Maria Laamanen is the Head of the Finnish Delegation to HELCOM and works at the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. She answers questions about the process that led to the State of the Baltic Sea report.
What was your involvement in the State of the Baltic Sea report?
I was the chair of the HOLAS II Core Group, which was kind of a steering group for developing the second holistic assessment.
What were the main reasons for making the report?
HELCOM published its first holistic assessment in 2010 and there was an agreement that there should be another holistic assessment to follow up on the state of the Baltic Sea and effectiveness of HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan. Those contracting parties that are EU members needed this second holistic assessment for implementation of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.
Can you tell us more about the process of making the report, how it came together?
We started in the end of 2015. When you start a new project, it tends to be at first a little bit chaotic. I think it took one or two meetings that we got a better idea where we are aiming at and how to do it. We had quite lengthy discussions in what areas we are going to address for example relating to the Kattegat and how we should address different themes on the report.
We had the example of the first holistic assessment as a basis of our work and the themes of the state of the Baltic Sea Action Plan gave the basic structure to the report. In addition, we decided to go deeper in to the theme of socio-economics of protecting the Baltic Sea because it was important to be able to show what the economic value of the Baltic Sea is and how it relates to a cost of protecting the Baltic Sea. We also improved some of the methods and tools we had, worked on further developing some indicators and worked on the index that we use for assessing cumulative pressures on the sea.
We got support from the EU that made it possible to conduct supporting projects for making the State of the Baltic Sea report. During the project, a number of thematic reports were developed, and indicators and data were updated. All of that is published but not all of it is dealt with in detail within the State of the Baltic Sea report since there is so much material and the report aims to provide an overview. The report pulls together much of the relevant research that has been done and puts it in a simpler form to present it in an understandable fashion. If someone wants to go deeper than the report, one should go to read the thematic reports and check the data from the project.
All in all, I am very proud of the report and the wide coverage of issues HELCOM achieved with it.
What are the key findings and main outcomes?
The State of the Baltic Sea report shows the status of the Baltic Sea in 2011—2016. It shows that we still have not reached an overall good status of the Baltic Sea. Our main challenges relate to eutrophication and changes in biodiversity that partly stem from the harm that eutrophication causes as well as pressures such as changes in fishing and variability in climate.
On the other hand, we are going toward better status in many aspects. HOLAS II report trend graphs show for example that we have been able to decrease our loads of phosphorus and nitrogen. From the 1980s—1990s the phosphorus load has been cut by more than half and nitrogen load has been cut by almost a third.
In addition, in terms of hazardous substances the situation is getting much better. To some extend our graphs may give a darker view of where we stand with hazardous substances because the criteria are rather tough and if even one indicator which has lower status than the standard for good status is sufficient to yield an overall assessment of the theme as non-good.
We have also compiled information about marine litter. However, we have not been able to make assessments of whether the status is good or not because we have not agreed on the technical details of what is the standard for a good status yet.
What needs to be done now? How can we achieve a good environmental status for the Baltic Sea?
It is very clear what needs to be done: We need to work on implementing the Baltic Sea Action Plan and the further actions that have been agreed in HELCOM ministerial meetings, most recently in March of 2018.
Due to some ecosystem related lags in the Baltic Sea, it is clear that we cannot reach a good status on all aspects of the environment by 2021, which is the target year of the Baltic Sea Action Plan. Nevertheless, we have three more years to go to 2021 and we need to use those years well and implement the agreed actions to make the status of the Baltic Sea as good as possible. After that an updated action plan which was agreed to be drafted by HELCOM Ministerial Meeting 2018 should ensure that we reached the good status by 2030.
How will the results of the report affect the update of the Baltic Sea Action Plan?
The report provides us the baseline information on the status of the Baltic Sea and tells us what are the pressures affecting the status. Wherever we have a non-good status, we need to look in the causes: what pressures we need to address with our measures and where are we with our implementation. After that, we can look into what updated or new measures we might need.
The report does not give any specific measures but it points out what is important. For example, it points out that it is crucial that we reach nutrient load reduction targets that we have agreed upon in HELCOM. It is also very important that we enhance cross-sectoral aspects in sectors such as shipping and agriculture. It is important that there is coordination, coherence and cross reading between the different sectors.
How will the outcomes affect future actions of HELCOM?
Through the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan, for which the report serves as a basis.
Through the report, we also have a very detailed and shared view on what the good status of the Baltic Sea means. We have quantified for very detailed technical aspects of the sea what is good and non-good and we have indicators for follow-up. I think that is great starting point. To my knowledge, no other international sea in the world has that. The report can offer an example how international cooperation can provide good knowledge of the state of the sea.
What are the implications for the Finnish chairmanship?
We have identified the updating of the Baltic Sea Action Plan as our key priority. The State of the Baltic Sea report is very important to us, since it works as a basis for that work.
The interview was conducted by Alisa Vänttinen from the Finnish Ministry of the Environment.