Relevance of the Indicator

Eutrophication assessment

The status of eutrophication is assessed using several core indicators. Each indicator focuses on one important aspect of the complex issue. In addition to providing an indicator-based evaluation of the dissolved inorganic nitrogen, this indicator contributes to the overall eutrophication assessment along with the other eutrophication core indicators.


Policy relevance

Eutrophication is one of the four thematic segments of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) with the strategic goal of having a Baltic Sea unaffected by eutrophication (HELCOM 2007). Eutrophication is defined in the BSAP as a condition in an aquatic ecosystem where high nutrient concentrations stimulate the growth of algae, which leads to imbalanced functioning of the system. Nutrient concentrations in the water column are caused by increased anthropogenic nutrient loads from land and air. The goal for eutrophication is broken down into five ecological objectives, of which one is "concentrations of nutrients close to natural levels".

The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (Anonymous 2008) requires that "human-induced eutrophication is minimized, especially adverse effects thereof, such as losses in biodiversity, ecosystem degradation, harmful algal blooms and oxygen deficiency in bottom waters" (Descriptor 5). 'Nutrients in the watercolumn' (including DIN) are determined as the criteria elements for assessing eutrophication under the criterion 'D5C1 – Nutrient concentrations are not at levels that indicate adverse eutrophication effects'.

The EU Water Framework Directive (Anonymous 2000) requires good ecological status in the European coastal waters. Good ecological status is defined in Annex V of the Water Framework Directive, in terms of the quality of the biological community, the hydrological characteristics and the chemical characteristics, including nitrogen concentration.


Role of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) in the ecosystem

Marine eutrophication is mainly caused by nutrient enrichment, leading to increased production of organic matter in the Baltic Sea, with subsequent effects on water transparency, phytoplankton communities, benthic fauna and vegetation, as well as oxygen conditions. Phytoplankton as well as benthic vegetation need nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, for growth. DIN is influenced by complex biotic processes like nitrogen fixation in surface waters by cyanobacteria – a DIN source - and microbial denitrification in oxygen depleted environments of deeper waters – a DIN sink (Relevance figure 1).

DIN relevance figure 1.png

Relevance figure 1. Simplified conceptual model for N and P nutrients in the Baltic Sea, where DIN = Dissolved inorganic nitrogen, TN = Total nitrogen, DIP = Dissolved inorganic phosphorus and TP = Total phosphorus. Flows along arrows into the blue sea area tend to increase concentrations, and flows along arrows out from the sea act in the opposite direction. Management refers to nutrient load reductions.


Human pressures linked to the indicator

  General MSFD Annex III, Table 2
Strong link

Substances, litter and energy

- Input of nutrients – diffuse sources, point sources, atmospheric deposition

Weak link


Nutrient concentrations in the water column are affected by increased anthropogenic nutrient loads from land and air.