The BSPC Working Group on Climate Change and Biodiversity gathered for another digital meeting focussed on expert presentations. Representatives from HELCOM spoke about the organisation’s own efforts and measures to restore a good ecological status to the Baltic Sea. As best practice examples, experts reported on several projects taking practical measures to improve the ecological status of marine waters. The meeting involved more then 50 participants from the Åland Islands, the Baltic Assembly, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, the German Bundestag, Hamburg, Iceland, Kaliningrad, Latvia, Lithuania, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Nordic Council, Norway, Poland, the Russian Federation, Schleswig-Holstein and Sweden.
WG Chairwoman Cecilie Tenfjord-Toftby opened the meeting by noting that the digital format offered the opportunity to attract experts who might not be available otherwise. This would be evidenced by this meeting’s rich wealth of information provided.
In continuing the long-standing tradition of cooperation and exchange between the BSPC and HELCOM, the first two experts at the meeting spoke about the climate change- and biodiversity-related expertise accumulated by the latter organisation and upcoming decisions and actions to improve the current situation.
Mr Rüdiger Strempel, HELCOM Executive Secretary, explained that HELCOM existed because the Baltic Sea was a unique and fragile ecosystem that had to be protected. Although progress had been made, a good environmental status had not yet been reached. The single most pressing issue threatening the Baltic Sea remained eutrophication. Further challenges were either emerging or had not been previously addressed, inter alia marine litter, pharmaceuticals or underwater noise. These challenges had also contributed to forty years of work not having achieved the goal, aside from ecosystem lag, insufficient measures or measures not yet implemented. Mr Strempel noted the long history of HELCOM, reaching back to 1974 and predating most environmental efforts. He explained the structure of the organisation, bringing the foundational Helsinki Convention to life. Its decision-making process was based on science in a bottom-up approach, he underlined. Of its recommendations, 260 had been adopted so far. A fundamental part of its work was monitoring the environment along with thematic and holistic assessments. Mr Strempel highlighted the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) aiming at removing eutrophication and hazardous substances as well as establishing environmentally friendly maritime activities and a favourable status of biodiversity. An update of the BSAP had been decided by the Ministerial Meeting in 2018, to pursue the same ambition level based on the current plan. Using what had worked and tweaking what had not, the update would consider the economic and social benefits of a healthy sea. Mr Strempel stressed that the BSAP could not function in a vacuum but had to be interlinked with global targets and commitments. Apart from the core Action Plan, HELCOM had established related processes to resolve such challenges as marine litter, underwater noise or climate change. He further outlined the level of implementation of the original 2007 plan, noting that 71 % of joint actions had been put into practice but only 29 % of national actions, such as designating Marine Protected Areas. Accordingly, far more needed to be done. He specified that the parliamentarians of the BSPC could assist in the implementation through interaction with the executive but also with the public.
Ms Jannica Haldin, HELCOM Professional Secretary, spoke about climate change and the Baltic Sea. HELCOM’s goal in this field was to increase the overall resilience of the Baltic ecosystem against impacts from climate change. This was being pursued through a long-term multidisciplinary approach to understanding and communicating these impacts. Together with Baltic Earth, a long-term expert network on climate change (EN CLIME) had been put into place in 2018 to quickly provide quality-assured science to policy-makers. The network had created a Climate Change Fact Sheet that served as an easily accessible report on 34 parameters in a science-driven consensus view. The parameters directly affected by climate change included air temperature, sea level and precipitation. These in turn altered secondary parameters, among them oxygen levels as well as various marine fauna. Indirect parameters also concerned human use of the marine environment, ranging from shipping over tourism to ecosystem services. Derived from them were key messages on what was already happening or about to happen as well as knowledge gaps and policy relevance. Ms Haldin highlighted that it was important to consider other drivers of change in the ecosystem, such as anthropogenic drivers quite apart from climate change. Each statement of the key messages was assessed on the level of confidence HELCOM had in its data, using the IPCC model.
