Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission


Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission

HELCOM Expert Interview: Ottilia Thoreson on the Baltic Sea, HELCOM stakeholders and the BSAP update

Ottilia Thoreson is a Programme Director at WWF Baltic (WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme)

From WWF’s and your perspective, what will be the biggest challenge(s) for the Baltic Sea’s environment in the future? 

Despite expressed ambitions, countries are still not delivering on the political leadership necessary to achieve the original commitments of the BSAP. Decisions are still taken sector-by-sector, ministry-by-ministry, without applying a holistic, integrated approach, resulting in uncoordinated, conflicting and inefficient policy objectives and implementation. Regional and national work to restore the health of the Baltic Sea still mainly involves the environmental ministries, although necessary actions fall under the responsibility of a number of sector ministries, as for example maritime infrastructure, fisheries and agriculture, who are driven by other ambitions than improving the health of the Baltic Sea.

One of the biggest challenges for the Baltic Sea is and will continue to be for countries to apply an ecosystem-based approach to managing human activities and pressures to ensure they stay within the carrying capacity of the marine ecosystem. This means that policies driven in the region need to be cohesive as to not undermine the objective to reach good environmental status of the catchment and marine environments. As long as countries keep managing the resources and environment in silos by the different sectors undermining progress, there will be little change to the current state of the Baltic Sea. 

What’s, in your opinion, the best way to go about these challenges?

NGOs from across the Baltic Sea region have presented a Shadow Plan to the Contracting Parties at the recent HELCOM High Level and Commission meeting. The Shadow plan lists our recommendations for how to secure and revive the health of the Baltic Sea and increase resilience to climate change. As the 2021 deadline passes, countries must strive to address the present challenges still not achieved and make sufficient progress to meet the legal requirements set by the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, along with global requirements on the Sustainable Development Goals and revised  Convention of Biological Diversity.

Overall, HELCOM has had much focus on setting recommendations. With the limited time we have to improve the environment and meet the climate targets, the Helsinki Convention needs to develop new implementation mechanisms, including a monitoring and evaluation system to give countries clear targets to fill and to be held accountable to. 

Ecosystem Based Management must be set as the fundamental approach that requires transboundary integration across ecosystem boundaries – countries must plan across the land-sea interface. This will require stronger political will and countries to work across ministries and agencies to coordinate ocean use within planetary boundaries. Countries need to recognise that the use of the marine environment and its resources must restore, protect and maintain the diversity, productivity and resilience of the core functions of the marine ecosystems and be based on clean technologies, renewable energy and circular material flows.  

Along with policy, business must become a stronger engine in the transition to sustainability through financial incentives. By ensuring principles are extended to producer responsibility applied across the entire life cycles of materials, and with schemes to hold industries accountable for the downstream impacts of their products. 

Update of the Baltic Sea Action Plan: how big of an opportunity?

This year has many deadlines of legal frameworks to be met on national, regional and global level, with far too many countries missing their mark to attain the objective of a good environmental status for both the terrestrial and marine environment. World leaders are set to take critical decisions on the climate and the environment, under the revision of the UN global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the revised UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), to move global societies to a more sustainable path. 2020 is the year which offers the opportunity to effectively join the dots between climate, biodiversity, and financial sector to help improve the contribution of oceans and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

It is timely and much needed to update the BSAP to take stock and acknowledge new pressures to the Baltic that can be addressed in a regional manner, update the regional objectives to be synergistic with EU and global commitments, and to meet the new challenges that have come to light in the nexus between ocean and climate. The BSAP can give regional guidance and momentum for  countries to fulfil their climate targets under the Paris Agreement, and include marine conservation measures to their Nationally Determined Contributions that provide significant benefits for both climate mitigation and adaption and improvement to the Baltic Sea environment. To achieve this  HELCOM needs to break the silos present within countries’ environmental and resource management, to better link the sea-climate interlinkages within governmental departments, academia and other entities for assisting in systematic and effective inclusion of marine and climate practitioners. 

What should particularly be considered in the BSAP update, with a view on achieving GES? 

