfare, and economic benefits to national economies, through activities like fishing, transport, and recreation. The State of the Baltic Sea assessment shows how the economic value brought by many of these activities diminishes when the environment deteriorates. Recreation in and around the Baltic Sea, for instance, is worth around EUR 15 billion annually, but up to EUR 2 billion more could be gained in recreation value each year if the marine environment were improved.

Information in support of action

There is clear economic, social, and cultural value to solving our environmental problems. Taking action is the responsibility of individual countries, and the information collected in the State of the Baltic Sea report helps policy-makers and environmental managers make effective decisions.

Over the next few months, HELCOM will collect feedback on the assessment nationally and internationally in order to make improvements for the final version of the report, due in mid-2018. The updated version will also include one more year of monitoring data.

Working together on this report, the nine Baltic Sea countries and the EU show a good example of a joint effort to identify how far we have come towards reaching the goals of the Baltic Sea Action Plan and international policies with similar objectives, such as the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

State of the Baltic Sea report

Monika Stankiewicz

Monika Stankiewicz

Executive Secretary of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM)

HELCOM is an intergovernmental organisation that works on protection of the marine environment of the Baltic Sea.