The HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan
The HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan is an ambitious programme to restore the good ecological status of the Baltic marine environment by 2021. The new strategy is a crucial stepping stone for wider and more efficient actions to combat the continuing deterioration of the marine environment resulting from human activities. With the adoption of the new environmental strategy, HELCOM will continue its long record of respected leadership in marine environmental protection, incorporating the latest scientific knowledge and innovative management approaches into strategic policy implementation, and stimulating even closer, goal-oriented multilateral co-operation around the Baltic Sea region. As one of the first schemes to implement the ecosystem approach to the management of human activities, which was defined in the 1992 Rio Declaration and reiterated at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the action plan will lead to profound, innovative changes in the ways we manage the environment in the Baltic Sea region.
The Baltic Sea Action Plan addresses all the major environmental problems affecting the Baltic marine environment. The environmental situation in the Baltic Sea has drastically changed over recent decades. Human activities both on the sea and throughout its catchment area are placing rapidly increasing pressure on marine ecosystems. Of the many environmental challenges, the most serious and difficult to tackle with conventional approaches is the continuing eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. Inputs of hazardous substances also affect the biodiversity of the Baltic Sea and the potential for its sustainable use. Clear indicators of this situation include problems with algal blooms, dead sea-beds, and depletion of fish stocks. Such problems call for immediate wide-scale action to put an end to the further destruction of the Baltic Sea environment and to avoid an irreversible disaster. Failure to react now would undermine both the prospects for the future recovery of the sea and its capability to react to the projected stress by the climate change. Furthermore, inaction will affect vital resources for the future economic prosperity of the whole region and would cost tenfold more than the cost of action.
Previous efforts and the need for new approaches
Previous HELCOM efforts to reduce pollution and repair the damage to the marine environment have led to noticeable improvements in many areas, enabling people to bathe on beaches that were once polluted, and helping endangered wildlife populations to recover. But there is still a lot left to do, as many of the Baltic’s environmental problems are proving difficult to solve, and it could take several decades for the marine environment to recover. For example, concerning inputs of nutrients which are responsible for eutrophication, HELCOM has already achieved a 40% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus discharges (from sources in the catchment area) and likewise a 40% decrease as regards emissions of nitrogen to the air, as well as halved the total discharges of about 50 hazardous substances. But in order to achieve “clear water”, which is one of the main objectives of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan, phosphorous and nitrogen inputs to the Baltic Sea must be further cut by about 42% and 18%, respectively.
However, further progress cannot be achieved using only the old administrative measures of equal reductions in pollution loads. A completely different approach and new tailor-made actions are required to reach the goal of good ecological status. Moreover, the remaining challenges are more difficult than earlier obstacles. Reductions in nutrient inputs have so far mainly been achieved through improvements at major point sources, such as sewage treatment plants and industrial wastewater outlets. Achieving further reductions will be a tougher task, requiring actions to address diffuse sources of nutrients such as run-off from over-fertilised agricultural lands.
A plan based on Ecological Objectives
The new plan, which HELCOM has been drafting since 2005, is radically different from any other plan or programme previously undertaken by HELCOM. The innovative approach is that the plan is based on a clear set of ‘ecological objectives’ defined to reflect a jointly agreed vision of ‘a healthy marine environment, with diverse biological components functioning in balance, resulting in a good ecological status and supporting a wide range of sustainable human activities’. Example objectives include clear water, an end to excessive algal blooms, and viable populations of species. Targets for ‘good ecological status’ are based on the best available scientific knowledge. The timeframe for reaching these targets is a political decision. With the application of the ecosystem approach, the protection of the marine environment is no longer seen as an event-driven pollution reduction approach to be taken sector-by-sector. Instead, the starting point is the ecosystem itself, and a shared concept of a healthy sea with a good ecological status. This vision will determine the need for further reductions in pollution loads, as well as the extents of various human activities.
The cross-sectoral plan identifies the specific actions needed to achieve agreed targets within a given timeframe for the main environmental priorities: combating eutrophication, curbing inputs of hazardous substances, ensuring maritime safety and response capacity to accidents at sea, and halting habitat destruction and the ongoing decline in biodiversity.
The action plan distinguishes between measures that can be implemented at regional or national level, and measures that can only be implemented at EU level (e.g. Common Fisheries Policy, Common Agricultural Policy, controls over the marketing and use of chemicals) or globally (e.g. the shipping controls defined by the International Maritime Organization).