The MSFD is a ‘framework directive’ allowing EU Member States the flexibility to interpret GES, meaning they define targets and measures for its descriptor indicators in their own way. Therefore, the achievement of GES relies heavily on the interpretation, harmonization and implementation of the MSFD by the Baltic Sea countries. Not to mention Russia is not obliged to meet the same requirement for its national waters, as a non-EU Member. The ambiguity in the Directive’s text has led to different interpretations by the countries in defining GES. This has created  uncertainty, discrepancies and different levels of conformity and governance difficulties. 

We know that no country will achieve their GES within the agreed time frame. Governments must shift their priorities and see the investment gains resulting from their actions to improve the GES rather than the cost of addressing the marine impacts faced today. The maritime spatial plans that are being developed by the respective countries is a fundamental tool to meet the legal frameworks of GES by identifying the most suitable way of managing sectors considering ecological, economic and social objectives. Applying effective maritime spatial plans, which safeguard the capacity of marine ecosystems to mitigate human-induced changes to marine ecosystems and processes, can be key to improving the state of the sea and establishing resilience to the impacts of climate change. There also needs more ambitious targets for marine protected areas, and not only acknowledging MPAs in the maritime spatial plans but actively reserving space for the development of a coherent network of MPAs.

HELCOM has been progressive in the region by setting guidelines for maritime spatial planning, with countries preparing to complete their plans for 2021. Similarly, HELCOM should set GES to also be compatible across the region making it a stronger tool for achieving the overall MSFD, with policy coordination and integration.

WWF is an observer in HELCOM: how has this worked out for WWF so far, or even for HELCOM?

As an observer in HELCOM, WWF gets a good overview and insight to the latest science, policy approaches and recommendations in the region, along with understanding countries’ political position on a wide array of issues that are to be tackled by the Contracting Parties addressed in the BSAP.

There are numerous working groups, position documents and reports produced within HELCOM. It is challenging as observers to engage in all areas of the BSAP due to limited WWF capacity and resources. Over the course of the current BSAP, lack of transparency has been an issue we have often flagged, along with monitoring of countries progress. Countries must be held accountable in their efforts or lack thereof to implement the actions of the BSAP. Current national reporting formats and database entries have not been coherent nor always given relevant progress on the measures. Thus Article 16 of the convention regarding reporting and exchange of information is not enough and should be updated. The secretariat must ensure transparency and accountability with clear standards for comparability and tracking of achievements. Not to mention user friendly for public access – as the public should have the right to know how countries are progressing to meet their commitments to achieving a healthy Baltic Sea. 

It is positive to see that HELCOM has established a database to start following the progress in a more systematic manner and have recently produced a more thorough analysis of the implementation by showing clearly that countries national targets are still lagging behind, with merely 26% of the national actions fully implemented by all countries. The big question is what mechanism will be put in place in the updated BSAP to get countries to stop lagging and implement the commitments they have agreed to?

Do you feel HELCOM is receptive to its observers and stakeholders?

We have often felt HELCOM is positive to the contributions given by observers in the working groups, as we can often bring to light matters from the ‘ground’ which the intergovernmental bodies are not aware of in the respective countries. By being part of a wide network of civil society, NGOs work closely on environmental challenges and can help raise the awareness of these to HELCOM. As observers it is also important that we encourage transparency. We voice our concerns of the HELCOM work to the public and inform when the governments are not taking their responsibility to meet the commitments and policy objectives in the respective countries and out at sea, or more importantly when they let other interests take precedence to conserving nature and the ecosystem services humanity require in order to live and thrive in.

In terms of stakeholders, HELCOM is heavily focused on intergovernmental and science institutions for the progress and development of scientific knowledge and links to the policy work. Of the regional seas conventions, HELCOM has been progressive in engaging with some stakeholders, for example the transport authority and maritime shipping which has proven  beneficial in driving policy change in the shipping arena when it comes to tackling air emissions and sewage waste from cruise and passenger ships. However, at the latest stakeholder meeting March 3rd, there was very low representation of the main marine sectors who are responsible for the cumulative effects to the Baltic; fisheries, renewable energies, tourism, agriculture, infrastructure, maritime shipping and defence. These are all important sectors in the regional economy and advancement towards  sustainable management of the space and resources. In the future, the these sectors need to be included in an integrated manner. This is one of the fundamental elements to apply Ecosystem Based Management, for the contracting parties to encourage inclusive, multi-stakeholder participation for the long-term and adaptive management of marine resources. 

