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The Baltic: Dying or Already Dead?

December 15, 2006

By Hinrichsen, Don

The Baltic Sea has a history of vital commercial importance to northern Europe and a rich tradition as a principal recreation region for the nine countries that border it. Now, with pollution having destroyed most of its plant and animal life, its survival is in serious doubt unless Scandinavian-led rescue efforts succeed.

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THE BALTIC SEA, WHICH LINKS NORTHERN EUROPE WITH Scandinavia, is a sea of superlatives. It is the largest body of brackish water in the world. It is the youngest sea, having reached its present form 3,000 years ago, a heartbeat in geological time. It is the shallowest sea, averaging just 53 meters in depth. And, apart from the Black Sea, it is also the most enclosed sea in the world; it takes 30 years for its waters to be renewed through the narrow Danish Straits, its only link to the North Sea and the world ocean.

This small, tideless sea covers 366,000 square kilometers, barely 0.1 percent of the world’s ocean surface. It contains 21,547 cubic kilometers of brackish water, which is a mixture of sea water from the North Sea and freshwater from hundreds of rivers, along with rainfall. Rivers and streams account for about 2 percent of its volume every year, giving the sea low levels of salinity.

Geographically, the Baltic is divided into the Gulf of Bothnia at its northernmost end between Finland and Sweden, the Gulf of Finland and the Gulf of Riga to the east, and the Baltic Proper. It is surrounded by nine highly industrialized countries: Sweden, Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany and Denmark.

The Baltic’s catchment area is four times larger than the sea itself, covering 1.7 million square kilometers of northern Europe, and home to 85 million people (as of 2002). Population densities vary from 500 people per square kilometer in the urban areas of Poland, Germany and Denmark to less than 10 inhabitants per square kilometer in the northern parts of Finland and Sweden. The region is highly developed and urbanized, with 11 cities boasting populations in excess of 500,000. Nearly 20 million people live within 10 kms of a coastline, while some 50 million are within 150 kms of the sea.

The entire Baltic is girded by a ring of heavy industries. By the late 1980s, it contained some 200 major industrial complexes-mostly steel and metal works, chemical and petrochemical plants, pulp and paper mills and shipyards. Stringent environmental standards introduced in the 1970s in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the former Federal Republic of Germany resulted in significant reductions in both industrial and municipal effluents dumped into the Baltic. Concerted efforts were also made to bring down air pollution levels. However, gains in the western half of the Baltic were offset by increased pollution loads generated by the eastern halfs smokestack industries and a glut of unregulated wastes from urban areas.

The sea is also the summer playground of millions. Summer homes crowd along the coast and on its innumerable islands, while its greenish waters are clogged with tens of thousands of yachts, sailboats and pleasure craft. Most of Scandinavia heads for the water during those long summer days when the sun barely dips below the horizon.

The very features that make the Baltic unique-confined, shallow and brackish-are contributing to its demise. Nutrient pollution, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus, is the main culprit in degrading and impoverishing the Baltic’s fragile ecosystems. There are many sources of this pollution, but most originates from untreated or partially treated sewage, municipal wastes, and agricultural runoff, predominately from fertilizers and animal wastes. Since 1900, nitrogen levels in the Baltic have increased fourfold and phosphorus levels eightfold, in line with intensified agricultural activities.

In addition to nutrient pollution, the Baltic is on the receiving end of thousands of tons of toxic pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs (known as persistent organic pollutants or POPs), as well as heavy metals from mining and industry, toxic chemicals from the pulp and paper industry, hydrocarbons from gas and oil, and wastes from hospitals, tanneries, metal smelters and other sources.

Most pollution is generated in the eastern portion of the Baltic, along the so-called “Pollution Riviera” that stretches from Szczecin, Poland to …

St. Petersburg, Russia, at the end of the GuIt of Finland. Many beaches in this region are routinely closed during the summer months because of high levels of bacteria and other pathogens in the water. Residents of the Polish seaport of Gdansk are used to driving 160 kms to find water clean enough to swim in.