Another highlight of the elaboration of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan has been the active participation of all major stakeholder groups in the region. Such participation ensures that the plan is truly relevant and can be effectively implemented in practice. The choices that we make reflect the choices of society as a whole. For this reason, the common vision of the healthy Baltic Sea has been defined together with all participating stakeholders – from governments, through industry and NGOs, right down to individual citizens, including older and younger generations, and organisations in both the private and the public sectors. In this way the plan promotes employment and other aspects of sustainable socio-economic development, as well as ecological sustainability and a healthy environment.
A pilot area for other European seas
The concept of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan has already been widely supported by politicians at various forums, and heralded as a pilot project for European seas in the context of the proposed EU Marine Strategy Directive. The European Community has described HELCOM’s plan as a cornerstone for further action in the Baltic Sea region, emphasising that the plan is instrumental to the successful implementation of the proposed EU Marine Strategy Directive in the region.
The proposed EU Marine Strategy Directive foresees such an action plan for each eco-region, including the Baltic. HELCOM is in a unique position to deliver this already, given its embracing of all the countries in the Baltic Sea catchment area. HELCOM is also in a unique position to ensure that the special characteristics of the Baltic Sea are fully accounted for in European policies.
As a pioneer in the application of the ecosystem approach, the innovative HELCOM action plan will also serve as a model example to be followed by the Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme Regional Seas Programme.
In developing the action plan, HELCOM has taken into account the environmental provisions of the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation. Close co-operation with Russia, which is the only HELCOM country outside the EU in the Baltic Sea region, is crucial for any further progress to be made in rescuing the troubled Baltic marine environment. HELCOM’s innovative strategy is also instrumental to the implementation of the renewed Northern Dimension policy, the Baltic Sea regional aspects of the EU-Russian Environmental Dialogue, the Nordic Environmental Action Plan, and the European Maritime Policy.
But first and foremost, the HELCOM action plan is considered a joint regional policy, with common objectives, actions, and obligations. The future success of the plan largely depends on how all the coastal countries can co-operate to achieve the goal of a healthy Baltic marine environment.
Overview of the four main segments of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan, detailing goals, objectives, and actions
1. Towards a Baltic Sea unaffected by eutrophication
Eutrophication is a major problem in the Baltic Sea, caused by excessive inputs of nitrogen and phosphorous which mainly originate from inadequately treated sewage, agricultural run-off and airborne emissions from shipping and combustion processes. Eutrophication leads to problems such as intensified algal blooms, murky water, oxygen depletion and lifeless sea bottoms.
The plan’s objectives for eutrophication include: concentrations of nutrients close to natural levels, clear water, natural levels of algal blooms, natural oxygen levels, and natural distributions and abundance of plants and animals.
HELCOM has estimated that for good environmental status to be achieved, the maximum allowable annual nutrient pollution inputs into the Baltic Sea would be 21,000 tonnes of phosphorus and about 600,000 tonnes of nitrogen. Over the period 1997-2003, average annual inputs amounted to 36,000 tonnes of phosphorus and 737,000 tonnes of nitrogen, therefore, annual reductions of some 15,000 tonnes of phosphorus and 135,000 tonnes of nitrogen would be required to reach to achieve the plan’s crucial “clear water” objective.
The action plan duly proposes provisional country-wise annual nutrient input reduction targets for both nitrogen and phosphorus (see table below).
To reach these reduction targets, the Baltic Sea countries will:
- develop national programmes, by 2010, designed to achieve the required reductions. Each country will be given enough flexibility to choose the most cost-effective measures, which can also be incorporated into River Basin Management Plans.
- implement specific measures to improve the treatment of wastewater, including increasing phosphorous removal from 80% to 90%, and substituting phosphorous in detergents. These measures alone will reduce phosphorus inputs into the Baltic by more than 7,000 tonnes, almost half of the total required reduction.
- implement measures to drastically reduce agricultural inputs, including changes in manure handling and fertilisation practices.
The main sources of funding for these actions include national budgets and EU structural funds, including the Cohesion Fund which aims to help new member countries implement EU Directives. Russia as a non-EU country will benefit from funding provided for high priority environmental projects through the EU Neighbourhood Program, bilateral agreements and the Northern Dimension Environmental Partnership fund.
The implementation of the action plan will also include the identification of individual pollution Hot Spots such as major animal farms, where actions should be prioritised. There will also be more stringent requirements for agriculture concerning environmental permits for livestock facilities and the spreading of manure as fertiliser.