HELCOM joins new project on shipping emissions, EU EMERGE

HELCOM has recently joined the EMERGE project on shipping emissions in EU marine waters and was one of the 18 project partner organizations that attended its kick-off meeting in Laxenburg near Vienna, Austria from 24 to 26 February 2020. 

Coordinated by the Finnish Meteorological Institute, EMERGE will quantify and evaluate the effects of potential emission reduction solutions for shipping in Europe, and develop effective strategies and measures to reduce the environmental impacts of shipping.

“Beyond producing data, the project will also develop several scenarios to help identify management options on how to best deal with all sorts of shipping emissions,” said Joni Kaitaranta, the HELCOM data coordinator handling the project at HELCOM. The outcomes of the project are expected to be further considered by the relevant HELCOM working groups.

As a project partner, HELCOM will mainly be involved in the work packages on hosting and publicizing spatial data outputs such as emission maps stemming from developed modelling framework and based on different management scenarios. HELCOM will furthermore participate in developing online tools for disseminating the outcomes and associated data to stakeholders, decision-makers and to the general public.

HELCOM has extensive experience in gathering and processing data on the marine environment and maritime activities, notably through its indicator work and its map and data service. 

The 4-year EMERGE project, funded by the European Commission, was formed in response to the Horizon 2020 call on Ship emission control scenarios, marine environmental impact and mitigation

EMERGE will systematically analyze the complex interactions between technological options, pollutant emissions and dispersion, and environment. It will carry out measurements and modelling on actual vessels, along main shipping routes and in sensitive European marine regions. 

Measurements will focus on abatement techniques and will include emissions to, and concentrations in water, air and marine biota. EMERGE will especially investigate how effectively available scrubbers reduce the effects of key pollutants.

For those who wonder why Laxenburg was chosen as the kick-off venue: besides hosting the premises of project partner IIASA where the event took place, the city is also (almost) the geographical centre of the project, effectively reducing CO2 travel emissions by the participants that were coming from all parts of Europe – ranging from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.

Twitter: @EUEMERGE  #EuEmerge

The update of the Baltic Sea Action Plan and UN Voluntary Commitments are addressed at HELCOM’s annual meeting

The high-level representatives attending HELCOM 41-2020. © HELCOM
Back row, from left to right: Nuritdin Inamov (Russia), Jochen Flasbarth (Germany), Katarzyna Krzywda (Poland), Katrine Nissen (Denmark), Silvija Nora Kalnins (Latvia), Vitalijus Auglys (Lithuania) and Harry Liiv (Estonia).
Front row, from left to right: Veronica Manfredi (EU), Gunvor G. Eriksson (Sweden), Saara Bäck (Chair of HELCOM), Terhi Lehtonen (Finland), Rüdiger Strempel (Executive Secretary of HELCOM).

Actions for a healthier Baltic Sea and HELCOM’s Voluntary Commitments to the UN Ocean Conference 2020 were addressed in Helsinki during the Annual Meeting of the Helsinki Commission – the 41st Meeting of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM 41-2020) – that took place from 4 to 5 March 2020.

The Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) and its update were one of the central themes of the event that also featured a high-level segment attended by high-level representatives such as state secretaries and other high-ranking ministerial representatives of the Baltic Sea countries and the EU. Only Ministerial Meetings rank higher on the HELCOM meeting scale.

“Building on the political will expressed by the ministers in 2018, we are now progressing from words to action, as 2019 marked the beginning of more concrete work on the new BSAP,” said Rüdiger Strempel, the Executive Secretary of HELCOM, in his statement.

Initially set to achieve its objectives by 2021, the BSAP is due to be updated in 2021 as mandated by the HELCOM Contracting Parties during the Ministerial Meeting held in Brussels in 2018. The past months were characterized by translating the political will expressed in 2018 into a concrete roadmap and actions towards the update, such as the analysis of sufficiency of existing measures

In Helsinki, the high-level representatives recognized that clear progress has been made under the current BSAP during the past 13 years. However, they also acknowledged that the level of implementation has not been fully satisfactory and stressed the need to ensure and accelerate the implementation of the actions under both the current and updated BSAP.