In 1990, scientists carrying out pollution assessments identified 149 hot spots of point-source pollution in the Baltic. Of those, more than 100 were found in the eastern half ot the sea-in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. So much pollution enters the Baltic from the Vistula River in Poland-some 34 square kilometers a year-that a plume spreads all the way into Swedish territorial waters. The Vistula, once referred to as the Queen of Polish Rivers, accounts for fully two-thirds of all Polish pollution to the Baltic, while the Oder River accounts for the other one-third.

In 2000, 700,000 tons of nitrogen and 28,000 tons of phosphorus entered the sea through river systems, the bulk of it coming from just four heavily polluted rivers: the Neva, in Russia; the Nemunas in Lithuania; and the Vistula and Oder Rivers in Poland. In that year, more than half of the total waterborne phosphorus load and nearly one third of the total nitrogen load originated from Poland.

Pollution from nutrients and chemicals form a toxic cocktail that snuffs out phytoplankton as well as rockweed and bladder wrack communities, the basis of the Baltics marine food chain. As a result, fish and shellfish stocks have been dramatically reduced in many coastal areas and in the Gulf of Riga and Gulf of Finland. Fish found in such polluted areas often lack scales or fins, while others are covered in tumors.

High levels of nutrition pollution have turned much of the Baltic’s shallow waters into eutrophied dead seas. In such murky waters, swarms of algae feed on nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, turning waters the color of broccoli. As the algae die and decay they consume oxygen. As a result, “the seabed in many coastal bays and estuaries resembles a graveyard,” notes Polish environmental journalist Eugeniusz Pudlis. “Nothing but microorganisms can survive in these turgid waters.”

In addition, the continued build-up of oxygen-consuming phosphorus and nitrogen has turned about 100,000 square kilometers of the Baltic’s deeper waters into an oxygen-starved dead sea. “In less than 50 years, its deep waters have been transformed from an oxygenated environment with a normal fauna of fish and invertebrates, to an anoxic desert without any life higher than bacteria in the entire waterbody deeper than 50 meters,” points out Swedish marine eco-toxicologist, Olof Linden.

THE RISING TIDE OF TOXIC POLLUTION, especially elevated levels of mercury, DDT, and PCBs, which bioaccumulate up the food chain, has affected not only fish and shellfish but many marine mammals and seabirds as well. Populations of grey and ringed seals have plummeted as a result of contamination from PCBs, DDT and heavy metals. Exposure to these dangerous pollutants causes widespread reproductive disorders in seals, triggering spontaneous abortions and birth defects, among other abnormalities. In 1988, more than 20,000 seals in the Baltic and North Seas perished from a distemper virus, since linked to high levels of organochlorines, including DDT and PCBs, found in the animal’s blubber. Top predators like the white-tailed sea eagle, were nearly extinct in much of the Baltic because of environmental contaminants. Continuous exposure to heavy metals caused the birds to lay thin-shelled eggs, which never hatched. By the mid-1990s, however, white-tailed eagles and harbor seals have both been making comebacks, thanks to reductions in organochlorines and other pollutants.

Since the 1970s there have been innumerable algal blooms. But a number of them have been the equivalent of “marine Chernobyls,” according to scientists. In the summer of 2005, the Baltic once again suffered one of the most severe and destructiive algal blooms in its entire history. At one point algae covered the entire area from the Gulf of Finland in the north to Germany’s Baltic coast in the south. The soup of algae was so thick that scientists likened it to “rhubarb soup”. Vacationers left the Baltic en masse.

The collapse of the Baltic’s major fisheries is a continuing tragedy. Cod stocks have never recovered their pre-1980 levels and are in permanent decline, if not outright collapse. Currently, half of all the Sea’s fish species are in trouble; their populations remain below the critical biological level for survival. Fish such as salmon and herring, Scandinavian staples, are off limits to pregnant women and children because of high levels of dioxins. Catches of cod and sprat have fallen off as well over recent years. Still, fishing fleets pulled in some one million tons of salmon, sprat, herring and cod in 2000. Most of thestocks of commercially important species have not recovered their pre-1980 levels.

