Assessment Protocol

The data may require transformation into the relevant unit and base for the threshold value which is µg kg-1 wet weight. Ideally, the data should be expressed in the same matrix which for the purposes of the indicator evaluation ought to be whole body concentrations in fish at a trophic level of 4.5 with a lipid content of 5%.

The majority of the dioxin, furan and PCB data reported is analysed in muscle tissue. However, the EC Guidance Document No 32 (European Commission 2014) suggests that the assumption can be made that fat soluble compounds would be evenly distributed in the lipid within the whole organism. With this assumption, a whole body concentration would be possible to calculate from any analysed organ as long as the lipid content in the sample is known/ analysed. To harmonize the evaluation across the entire Baltic Sea region, it is recommended to calculate the concentrations into corresponding values to a fish with a general fat content of 5%.

Data is to be normalised to lipid content according to the following equation, where Concnorm, lipid is lipid normalised concentration, Concmeasurement is the original value expressed in wet weight (ww) and lipid contentsample is the actual lipid content of the sample:

Concnorm, lipid = Concmeasurementx0.05 /lipid contentsample.

In case information on lipid content is absent in the data, general fat content values derived in regional studies for the sampled matrix can be applied.

For this evaluation no adjustment for trophic level has been done but is something that needs to be considered in future assessments according to recommendations below.

The EC guidance document (European Commission 2014) recommends making recalculations so the concentrations are standardized to a fish at a trophic level of 4.5 for marine ecosystems to standardise for the biomagnification effect.


Statistical evaluation

The assessment protocol is structured in three main parts, 1) changes in log concentrations over time are modelled, 2) check for compliance against threshold value and evidence for temporal change of contaminant concentration per station and 3) a spatial aggregation of status per assessment unit.

It should be noted that the assessment protocol makes the assumption that monitoring data stems from the same monitoring stations during consecutive years. The stations used by the protocol are defined in the ICES Station Dictionary. Stations with similar station name are grouped together, but it is also possible to define a group of stations with different names to be defined as the same station in the Station Dictionary. Usually a station is defined in the Station Dictionary with coordinates and a valid box around these coordinates, but coordinates outside of the box will only give a warning when reporting the data, and are not used in the actual data extraction.



Time series of contaminant concentrations are assessed in three stages:

  1. The concentrations are log transformed and changes in the log concentrations over time are modelled using linear mixed models. The type of temporal change that is considered depends on the number of years of data:
      1. 1-2 years: no model is fitted because there are insufficient data
      2. 3-4 years: concentrations are assumed to be stable over time and the mean log concentration is estimated
      3. 5-6 years: a linear trend in log concentration is fitted
      4. 7+ years: more complex (smooth) patterns of change over time are modelled
  2. The fitted models are used to assess status against available threshold value and evidence of temporal change in contaminant levels in the last twenty years
  3. The fitted models are also used for spatial aggregation to assess status against available threshold value and evidence of temporal change in contaminant levels on a scale 4 level HELCOM assessment unit.

These stages are described in more detail in the link below. There is also information on how the methodology is adapted when there are 'less-than' measurements, i.e. some concentrations are reported as below the detection limit, and missing uncertainties, i.e. the analytical variability associated with some of the concentration measurements was not reported.

Assessment methodology for contaminants in biota, sediment and water

All initial data is handled in a highly precautionary manner to further ensure that the risk of false positives is minimalised. For all initial data the 95% confidence limit on the mean concentration, based on the uncertainty seen in longer time series throughout the HELCOM area, is used.  Applying a precautionary approach, the 90% quantile (psi value, Ψ) of the uncertainty estimates in the longer time series from the entire HELCOM region are used. The same approach is used for time series with three or more years of data, but which are dominated by less-than values (i.e. no parametric model can be fitted). The mean concentration in the last monitoring year (meanLY) is obtained by: restricting the time series to the period 2011-2016 (the last six monitoring years), calculating the median log concentration in each year (treating 'less-than' values as if they were above the limit of detection), calculating the mean of the median log concentrations, and then back-transforming (by exponentiating) to the concentration scale. The upper one-sided 95% confidence limit (clLY) is then given by: exp(meanLY + qnorm(0.95) * Ψ / sqrt(n)), where n is the number of years with data in the period 2011-2016 (HELCOM 2018).


Assessment units

PCBs, dioxin and furan are considered relevant substances to evaluate in the entire Baltic Sea area. Concentrations may be higher in the coastal areas compared to the offshore areas, and therefore the indicator is evaluated on HELCOM assessment unit scale 4.

The assessment units are defined in the HELCOM Monitoring and Assessment Strategy Annex 4.