Nevertheless, the BSAP remains one of the most effective instruments for a healthy Baltic, offering a long-term vision and strategic orientation, as well as a wide array of science-based actions and measures. The updated BSAP is expected to include considerations on climate change, marine litter, pharmaceuticals, underwater noise, and loss of and disturbance to the seabed, among other pressures.

At HELCOM 41-2020, the representatives particularly highlighted the importance of recognizing climate change as a cross-cutting topic and the need for more knowledge on the impacts and consequence of climate change, therefore regarding the BSAP as an “instrument to strengthen the resilience of the Baltic Sea ecosystem and minimize negative effects of climate change on society,” as stated in the meeting outcome.

Based on the existing plan, the update will maintain at least the same level of ambition as the current plan and include all actions and measures from that plan that have not been implemented yet.

The outcome of the HELCOM Stakeholder Conference 2020, held the day before HELCOM 41 and aimed at gathering input from stakeholders on the BSAP update and that was, was also presented during the session of the high-level representatives who particularly lauded the quality of the engagement of the stakeholders. A total of 49 potentially new BSAP actions were proposed during the event. 

Furthermore, at HELCOM 41-2020, the representatives agreed on submitting five Voluntary Commitments by HELCOM to the 2020 UN Ocean Conference, concurring on: 

  1. updating of the Baltic Sea Action Plan by 2021, 
  2. the development of a HELCOM Science Agenda to contribute to the UN Decade of Ocean Science, 
  3. strengthening cooperation with other Regional Seas Organisations, 
  4. offering strong support for global efforts to address the marine litter problem on a global level, and 
  5. organizing a workshop on ecosystem-based management in support of the UN Decade of Ocean Science. 

The voluntary commitments are part of HELCOM’s concrete efforts on global outreach and on advancing the global ocean agenda. 

During the meeting, a number of HELCOM Recommendations were also adopted or revised by the Contracting Parties, such as the Recommendation on Deep-Sea Pilotage in the Baltic Sea (Recommendation 41/1) and the HELCOM Recommendation on the use of national manure standards (adopted in principle). 

A roadmap on the collection of fisheries data to assess incidental bycatches and fisheries impact on benthic biotopes in the Baltic Sea was also agreed on during the meeting, as was the project proposal on the monitoring of pollution loads to the Baltic Sea (PLC-8).

Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, with Rüdiger Strempel, HELCOM’s Executive Secretary. Germany will assume the chair of HELCOM from 1 July 2020 until 30 June 2022, taking over from Finland.

HELCOM 41-2020 also saw the nomination by Germany of Lilian Busse, Head of the Division of Environmental Health and Protection of Ecosystems of the German Environment Agency, as Chair of the upcoming German chairmanship. Germany will take over from Finland on 1 July 2020, for a period of two years.

The representatives further took note of Germany’s will to increase the political visibility of HELCOM work during its chairmanship, with the BSAP being at the centre of the work, further supporting the Parties in its implementation, and extending invitations to civil society and stakeholders to participate in HELCOM processes.

The high-level segment of HELCOM 41-2020 was attended by Katrine Nissen (Denmark), Harry Liiv (Estonia), Veronica Manfredi (EU), Terhi Lehtonen (Finland), Jochen Flasbarth (Germany), Silvija Nora Kalnins (Latvia), Vitalijus Auglys (Lithuania), Katarzyna Krzywda (Poland), Nuritdin Inamov (Russia) and Gunvor G. Eriksson (Sweden).

Baltic Sea Action Plan: New actions are proposed during HELCOM stakeholder event

Over 120 participants attended the HELCOM Stakeholder Conference 2020 © HELCOM

Concrete actions for a healthier Baltic Sea were proposed in Helsinki this week during the HELCOM Stakeholder Conference 2020 that aimed at gathering feedback from stakeholders on the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP), HELCOM’s strategic programme of actions, which is due to be updated by 2021.