From the fact sheets, it could be seen that climate change impacts were evident in the Baltic Sea, affecting the ecosystem as well as human activities. As examples of direct impacts, she mentioned rising water temperatures. Among indirect impacts, the numbers of warm water fish species were increasing while cold water species were decreasing. As for human activities, trawl fishing began earlier in the year. Nevertheless, she underlined that the Baltic Sea ecosystem was highly complex so that climate change effects were not easily distinguished from other human pressures and also varied between the regions. Ms Haldin described the state of biodiversity in the Baltic Sea as poor. Many species were stressed, and climate change was exacerbating the situation. Changes in distribution and behaviour were found in all species covered by the fact sheet: benthic habitats, open sea fish, coastal and migratory fish, waterbirds, and seals. Combining all of these various factors, she explained, described the ecosystem function. Food webs had already been affected. How nutrients were recycled within the ecosystem would likely change in the future. With warmer waters, primary production would increase, giving rise to more algal blooms, decreasing oxygen levels and sun light penetration. Decreased salinity would alter species composition. Eutrophication was already affecting large areas of the Baltic Sea which were solely responsible for huge financial losses. The climate change impact here was particularly difficult to disentangle from other human impacts. Reducing nutrient loads from agricultural practices could significantly decrease eutrophication even under climate change. Ms Haldin explained that the complex, interlinking information from the fact sheet was informing the policy recommendations by HELCOM.
Mr Bodo Bahr raised a question about marine protected areas. At a previous meeting, Prof Christoph Humborg, Scientific Director of the Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre, had explained that these were not as restricted for human use as the name would imply and needed further strengthening. In response, Ms Jannica Haldin said that the plan was to link the Baltic Sea Action Plan to the EU Biodiversity Strategy. The latter set a percentage goal for strictly protected areas in which human use other than scientific pursuits was minimised. Discussions, though, were still ongoing. Mr Rüdiger Strempel noted the complexity of the respective legal frameworks, including both the EU and Russia, and the need for consistency across all the instruments employed.
Ms Linda Kumblad, Associate Professor in Systems Ecology at Stockholm University and Project Leader of Living Coast, funded by BalticSea 2020, spoke about whether it was possible to regain a good ecological status in coastal areas. Launched in 2011, Living Coast was a full-scale remediation project on areas severely affected by eutrophication and with limited water exchange. Their focus area was the highly eutrophicated Björnöfjärden bay in the Stockholm archipelago. Björnöfjärden could be described as a miniature version of the Baltic Sea. Aside from immediate actions, communication was also important to stimulate action in other areas. The first step had been to identify and quantify the nutrient loads, both anthropogenic and natural. Due to existing methods and accessibility, the project concentrated on phosphorus, even though nitrogen loads were equally important to reduce. The anoxic bottom areas were causing the sediment to release phosphorus in voluminous amounts rather than containing it. Living Coast implemented measures to reduce inputs from agriculture and horse keeping but also to improve local sewage systems. An aluminium treatment assisted in binding phosphorus to the sediment. The measures over a span of 10 years had succeeded in reducing phosphorus loads by ca. 70 %, primarily in the sediment area. Monitoring the water, fauna and flora had shown the phosphorus concentration in the sea reduced by half, leading to less phytoplankton and a higher transparency of the water. Bottom areas were better oxygenated. Both the latter aspects led to fish and benthos being found in deeper layers of the bay. Ms Kumblad summarised that the environmental status of coastal areas could indeed be improved, by reducing nutrient supplies from both land and sediment in a holistic view of the ecosystem. She stressed that this took time, patience and resources. Ms Kumblad also mentioned two further Swedish projects on remediation efforts, LEVA on support for local endeavours and Living Bays working to restore shallow wave-protected bays.
Replying to the questions by working group members, Ms Linda Kumblad explained that the project had been successful because the core staff had been deeply involved in studying the ecosystem and getting to understand the local situation. Moreover, they had spent great efforts on informing and involving the community and municipal politicians. Financial support and resources had been vital in the monitoring efforts as well as providing subsidies for the measures. The breadth of efforts and success around the bay had increased the willingness to contribute over time. For instance, the aluminium seeding had visibly cleared the water, proving that the efforts were paying off.
Her colleague, Mr Emil Rydin, Associate Professor in Limnology, Baltic Sea Centre, Stockholm University, stressed the importance of community acceptance and trust.
Ms Kumblad was not aware of any other similar projects, with comparable financial resources, monitoring efforts and the full scale of remediation measures.