Efforts to reverse the deterioration of the Baltic began 1973 when all the Baltic States met in Helsinki to thrash out a rescue plan. Urged on by Sweden and Finland, all six states surrounding the sea [the Baltic republics were still a part of the USSR] managed to agree on a legal framework to protect it. A year later, in April 1974, the Helsinki Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment was signed by Sweden, Finland, the Soviet Union, Poland, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany and Denmark.

The Convention’s 29 articles and six annexes call for the contracting parties to implement “individually or jointly all appropriate legislative, administrative, or other necessary measures to prevent and/or reduce pollution to the Baltic.” Specifically, it covers the following areas of concern: discharges from land-based sources of pollution, including atmospheric deposition; discharges from ships, including oil, chemicals, sewage and garbage; dumping of hazardous substances; and international cooperation to combat oil spills. It also created the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, known as the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), to oversee its implementation.

Like most international commissions, HELCOM has no enforcement power. It cannot compel signatory states to abide by the terms of the convention. Instead, unanimous decisions reached by the members are regarded as recommendations to signatory governments and are supposed to be translated into national policies and laws as soon as possible.

ACCORDING TO BERTIL HAGERHALL, a former representative of the Swedish Agriculture Ministry who participated in the negotiations, the Helsinki Convention had five main duties: “to keep the implementation of the convention under continuous review; to recommend measures relating to the purposes of the convention; to recommend amendments to the convention and its annexes; to defend pollution control criteria and objectives for the reduction of pollution; and to promote scientific and technological research.”

During the first two decades, some progress was made in reducing the amount of toxic pollution entering the Baltic. In the western part of the sea, mercury concentrations in fish dropped by two- thirds by the mid-1980s and by even more by the mid-1990s. Concentrations of DDT also fell significantly, and so did levels of PCBs. All Baltic States banned the use of DDT, while the use of PCBs was severely restricted and eventually phased out.

Oil pollution remains a problem in a number of areas, but it has been systemically reduced. In the 1980s, oil spilled or discharged from routine shipping operations, plus oily residues from urban runoff, amounted to roughly 40,000 metric tons a year. By the mid- 1990s, that figure had been cut in half. Shipping volume meanwhile has continued to expand. At any given time there are some 1,800 ships on Baltic waters.

Ecosystems, however, continued to decline as oxygen levels remained depleted in many parts of the sea. Currently as much as 90 percent of marine and coastal biotopes are threatened. Non-native, introduced exotic species have also taken up residence in the Baltic since the 1970s; some 100 have established populations.

With conditions continuing to worsen following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Sweden and Poland lobbied hard for a revised convention. The result was a meeting of Baltic prime ministers in Rnneby, Sweden in 1990. That meeting issued the Baltic Sea Declaration, calling for stepped-up efforts at pollution control, particularly from land-based sources. Two years later, in April 1992, a conference of environment ministers held in Helsinki adopted the Baltic Sea Environment Declaration and a revised and strengthened Helsinki Convention, which was promptly signed by all the Baltic states, including the three newly independent Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and the European Union.

In 1993, the Baltic Sea Joint Comprehensive Environmental Action Program was launched, under the auspices of HELCOM. The Action Program has a specific agenda, a timetable for accomplishing its objectives, and financial mechanisms. It includes six main components: policy, legal and regulatory measures; strengthening institutions and human resources development; investment activities; special management programs for coastal lagoons and wetlands; applied research; and public awareness and environmental education.