A total of 49 new actions to be considered for inclusion in the updated BSAP were voiced during the conference, touching upon a variety of topics such as hazardous substances, marine litter, shipping and other sea-based activities, as well as eutrophication and biodiversity.

Climate change was also heavily emphasized during the conference, as was the issue of implementation of BSAP actions at the national level, where stakeholders felt more progress should be made. Better collaboration between ministries and authorities also featured highly on the participants’ wish list, along breaking “thinking in silos” in favour of a more holistic view of protection of the marine environment of the Baltic Sea.

The conference, titled “For a sustainable Baltic Sea: The Baltic Sea Action Plan beyond 2021”, and that attracted over 120 participants from different organisations such as governments, NGOs, academia and industry, was a direct result of the decision recorded in the HELCOM Ministerial Declaration 2018 to include stakeholders in the BSAP update process.

According to the declaration, the BSAP update should “be strongly communicated with stakeholders, enable knowledge sharing between science and policy across all levels, be developed in a participatory and transparent way at the regional and local levels, including all appropriate stakeholders.”

Although its environmental objective to each good environmental status by 2021 is unlikely to be achieved, the BSAP remains one of the most effective instruments for a healthy Baltic. 

“No other plan or programme offers the same long-term vision and strategic orientation, the same agreement on a holistic set of science-based actions and measures for a healthy Baltic Sea, the same regional and cross-sectoral acceptance,” said Rüdiger Strempel, the Executive Secretary of HELCOM, during the conference.

It is expected that the update of the BSAP will include considerations on climate change, marine litter, pharmaceuticals, underwater noise, and loss and disturbance of seabed, among other pressures. Based on the existing plan, the update will maintain at least the same level of ambition and include all actions and measures from that plan that have not been implemented yet.

The proposed actions gathered from the Stakeholder Conference will now be forwarded to the relevant HELCOM working groups for further consideration and possible additional development within HELCOM and the BSAP update processes.

Concrete measures against eutrophication are elaborated in Helsinki during expert workshop on nutrient recycling

© Angela Rohde/Adobe Stock

In a bid to address the Baltic Sea’s eutrophication problem, about 40 experts on agriculture and wastewater attended a workshop in Helsinki last week to elaborate concrete actions and measures under HELCOM’s Nutrient Recycling Strategy.

“The aim of the [Nutrient Recycling Strategy] is to make better use of the nutrients already available [such as manure] and to reduce the [introduction] of new mineral nutrients into the cycle,” said Sari Luostarinen, the Chair of HELCOM Agri Group dealing with sustainable agricultural practices.

In 2018, the HELCOM members agreed, at the Ministerial level, to elaborate a Baltic Sea Regional Nutrient Recycling Strategy by 2020. Its objective is to reduce nutrient loading to the Baltic Sea by avoiding nutrient runoff by circulating the nutrients within the food chain. 

“Agriculture remains a large source of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff to the sea,” said Susanna Kaasinen, HELCOM’s expert on agriculture and nutrients. According to the results of the recent State of the Baltic Sea report, 97 % of the Baltic Sea area suffers from eutrophication, mainly caused by excessive nutrient loading stemming from agriculture. 

In Helsinki, during the workshop on nutrient recycling measures, the experts came up with a large variety of possible ideas for measures and actions which will now be considered by the HELCOM Agri and Pressure groups.

“The vision and objectives of the Nutrient Recycling Strategy were already defined in 2019,” said Kaasinen. “Now is the time to translate these into concrete actions and measures,” she said, adding that some of the proposals from the workshop could also be used for the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP). 

The BSAP is due to be updated by 2021 and is expected to heavily focus on eutrophication, among biodiversity, hazardous substances and litter, and sea-based activities.

The workshop was organized by the Ministry of the Environment and Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Finland, HELCOM, European Union Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region (EUSBSR) Policy Area Nutri and Bioeconomy as well as SuMaNu and BSR Waterproject platforms. 

Sea trout are back in Lithuanian river after successful restoration under the RETROUT project

©Piotr Wawrzyniuk –

Sea trout are reproducing again in parts of the Smeltalė river in Lithuania after a successful restoration exercise under the Baltic-wide RETROUT project.

