Blue growth and environmental challenges in the Baltic Sea

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Massive algal bloom at the coast of the Swedish island Gotland. [André Maslennikov/Azote]

The EU’s recent Baltic Sea agenda for sustainable Blue Growth aims at making growth and a healthy marine environment ”go hand in hand”, towards a future where both areas prosper. But if the merger of economic growth with environmental health is to be successful in the Baltic Sea region, policymakers at all levels must base their decisions and measures on the best available scientific knowledge about the marine environment, write Tina Elfwing and Christoph Humborg?.   

Tina Elfwing is Manager and Christoph Humborg is Research Manager of Baltic Eye, the scientific think-tank at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.

The European Commission’s first priority, set by the new President, Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, is ”to put policies that create growth and jobs at the centre of the policy agenda”.

During the recent hearing of designated commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Mr Karmenu Vella concluded that policy shouldn’t be seen as a fight between economists and ecologists. The environment has to be ”part and parcel” of any economic policies for the future, he said.

Merging economic growth with environmental action is a difficult and complex task. Investments in ecosystem recovery and environmental sustainability will undoubtedly create growth. On the other hand, economic growth might not necessarily be good for the environment.

Few places in Europe illustrate this complexity better than the Baltic Sea region. The recent Baltic Sea agenda for sustainable Blue Growth, adopted by the European Commission on 16 May, wants to make growth and a healthy marine environment ”go hand in hand”.

The Baltic Sea is a very sensitive marine ecosystem. For more than a century it has been under tremendous stress from human activities, and for many years the main marine focus lay on growth alone.

We now pay a heavy price for this, in the form of heavier algal blooms, growing dead zones, decreasing fish stocks and other severe symptoms.

Today, much of the economic growth in the Baltic Sea region is coupled with environmental strategies and measures, such as Blue Growth and others. But in order to get the best possible return from all these measures, and really make the merger of growth and a healthy marine environment a successful one, the policy must be based on the best available knowledge.

Based on current scientific knowledge of the Baltic Sea marine ecosystem, we at the Baltic Eye have identified a number of measures, that we hope will help the Commission to address some of the threats facing the Baltic Sea marine environment:

Fish and fisheries

The recent changes in the cod stocks and the uncertainties in data and models for assessment calls for a precautionary approach. Catch limits and management should follow scientific advice. If next years landing obligation is to be successful, it must be properly monitored and controlled. All goals implemented within the multispecies plan to improve fisheries management, should prioritize long-term solutions and a healthy ecosystem before short-term maximized catch volumes. The overall fisheries management and advice system must take into account environmental changes and adapt a more integrated ecosystem approach.

Eutrophication

Increased efforts to reach individual farmers and provide farm-specific advice on sustainable practices, for example through national networks of agricultural advisors. The HELCOM countries jointly develop specific and binding actions to achieve the nutrient reduction targets of the BSAP. Increased recycling and a more efficient use of nutrients in animal manure and sewage. The Common Agricultural Policy should take better account of water quality concerns.

Contaminants

Avoid replacing banned chemicals by substances whose environmental risks are unknown. Seriously consider introducing a ban on cosmetic products containing micro-plastic particles. Consider the interaction of several different chemicals (mixture), and their potential ”cocktail effects” on the environment, in chemical authorization and legislation. Link the different EU legislations on chemicals (REACH, Biocidal Products Regulation) and environmental directives (WFD, MSFD) more closely to each other.

Marine Protected Areas

Make protected marine areas a central part in the long-term maritime plans of every Baltic state, and establish a cross-border coordination of political efforts. Integrate environmental issues better with fisheries management. Stronger considerations of habitat protection in fisheries management. The Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) refers to MSFD in article 11, stressing the protection of the marine environment. Further develop the use of scientific knowledge and analysed data, through for instance mapping, as crucial tools for effective planning and management of marine protected areas.
 

Co-authors : 

  • Katja Broeg, ecotoxicologist
  • Maciej Tomczak, marine biologist/-ecologist 
  • Michelle McCrackin, biologist
  • Annika Svanbäck, agronomist
  • Lena Viktorsson, bio-/geochemist
  • Sofia Wikström, ecologist
  • Tina Elfwing, manager Baltic Sea Centre
  • Christoph Humborg, research manager

Further Reading