The action plan also encourages the elaboration of bilateral and multilateral projects and programmes to reduce nutrient inputs using the most cost-efficient measures, particularly for addressing transboundary nutrient inputs from non-HELCOM countries. The plan recognises non-profit foundations and private companies as important contributors to the establishment of projects to reduce pollution to the Baltic Sea.
2. Towards a Baltic Sea undisturbed by hazardous substances
Hazardous substances include contaminants such as dioxins, PCBs, TBT, PFOS and heavy metals. Once released into the sea, hazardous substances can remain in the marine environment for very long periods and accumulate in the marine food web. Hazardous substances cause adverse effects in ecosystems, including health and reproductive problems in animals, especially top predators. Certain contaminants may be hazardous because of their effects on hormone and immune systems, as well as their toxicity, persistence and bio-accumulating properties. Some fish caught in the Baltic Sea, particularly herring and salmon, contain concentrations of hazardous substances that exceed maximum allowable levels for foodstuffs as defined by the EU.
HELCOM has already set a zero-emission target for all hazardous substances in the whole Baltic Sea catchment area by 2020.
The ecological objectives set out in the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan are: to reach concentrations of hazardous substance close to natural levels, to ensure that all Baltic fish are safe to eat, to safeguard the health of wildlife, and to reach pre-Chernobyl levels of radioactivity.
The actions on hazardous substances in the action plan focus on nine organic hazardous substances and two heavy metals. These substances have been selected by HELCOM as being of specific concern in the Baltic marine environment. The actions focus on restricting and substituting the use of the selected substances in important sectors within an agreed timetable in the whole catchment area.
Under the plan, all the coastal countries will launch national programmes addressing hazardous substances. The countries will restrict uses of the selected hazardous substances and promote substitutions with less hazardous substances in industry and other sectors. There is also a need to define guidelines and build up the capacities of the relevant authorities and industries in order to increase awareness of how pollution involving hazardous substances can be eliminated.
The information currently available on inputs and sources of hazardous substances is not as extensive as for nutrients, so it is not yet possible to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the situation in the Baltic Sea. The HELCOM countries have therefore decided to work together to build up more information about the sources of the selected hazardous substances, the extent of their occurrence in the Baltic marine environment, as well as about their biological effects. This knowledge can then be used as a basis for identifying further actions.
3. Towards a Baltic Sea with environmentally friendly maritime activities
The Baltic Sea is one of the most intensely trafficed marine areas in the world. Both the numbers and the sizes of ships have grown in recent years, especially oil tankers, and this trend is expected to continue.
The Baltic’s narrow straits and shallow waters, many of which are covered by ice for prolonged periods in winter, make navigation very challenging, and increase the risk of shipping accidents.
The main environmental effects of shipping and other activities at sea include air pollution, illegal deliberate and accidental discharges of oil, hazardous substances and other wastes, and the unintentional introduction of invasive alien organisms via ships’ ballast water or hulls.
Shipping adds to the problem of eutrophication of the Baltic Sea with its nutrient inputs from sewage discharges and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions. The Baltic Sea countries have resolved to act jointly within the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to apply stricter controls over these sources of nutrient pollution.
Firstly, the countries plan to propose an amendment to the 1973 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships modified by Protocol of 1978 (MARPOL 73/78) to introduce standards for nutrients in sewage discharges from ships.
The HELCOM countries will also contribute to the ongoing revision of Annex VI of the MARPOL Convention, which deals with the prevention of air pollution from ships. The contribution will examine whether IMO proposals for a tightening of regulations on ships’ NOx emissions are sufficient for the Baltic and if they facilitate the adoption of the most efficient measures.
The use of non-regulatory measures such as economic incentives to stimulate further reductions in emissions from ships is also envisaged in the plan.
The best way to reduce the risk of pollution accidents at sea is to increase the safety of navigation. Oil spills can destroy important marine and coastal habitats and have serious economic impacts on coastal communities. Much has already been done by HELCOM to enhance the safety of navigation. Future measures under the new action plan are related to the more effective use of the Automatic Identification System (AIS), which facilitates the exchange of information between ships, and between ships and shore stations. The countries will propose to IMO necessary improvements in the information content of AIS in order to enhance maritime safety, security and environmental protection.