“We counted 13 new sea trout nests within only two months after the restoration work was finished,” said Nerijus Nika from Klaipeda University, one of the partners responsible for the Lithuanian river restorations within RETROUT, further noting that the specifically created reproduction sections, or spawning habitats, were all intensively used by sea trout. The restoration work was completed in September 2019.

RETROUT carries out a number of river restoration demonstration cases in the project partner countries to improve the condition of sea trout populations. 

“For viable and healthy sea trout populations, we need healthy and accessible rivers. Unfortunately, many rivers potentially suitable for sea trout aren’t yet in the condition we’d like them to be,” said Henri Jokinen, the RETROUT project manager at HELCOM.

In Lithuania, the rehabilitation started with the creation of a system of meandering shallow ponds in an area of the Smeltalė river previously purposed as a surface flow treatment wetland for improved water quality. 

Since its construction 20 years ago, the wetland hadn’t been maintained, accumulating excessive sediments from defaulting sedimentation ponds as well as suffering from excessive vegetation on its banks. 

In addition, a 500 m section was modified in the Smeltaitė stream, a main tributary of Smeltalė river, using stones, gravel and logs to create three 50 m long spawning and juvenile rearing habitats. 

“According to local experts, such habitats are spawning hot spots for salmonids and lampreys in lowland streams of Lithuania,” said Jokinen. Indeed, all three created spawning habitat sections were intensively used by sea trout only two months after completion. 

In the Smeltaitė stream, the two biggest trout nests – of 7,5 m2 and 10 m2 – were found in the restored stretch, in habitats pre-evaluated to be of high priority for sea trout females. One of these sites was constantly occupied for 1.5 month by up to five different trout, a rather unusual spawning behaviour. 

With special focus on sea trout, the RETROUT project seeks to promote and develop sustainable coastal fishing tourism in the Baltic Sea region. RETROUT initiated 15 restoration cases in coastal rivers of Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Sweden. Measures under the project cover fishways, biotope restorations, water quality improvement, and dam removal plans. 

In the RETROUT project, HELCOM leads the work package on Assessment of status and management of sea trout rivers and stocks which focuses mainly on the ecological aspect of trout fishing, notably through assessing fish stock and river habitat status, and by evaluating river restoration practices to improve trout populations. 

The main results will be published as an assessment report and as a toolbox of best practices and guidelines for river restoration in the Baltic Sea. 

“In addition to improving the actual condition of a river, the experience we get from these demonstration cases will help us to develop the ‘Guidelines for river restoration best practices in the Baltic Sea region,’ another major outcome of the project,” said Jokinen.

The restoration of the Smeltalė river was conducted by the Klaipeda District Municipality Administration, with technical and scientific support from the Klaipeda University. 

Photos from Smeltalė river, Lithuania. © Nerijus Nika

Two sea trout in their newly restored habitat. © Tomas Ruginis

Report on microplastics in the Baltic Sea provides a common baseline for policy-makers and researchers

With the recent publication of the Review of existing policies and research related to microplastics under the FanpLESStic-sea project, policy-makers and researches in the Baltic Sea region dealing with microplastics now have a common baseline to support their work.  

“I was surprised by the large amount of existing research and projects in the Baltic Sea,” said Aaron Vuola, the HELCOM project coordinator in FanpLESStic-sea who led the publication, adding that it shows how pressing the issue of microplastics is in the region.

The review, for which a summary for policy makers is also available, establishes a comprehensive baseline on the existing policies related to microplastics on global, Baltic Sea, EU, and national levels. The report also showcases some of the existing research on microplastics at these various levels.

“This review confirms the need for harmonized monitoring methods if we want to be able to compare studies between regions and different matrices, or establish baselines for current microplastic levels,” said Vuola.

According to the report, the lack of commonly agreed methodologies for monitoring, sampling and analyses of microplastics is a major concern and calls for urgent need for harmonized, cost-efficient, and sufficiently robust monitoring methodologies for microplastics.

Currently, microplastics are not directly addressed through any global instrument even though several existing instruments cover some aspects related to marine litter and hence microplastics. However, the European Union is working towards restricting the use of intentionally added microplastic particles to consumer or professional use products.