The first order of business was the cleanup of the 149 identified hotspots of pollution. By 2005, that figure had been whittled down to 86. But again, most of the worst polluters remain in the eastern part of the Baltic. Russia, the worst polluter by far, was able to register a little progress in cutting pollution loads, but not through strengthened environmental measures. Instead, the dismal state of the economy pushed outdated, polluting smokestack industries into bankruptcy. St. Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, remains the single greatest source of pollution to the Baltic. Over 30 percent of the waste water dumped into the Neva River as it passes through St. Petersburg and into the Gulf of Finland, is completely untreated. It consists of a toxic mix of sewage sludge and industrial wastes.

Over the same period of time, 1990 to 2005, nitrogen levels were reduced from 1.2 million metric tons a year to around 700,000 million metric tons. Similarly, phosphorus loads were cut by more than half- from 80,000 metric tons in 1990 to 36,000 metric tons by 2005.

A unique aspect of the new Action Program is that it greatly broadens the Baltic constituency of countries and institutions involved in the Convention. It encompasses all countries in the Baltic’s vast catchment area, adding parts of Belarus, the Czech Republic, Norway, the Republic of Slovakia and Ukraine. The Commission of the European Communities and the International Baltic Sea Fisheries Commission, along with four major international financial institutions-the European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Nordic Investment Bank, and the World Bank-are also on board.

The entire Action Program is being phased in over a 20-year period. The first phase, 1993-1997, cost just over $6 billion. The second phase, from 1998-2012, is expected to run close to $16 billion. Financing works out to a little more than $1 billion a year; expensive but not astronomical, especially considering that some Western consultants estimated returning the sea to its pre- 1950 state would cost a staggering $600 billion.

Another positive development that emerged from the renewed Action Program was that Sweden began to grant funds directly to Poland to spur coastal cleanups and a reduction in pollution loads being dumped into the Vistula and Oder Rivers. Between 1989 and 1995, Sweden allocated some $20 million to assist Poland’s efforts to clean up sources of toxic pollution. According to Swedish Foreign Ministry counselor ke Peterson, “Sweden decided that it can be economic for the country to support pollution control strategies in other countries, such as Poland, rather than for the Swedish Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources to take all measures inside Sweden.”

Despite setbacks, the Environmental Action Program continues to advance. Anticipated investments in cleanup operations and pollution control are expected to eliminate half a million tons of BOD (biological oxygen demand) by 2012.

The trouble is, until nutrient pollution is dramatically reduced, the Baltic will still be largely eutrophied and dying a slow death from asphyxiation. It is not clear that efforts underway will be enough to save the Baltic from ecological collapse.

Most pollution is generated in the eastern portion of the Baltic, along the so-called “Pollution Riviera” from Poland to Russia.

The total area of the Baltic Sea is 163,000 square miles (422,200 square kilometers), about one-seventh that of the Mediterranean Sea. This map, together with the satellite photo on the proceeding spread, shows the Baltic Sea’s relationship to surrounding areas of Scandinavia and northern Europe.

For the 20 million people living in the nine countries bordering the Baltic, the sea . . .

. . . has provided a main source of recreational opportunities such as sailing and bathing.

Currently as much as 90 percent of marine and coastal biotopes are threatened.

The Algal Bloom shown in this dramatic satellite image stretches about 200 kilometers from Lithuania, Latvia and Russian territory of Kaliningrad to the Swedish coast and the islands of Gotland and land. Phytoplankton are microscopic marine plants that drift on or near the surface of the sea. While individually microscopic, their chlorophyll collectively tints the surrounding sea water. Out-of- control blooms can devastate marine life, deoxygenating whole stretches of water; some of them can cause severe injury to fish, animals and humans.

Until nutrient pollution is dramatically reduced, the Baltic will be largely eutrophied and dying a slow death from asphyxiation.

Don Hinrichsen is an internationally-known environment writer having undertaken assignments all over the world for various United Nations agencies. He is the author of Coastal Waters of the World: Trends, Threats and Strategies as well as countless newspaper, magazine and journal articles. He is also the former editor of Ambio, the Journal of the Human Environment, published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Copyright American Scandinavian Foundation Summer 2006

(c) 2006 Scandinavian Review. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.




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