Photo: Anton Sharov/Unsplash

Important steps towards improving the state of the Baltic Sea include achieving nutrient reduction targets and ending pollution, engaging in cross-sectorial approaches, and adapting environmental management to consider climate change. The HELCOM Ministerial meeting of 2018 agreed to strengthen the implementation of the Baltic Sea Action Plan and to update it by 2021, as well as to take action to meet global sustainable development goals.

The results in this State of the Baltic Sea report show that the environmental objectives of the Baltic Sea Action Plan are not likely to be reached by 2021. Continued and renewed efforts are needed to further reduce pressures, restore species and habitats to a healthy state, and reach long term sustainability in the use of Baltic Sea resources. However, progress made so far shows that Baltic Sea regional collaboration gives results. The HELCOM Ministerial meeting of 2018 agreed to strengthen the implementation of the Action Plan and update it by 2021, and committed to enhancing cooperation and coherence among policies for delivering sustainable development goals. Key future collaboration themes for Baltic Sea countries include finalising the achievement of nutrient reduction targets and ending pollution, engaging in cross-sectorial approaches and adapting environmental management to climate change. 

This second HELCOM holistic assessment shows that most fish, birds and marine mammals, as well as benthic and pelagic habitats of the Baltic Sea are still not in a healthy state. A deteriorated status is seen in different parts of the food web, comprising species which live in the open water column, in coastal areas, as well as those close to the sea floor. The impact is likely to influence the ecosystems’ functioning, the resilience of the food web against further environmental changes and the prospects for socioeconomic benefits. Restoring habitats of threatened species and improving the network of marine protected areas form an important backbone for improving this situation. In parallel, dedicated actions to reduce pressures are significant.

Major pressures on the Baltic Sea – eutrophication, hazardous substances, introduction of non-indigenous species, and effects of commercial fishing – were all at higher than sustainable levels during 2011-2016. These pressures were also the ones causing the most widespread impacts. Many species are affected by these pressures, and are potentially sensitive to them, directly or indirectly. For example, the effects of eutrophication on oxygen deficiency at the sea floor affect benthic fauna and extend via the Baltic Sea food web to zooplankton, and may ultimately influence food availability for fish, waterbirds and marine mammals.

On the other hand, many other pressures from human activities cause clearly evident effects at smaller spatial scales, such as activities causing loss of habitat or disturbances to the sea floor. Due to the multiple interactions in the ecosystem, many of the biodiversity indicators primarily reflect a response to total environmental pressure, rather than to individual ones. Thus, the roadmap towards healthy species and habitats involves several jointly contributing actions.

Key priorities for a healthy Baltic Sea

Achieving nutrient reduction targets and ending pollution

The eutrophication status has changed only little since the previous HELCOM holistic assessment (HELCOM 2010a). At least 97 % of the open sea area is still eutrophied, based on an assessment of nutrient levels at sea, water quality and habitats, and about 12 % is assessed as being in the category of poorest eutrophication status. Even though nutrient inputs have been reduced substantially, their accumulation over decades and the long retention time of water in the Baltic Sea extend the time needed for recovery. Furthermore, agreed targets for Maximum Allowable Inputs are still exceeded in six out of seven sub-basins for phosphorus and in four out of seven sub-basins for nitrogen. Not all measures agreed on in the Baltic Sea Action Plan have been implemented yet, and nutrient resources are not optimally managed everywhere, showing that further potential to reduce nutrient input to the Baltic Sea exists.

Reaching the nutrients input reduction targets continues to be a priority in HELCOM work. Enhanced efforts will focus on developing a Baltic regional nutrient recycling strategy, cooperation with the agricultural sector as well as relevant river basin authorities. The key step in addressing nutrients that have accumulated in the seabed is improving the knowledge base on the nature and dynamics of internal nutrient reserves.

Hazardous substances also remain a problem. Although inputs of some contaminants are decreasing, such as mercury and cadmium, concentrations of hazardous substances are still too high and several pollution hot spots remain. Several new types of substances, including pharmaceuticals, are reaching the sea, for instance through waste-water treatment plants, agricultural and industrial releases. The wide range of sources from which hazardous substances reach the Baltic Sea highlights the importance of coordinated and innovative management to address the causes. Further, increasing evidence on how the widespread use of plastic materials is affecting the sea has resulted in marine litter being identified as one of the priority areas for work in HELCOM.