Ms Patricia Wiklund, Project Manager, CEO of Invenire – a strategy & communications agency working within the food industry, the bioeconomy and the circular economy, had worked on a very small-scale, community-led project that could be expanded to a wider scope. It had consisted of water area management and a local farmer, situated on the tiny island group Brändö. The island’s waters had visibly changed, with the common reed forming thick beds on previously used land and sea surfaces. Ms Wiklund’s project had aimed to include the reed regeneratively in the local nutrient cycle while assisting in better shore, water and fish management. To that end, in a very visible spot, reed had been harvested repeatedly. The reed was used as ground cover in greenhouses and would be used in the spring to fertilise fields. By harvesting, water pathways and canals had been restored, improving fish habitats. The same applied to overgrown meadows being returned to cow pasture as well as game feed. Ms Wiklund explained that their approach was based on interconnectedness and a holistic view, allowing for surprising combinations to emerge. She highlighted the need for passionate and knowledgeable people from many specialties to be involved in a close-knit network. In her view, the local community had to be at the heart of the efforts, appreciating what was to be achieved. As such, scaling up would mean connecting several nodes of such communities.
Ms Gréta María Grétarsdóttir, Managing Director of Innovation, Social Responsibility and Investor Relations at the Seafood Company Brim in Iceland, said that her company always considered the environment in its activities, including fishing, processing and sales. In 1983, a total allowable catch (TAC) had been set for Iceland’s 200-mile territory, determined by scientists rather than companies or the government. This prevented overfishing and kept the nation’s main export sustainable. The primary impact of the fishing industry on water, though, was oil use. Engine changes to the fishing fleets had to be considered long-term as the average ship age was 30 years, constituting a heavy investment for enterprises. Accordingly, decisions made today might take ten or fifteen years to bear fruit. Since the 1990s, oil use had decreased in both fishing and fishmeal plants. Both were switching more and more to green electricity, thanks to improving infrastructure. The company Brim’s fleet had reduced oil use by 50 % since 2005. Fisheries management and better stocks had enabled shorter fishing trips, thus curtailing fossil fuel use as well. Reliable, traceable and transparent catches were key to retaining healthy fish stocks and economic success. Furthermore, Brim was taking care to return any waste from fishing to be returned to shore, sorted and recycled. They were also seeking to clean the coastal areas from trash. A central part of their environmental efforts was the “Cleaner Value Chain in Fisheries”, holistically determining the company’s carbon footprint and reducing it throughout all operations, among others packaging and transport. This was being achieved through their own real-time data collection system on environmental effects of the vessels and land-based operations. Innovations in ship technology were another pillar of their efforts. Ms Grétarsdóttir underlined that the company had to be fully behind these efforts because only environmental protection ensured its future. Measures had to be continually refined and innovated.
Responding to the parliamentarians’ questions, Ms Grétarsdóttir pointed to the switch from fossil fuels to other engine types as a region where governments were vital in assisting this change. Among additional measures to reduce ship emissions, she mentioned scrubbers. Their downside was that fuel consumption remained the same so investment costs could not be recouped. Here, she mentioned Iceland’s carbon tax on fuels. She suggested that governments could lower taxation for reduced emissions despite continued fossil fuel use.
In terms of alternative energy engines, Ms Grétarsdóttir noted that her company was planning to switch their smaller boats to hybrid engines in the near future. Using LNG or electricity as propellants was problematic for vessels on long-haul trips of 30 days or more. In her view, hydrogen fuel cells rather than electric batteries were the likely technology of the future for fishing fleets. She reiterated that sustainability was essential for a company’s survival, also from the customers’ point of view who would steer away from non-green enterprises.
Working group discussion
After the experts’ presentations, the Working Group CCB discussed the aims and ways of their work, agreeing to mainly focus on regional aspects of the Baltic Sea region. Chairwoman CecilieTenfjord-Toftby announced that a Youth Forum would be held in conjunction with the BSPC Annual Conference in Stockholm in August, dealing with the same topics as the BSPC Working Group CCB. The attendees agreed that the results of the forum would feed into the reports of the working group. The working group decided to hold a governmental survey among the BSPC member states and regions to gather respective data of scientific interest.
The next meeting of the BSPC Working Group CCB will take place in digital form on 31 May 2021.