The HELCOM countries will also work within IMO to speed up the introduction of a general requirement for ships to use Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) instead of paper navigation charts. This improved system enables ships to display their own positions in real time. The use of ECDIS onboard ships in areas where coverage with official Electronic Navigational Charts (ENCs) is satisfactory - like in the Baltic - considerably reduces the risk of groundings.
In addition, the plan includes a new HELCOM Recommendation on further measures to improve the safety of navigation in icy conditions.
Another important part of the HELCOM action plan concerns the intensified enforcement of existing environmental regulations. The Baltic Sea countries will better utilise satellite surveillance to detect illegal discharges, as well as a newly developed detection system based on the HELCOM AIS, to identify non-compliant ships in the HELCOM area.
The risk of a shipping accident will never be totally eliminated, so there is a need to ensure efficient emergency and response capabilities in the HELCOM countries. A new HELCOM Recommendation aims to strengthen existing sub-regional co-operation with regard to response to pollution accidents at sea. By 2013 all sub-regions of the Baltic Sea should be fully prepared to cope with medium-sized oil spills affecting and requiring response from more than one country. An adequate level of preparedness to respond to accidental pollution involving hazardous substances is to be achieved by 2016.
Increasing numbers of non-native species are being observed in seas all around the world, and the Baltic Sea is no exception. Shipping is the most important vector of unintentional species introductions into aquatic environments due to releases of ballast water and the fouling of hulls. The entry into force of the 2004 International Convention for Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments (BWM Convention) is the most important step towards combatting the spread of invasive non-native species. The HELCOM countries have agreed to ratify the BWM Convention by 2013. Measures included in a Road Map drawn up by HELCOM will be taken already before ratification to ensure this urgent issue is addressed as soon as possible.
4. Towards favourable conservations status of Baltic Sea biodiversity
Many human activities have impacts on biodiversity, and the biodiversity segment of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan aims to serve as an all encompassing element reflecting the performance of the whole plan. The goal of achieving a favourable conservation status for the biodiversity of the Baltic Sea cannot be reached without comprehensively considering human activities and carrying out decisive action in other segments of the plan.
Eutrophication and hazardous substances have strong impacts on biodiversity. Some species are directly threatened by overfishing or the destruction of their habitats by human activities such as dredging and construction along shores. Intensified shipping adds to existing environmental stress by potentially introducing invasive non-native species, minor oil spills, and the increasing probability of major oil spills that could be highly destructive for many species and habitats. Together with the predicted impacts of global warming, all of these pressures increasingly threaten the biodiversity of the Baltic Sea.
The biodiversity segment of the action plan aims to restore and maintain natural marine landscapes, thriving and balanced communities of animals and plants, as well as viable populations of species. Actions are focused on three cross-cutting issues to be addressed together with the relevant international authorities: marine spatial planning, long-term management plans for threatened species and habitats; and the promotion of research needed to fill in the information gaps that currently hamper the planning of further actions.
In order to secure the sustainable use of marine resources by reducing conflicts and the adverse impacts of human activities, HELCOM will devise a set of principles for cross-sectoral marine spatial planning as well as test and apply tools to be further developed jointly with other international organisations. These principles and tools should be ready by 2012. One particularly important issue is the further development of an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas around the Baltic Sea, including fisheries management measures to be applied in marine protected areas by 2010.
In order to enhance the balance between the sustainable use of marine natural resources and their protection, HELCOM will develop a model of good management of human activities for the Baltic Sea area. This will involve:
− developing, by 2012, long-term plans for protecting and sustainably managing the most threatened and declining species and habitats defined by HELCOM;
− further developing and implementing long-term management plans for commercially exploited fish stocks so that they remain within safe biological limits; preventing catches of non-target species and under-sized fish; and devising long-term plans for the monitoring, protection and sustainable management of coastal fish species. These actions will be carried out by the competent fisheries authorities in co-operation with the Baltic Sea Regional Advisory Council (RAC) and HELCOM, mainly by 2012.
HELCOM will promote further research planned to support the conservation of marine landscapes, habitats, communities and species. This work will involve:
− developing detailed landscape and habitat maps, especially for habitat-forming species
− updating HELCOM Red Lists of Baltic habitats/biotopes and biotope complexes, and producing a comprehensive HELCOM Red list of Baltic Sea species
− developing additional methods for the assessment of, and reporting on, the impacts of fisheries on biodiversity, including effective monitoring and reporting systems for by-catches of seabirds and marine mammals.