Enhancing cross-sectorial approaches

The holistic assessment makes clear that several environmental objectives require a combination of measures and can only be achieved by engagement of all sectors impacting on, or being dependent on, the sea. The strong inter-linkages, for example between eutrophication, fisheries management and climate change impact in the Baltic Sea are highlighted here.

Fishing has historically imposed significant environmental impacts on the Baltic Sea. It remains a major pressure on several species, including cod in both the western and the eastern Baltic Sea, and also leads to associated food web impacts. At the same time, opportunities for fishing are dependent on having a good environmental status, as fish require suitable habitats and feeding conditions. Local fisheries are affected by decreasing fish resources, but also by conflict of interest with seals and certain sea birds. In addition, most Baltic Sea fish communities today are dominated by small-sized fish in comparison to historical records, suggesting that the fishable biomass could be considerably larger.

The impacts of fishing interact with those of eutrophication and other pressures. Numbers of large predatory fish have declined due to a combination of poor environmental conditions and high fishing pressure (for some stocks over recommended levels) whereas smaller prey species, such as herring and sprat, dominate the pelagic food web. The reduced role of predatory fish decreases ecosystem resilience, and reduces the natural resistance of the ecosystem, against the establishment of non-indigenous species for example, or the increase in species that benefit from eutrophication. Another case is the highly threatened European eel, which is affected by activities at sea, including fishing, but for which some land-based activities, such as the damming of migration routes in rivers, are a significant source of mortality.

Due to the ecosystem connections, coordinated management among sectors to mitigate and reduce environmental risks is required, to bring mutual benefits and support recovery of species and habitats. Looking both inside and outside of the Baltic Sea region, the benefits for the Baltic Sea of collaboration among countries, institutions and private initiatives are evident.

At the HELCOM Ministerial Meeting of 2018, HELCOM countries and the EU committed to a number of actions to enhance cooperation, policy coherence and coordination, in particular between marine environment, land-based activities, fisheries management measures, and maritime spatial planning (HELCOM 2018av). Baltic Sea countries will also work together in the implementation of the Ballast water management convention of the International Maritime Organization and will strengthen cooperation on ship hull fouling solutions, to prevent the introduction of non-indigenous species, and lower the use of hazardous substances in anti-fouling systems.

Adapting to climate change

Effects of climate changes are already evident in the Baltic Sea, and global warming is expected to lead to further hydrological changes in the near future. Most species in the Baltic Sea have their distribution limited by temperature and salinity conditions, and climate-related changes may lead to a considerable change in the occurrence of species. For example, a decrease in marine species is expected if salinity levels decrease further. Other projected changes include acidification, increased sea level, decreasing ice cover extent, and changed precipitation patterns, leading to altered composition of nutrients, and interactions with other pressures.

The climate-related changes should be considered in all aspects of management. For example, global warming is expected to amplify low levels of oxygen near the seabed, hence exacerbating eutrophication effects, and to affect the prospects for long-term sustainable resource use via effects on food web productivity. Meeting the nutrient reduction targets of HELCOM is important for mitigating these impacts.

Although many climate-related aspects call for further research and understanding, the vast existing knowledge can already be used in the planning of measures. Foreseen climate change impacts will be taken into account when updating the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan. Priority areas include accounting for interactions between eutrophication and climate effects, strengthening the network of protected areas, and adhering to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Paris Agreement for minimising further adverse effects. HELCOM will also work towards a better understanding of the role of the Baltic Sea in the global carbon cycle.

Are we moving in the right direction?

The results of the holistic assessment reflect that several HELCOM action areas lag behind in implementation, and only three years remain to reach the deadline of 2021 for the Baltic Sea Action Plan. However, we should also recall what the state the Baltic Sea environment could have looked like without the currently existing regional agreements. As a results of these, for example, we see that inputs of nutrients and several hazardous substances are decreasing, as well as the number and volume of illegal oil spills, and that several previously prevailing pollution hot spots have been removed.

