Measures to improve the Baltic Sea environment are undertaken by many actors and at many levels; jointly at the regional level through HELCOM, by countries at national, county and local levels, and by initiatives in the private sector. Different types of measures are taken including technical improvements to minimise impact, economic and legislative measures, and measures directed towards raising awareness and incentives for changes in behaviour. In the Baltic Sea, where the transboundary aspects of environmental problems are highly evident, HELCOM plays a central role in coordinating the management objectives and their implementation in line with the Helsinki Convention.
A straight-forward conclusion from the results presented in this report is that the measures currently in operation have not been sufficient to reach a good overall environmental status in all areas of the Baltic Sea. More accurate estimates of foreseen effects of measures are needed, in order to evaluate if current measures are sufficient to reach good environmental status. Achievements gained via coordinated actions taken by HELCOM can however still be evaluated, as exemplified in this chapter.
Progress in achieving the objectives of the Baltic Sea Action Plan
The Baltic Sea Action Plan and the HELCOM Ministerial Declarations contain agreements on nearly 180 concrete actions for achieving the regionally agreed objectives (HELCOM 2007, 2010b, 2013a). A little more than half of those actions are carried out jointly in HELCOM, for example through the development of common management guidelines and ‘HELCOM Recommendations’ which are joint agreements on approaches or measures to address certain activities and pressures or areas of concern. Joint actions refer also to joint regional regulatory initiatives of the Contracting Parties in other intergovernmental contexts such as within the International Maritime Organization. Today, 126 HELCOM Recommendations are implemented to support a regionally coherent marine management. Other actions are implemented at the national level, for example through national legislation or national restoration activities.
By 2017, 68 % of the joint HELCOM actions had been carried out. Of the actions implemented at the national level, 23 % had been accomplished by all countries, and 62 % by some countries (Figure 7.1).
Among the actions to reduce pressures, the lowest level of implementation is seen in relation to eutrophication (Figure 7.1). The overview gives a partly incomplete picture on actions related to benthic disturbances, marine litter and underwater sound, since HELCOM recommendations are currently not included in the follow-up of the implementation of the Baltic Sea Action Plan. For example, requirements are additionally in place concerning dredging and disposal of dredged material. In addition, the Regional Action Plan for Marine Litter from 2015 requires the countries to achieve significant reductions in marine litter by 2025 and includes a number of joint actions and voluntary national actions that are not addressed here. For underwater sound, HELCOM has focused on building knowledge and has, through the 2018 Ministerial Meeting, agreed to develop an action plan.
While there are few actions directly aimed at conserving habitats, in principle all actions addressing pressures on the Baltic Sea serve to improve the state of pelagic and benthic habitats, and importantly also the designation and management of marine protected areas (Figure 7.2). Among biological features, the fewest HELCOM actions are in place for waterbirds. Detailed information on the achievements and ongoing HELCOM activities to realise the agreement of the Baltic Sea Action Plan are included in the 2018 HELCOM report on implementation of the Baltic Sea Action Plan (HELCOM 2018au). HELCOM actions are not limited to concrete measures but include also other types of actions needed to support management towards the goals of the Baltic Sea Action Plan including monitoring, improving the knowledge base, and coming to an agreement on how to assess the state of the Baltic Sea (Figure 7.3). The joint indicators and assessment tools which form the base of this report are one example of the actions that have been worked on by HELCOM technical working groups and expert networks for a number of years.
Examples of achievements related to the Baltic Sea Action Plan
Eutrophication: Nutrient reduction targets
A key commitment in the Baltic Sea Action Plan is the agreement of reduction targets for input of nutrients, in order to combat the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. This is the first regional agreement setting concrete Maximum Allowable Inputs to the Baltic Sea based on the best available scientific knowledge and communicating the necessary reductions to the individual coastal countries. The countries have flexibility regarding which measures they choose to utilise to meet their target as long as they comply with the existing individual requirements and standards. In addition, certain reduction potential has been indicated for transboundary waterborne inputs of phosphorus and nitrogen originating from the upstream countries in the catchment areas as well as airborne nitrogen inputs from non-Contracting Parties and shipping, in line with the polluters-pay principle.
HELCOM regularly assesses the progress in reaching the nutrient reduction targets. The achievements differ between countries. For total nitrogen, inputs were reduced to the level below the targets for the sub-basins Bothnian Sea, Danish Straits and Kattegat while, for instance, the phosphorus input to the Baltic Proper is still more than 50 % short of the reduction target (see also Figure 4.1.3 in Chapter 4 Eutrophication).