Still, why is the status of the environment not better at this point? Many key pressures from human activities have been acting on the Baltic Sea during recent decades. Legacies such as nutrients and contaminants accumulated in sediments are buried only slowly and will still show unacceptable levels in the marine environment long after their inputs have ceased. Ecosystem models show that responses to nutrient reductions act on the time scale of decades, but that responses are underway and implementation of the eutrophication objectives of the Baltic Sea Action Plan will lead to an improved marine ecosystem. In addition, some measures are very recent, such as the designation of the Baltic Sea as a nitrogen oxide emission control area for shipping, and the entry into force of the Ballast water management convention, but benefits are expected in the near future.

The sufficiency of existing measures to improve the status of the marine environment has not yet been fully evaluated. This is partly due to knowledge gaps, and partly due to changes in the intensity and character of different pressures along with human development, highlighting the importance of regular follow-up on the implementation of actions and adapting policies based on the newest scientific knowledge.

The HELCOM 2018 Ministerial Meeting has given a mandate to Contracting Parties to update the Baltic Sea Action Plan by 2021 so that good environmental status can be reached, encompassing the HELCOM’s strategic goals and ecological objectives, and relevant ocean and water targets of 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (HELCOM 2018av). The accomplishments of the 2007 Baltic Sea Action Plan and the three follow-up Ministerial Declaration commitments will be used as a basis for the update (HELCOM 2007, 2010b, 2013a, 2018av). In the next step, HELCOM will carry out an analysis of sufficiency of measures to reach HELCOM objectives and targets, in support of the selection of new joint and national actions. Transdisciplinary development of regional business-as-usual scenarios could help identify important management priorities when updating the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan. The work would include foreseen ecological and socioeconomic development and different climate and global development scenarios, and consider management actions.

The holistic assessment and future HELCOM policy

The holistic assessment will underpin HELCOM policy also in the future. The State of the Baltic Sea report gives a comprehensive data-based assessment at Baltic Sea scale, covering or approaching the main themes to be considered in an ecosystem approach. The report summarises a significant improvement to regional monitoring and assessment since the implementation of the Baltic Sea Action Plan, and covers more aspects than ever seen before in the region (Box 8.1)

The report will provide a basis for identifying new actions in the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan. Notably, the report has also been prepared in order to support meeting the requirements of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, by the EU countries in the Baltic Sea. The results may also contribute to global assessments, such as the second World Ocean Assessment, and support national and regional commitments towards the United Nations sustainable development goals. Agenda 2030 provides a global framework for this move, and HELCOM and Baltic Sea regional environmental work can provide one case on how transnational environmental challenges can be tackled.

What does the future hold for the Baltic Sea?

The Baltic Sea region will be increasingly challenged by changes in climate, demography, and increasing demands for land use, food and energy provision in the catchment area. Looking at the cost of inaction, achieving a healthy Baltic Sea should be seen as an investment in the region’s sustainable economic and social development.

The ability of societies around the Baltic Sea and its catchment to adapt to environmentally sustainable living is a key factor at all levels of governance. Opportunities for the Baltic Sea region are seen in knowledge and education, forming a basis for further ecological understanding, technical and social innovation, and a continued tradition for knowledge sharing, cooperation and interaction among institutes, organisations and local initiatives around the Baltic Sea, contributing to sustainable human activities and achieving a healthy Baltic Sea environment.

The process to develop the second HELCOM holistic assessment has contributed to a vast sharing and development of knowledge on the state of the Baltic Sea environment. There is a clearer picture than ever before of where we are, how things are connected, and what still needs to be done. The key aim for the future is to incorporate this new knowledge in the ecosystem-based management of the Baltic Sea, as well as in measures nationally, regionally and globally, towards a sustainable future.

Box 8.1 Achievements of the assessment

Over 30 indicators, the HELCOM Integrated assessment tools, the assessment of cumulative impacts using the Baltic Sea Impact Index, steps to further develop socioeconomic aspects…