Hazardous substances: Reduction of pollution hot spots
HELCOM’s pollution hot spot programme was established in 1992, and resulted in the elimination of 41 industrial hot spots by 2013. The hot spots included sites affected by chemicals, cookery, fertilizer, combustion, food-processing, fish-farming, metal-processing, mining, pulp and paper, oil refinery, and metal smelter industries. While at least three pulp and paper mills and two food processing plants were closed down, the other sites had to comply with the requirements of relevant HELCOM Recommendations to be deleted from the list of hot spots. The status of compliance is evaluated by experts from HELCOM countries. Additionally, many industries are connected to municipal sewerage systems listed as municipal hot spots, out of which 54 were removed from the list by 2018.
The remaining 20 industrial hot spots and 23 municipal or combined municipal and industrial sites have been incorporated to the 2013 Ministerial Declaration, with a target year for deletion of 2016. Of these, one pulp and paper industry site and seven municipal or combined municipal and industrial sites have been removed from the list as of June 2017. Nineteen industrial hot-spots still exist in the Baltic Sea catchment area, including five pulp and paper industry plants, two hazardous waste landfills, a mining waste site, one chemical and one pharmaceutical industry, one power plant, one oil bunkering station, one oil refinery, and six other industries (metal and steel industries, for example).
Maritime activities: Nitrogen oxide emission control
In line with the 2010 HELCOM Ministerial Declaration, HELCOM countries have taken the initiative and prepared the necessary submissions within HELCOM to cut nitrogen oxide emissions from ships. The reduction will be achieved by designating the Baltic Sea as a nitrogen oxide emission control area (NECA) under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). In 2017, a nitrogen oxide emission control area (NECA) for ships operating in the Baltic Sea and a similar control area in the North Sea were adopted under Annex VI of MARPOL. Both NECAs are expected to result in reduction of 22,000 tonnes of annual total nitrogen deposition to the Baltic Sea region compared to a scenario without Nitrogen oxide emission control areas (EMEP 2016). Out of the foreseen reduction, 7,000 tonnes is anticipated to be cut from direct deposition to the Baltic Sea surface, and the remaining 15,000 tonnes to be cut from deposition to the Baltic Sea catchment area. The NECA regulations are directed to new ships and do not address existing ships. Ships built in or after 2021 will have to use new technology, resulting in circa 80 % lower nitrogen oxide emissions. Hence, a period of fleet renewal for about two decades is expected before the regulation will show the effect described, even if emissions are cut earlier with every new ship. Parallel work to promote green shipping technology and the use of alternative fuels, such as liquefied natural gas, has been undertaken by HELCOM to enable reductions in air pollution from ships sooner.
Maritime activities: Reduction of sewage from passenger ships
In the Baltic Sea Action Plan, HELCOM countries agreed to develop regulations on ship sewage (covered by Annex IV of MARPOL) and on making a joint submission to the International Maritime Organization. The 2010 submission prepared within HELCOM led to amending Annex IV to enable special areas, and to not be limited to only addressing sanitary concerns of sewage, but also nutrient content. The proposal also led to the designation of the Baltic Sea as a special area.
As a result of the steps taken by HELCOM countries, the Baltic Sea is the first area in the world to receive the status of a special area for sewage from passenger ships, and to have this status adopted by the International Maritime Organization. After sufficient availability of port reception facilities for sewage was confirmed in 2016, the IMO decided that the regulation is to come into effect in June 2021 for all existing passenger ships (registered for twelve or more passengers). After this date, sewage discharges from passenger ships will only be allowed into port reception facilities, or alternatively at sea after treatment with advanced on-board sewage treatment plants which reduces the nutrient content of the sewage. For new passenger ships, the regulations come into effect from June 2019. For direct passages between St Petersburg and the North Sea, there is an extension until 1 June 2023.
Biodiversity: Marine protected areas
Spatial protection is central to the biodiversity agreements in the Baltic Sea Action Plan and designation of marine protected areas has been a key instrument for protection of biodiversity in the Baltic Sea for more than thirty years. As the first marine region in the world in 2010, the Baltic Sea reached the target of conserving at least 10 % of coastal and marine areas set by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Today the area protected through marine protected areas has reached 12 % (Figure 7.4). The protection is however not evenly distributed between sub-basins or between coasts and open sea, and the aim remains to reach the target in all offshore sub-basins.
A specific aim for the HELCOM network of marine and coastal Baltic Sea protected areas (HELCOM MPAs) is to be ‘ecologically coherent’, meaning that a network of protected sites should be designed so that it delivers more benefits than individual areas. The HELCOM assessment of ecological coherence (HELCOM 2016b) showed that two of the evaluated aspects were at an acceptable level for supporting a coherent marine protected area network: the areal representation of different types of broad scale habitats and the replication of a set of indicative species and biotope complexes. However, the evaluation indicated that the connectivity, which measures how well the network supports the migration and dispersal of species is not yet optimised.
Management plans remain to be implemented in about 30 % of the marine protected areas. HELCOM is working towards the development of a method to assess the management effectiveness of HELCOM marine protected areas and the network. Such an assessment will be important to corroborate environmental positive effects and marine protected area management.
For more information on HELCOM and its work, see the main HELCOM website.