On the Baltic Sea level, actions on microplastics are contained in the HELCOM Action Plan on Marine Litter.

Also highlighted by the report are the impacts of microplastics on humans through food chain or other means, still largely unknown and calling for more research.

“There is already lot of evidence of the negative impacts of microplastics to support the need for global, EU and national level regulation, but we also have to reduce the plastic use in general and address the problematic products in earlier phase of their life-cycle before they become marine litter and microplastics,” said Vuola.

In addition to providing an overview of the regulatory framework and useful information on topics such as sources and types of microplastics, the report can be used as a database for large amount of concluded research on various topics around the issue of microplastics.

FanpLESStic-sea, an EU-funded Interreg project, works towards preventing and decreasing the pollution of microplastics in water in the Baltic Sea. In the project, HELCOM leads the work package on reviewing existing research on microplastic in the aquatic environment.

HELCOM Expert Interview: Sari Luostarinen on nutrients, eutrophication and agriculture

Sari Luostarinen is a Senior Research Scientist at the Natural Resources Institute of Finland (Luke) and is the current Chair of the HELCOM Agri group

Aren’t nutrients supposed to be good? What’s wrong with nutrients? 

Nutrients are vital for humans, animals and the environment as a whole. They are also vital for agriculture and food production. No crops can grow without nutrients. But as with most other compounds, too much in the wrong place causes problems. In our region for instance, the excess of nutrients has led to the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea.

In terms of eutrophication and nutrients, what is the current status in the Baltic Sea region?

The Baltic Sea is a vulnerable sea for many reasons. The nutrients it has received in the past are bound in the sediments and released under certain conditions, causing internal nutrient loading. At the same time, nutrient runoff from current human activities is adding to the problem. Of the latter, many point sources have been reduced, for example due to improved wastewater treatment. But it is more difficult to restrict diffuse loading such as from agriculture. Depending on the weather conditions and due to increasing temperatures, eutrophication and its consequences are worsening. More actions to control the nutrient load are needed.

In general, what would need to be done to curb eutrophication and nutrient inputs, especially in regard to agriculture?

As said, crops cannot grow without nutrients. Both phosphorus and nitrogen need to be available for crops on the fields to achieve good yields. Good yields also mean that most nutrients given as fertilizers end up in the harvested crop and little is lost to the environment. The amount of nutrients spread as fertilizers should be adequate, for instance adjusting quantities depending on the crop, the soil type and its nutrient content, as well as the timing of the spread. The use of animal manure as a fertilizer is the traditional way to recycle nutrients in food production. However, due to segregation of animal and crop production it may be either available in excess or in deficit depending on the region. More precise utilisation of manure nutrients, including replacing mineral fertilization with manure, is important for reducing agricultural nutrient load. Also, other measures, such as reduced tillage, catch crops, water protection zones, are also needed to manage nutrient losses.

What concrete steps is HELCOM currently taking on the nutrient issue from the agriculture perspective?

HELCOM is efficiently driving several measures to reduce agricultural nutrient losses to the Baltic Sea. As an example, HELCOM is preparing the introduction of recommendations for national manure standards. The aim is to ensure the availability of updated, scientifically proven data on manure quantities and nutrient contents in the Baltic Sea countries so that the manure data used in fertilization planning and thus the amount of manure spread on fields becomes more precise. This is expected to reduce nutrient runoff from the fields. Furthermore, on resource efficiency, HELCOM is also preparing a strategy for nutrient recycling in the Baltic Sea Region. Again, the aim is to introduce more efficient measures to make better use of the nutrients already available and to reduce the need to introduce new mineral nutrients into the cycle. For example, this could be achieved by processing manure, different wastes and their by-products into recycled fertilizers.

HELCOM Expert Interview: Susanne Heitmüller on the management of wastewater from ships

Dr Susanne Heimüller works for the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency (BSH) and is the Chair of HELCOM Maritime Working Group

Overall, what’s the current state of the management of wastewater from ships in the Baltic Sea, also compared to other seas?

The Baltic Sea is a highly sensitive sea area and eutrophication is one of its major problems. Therefore, following a lengthy preparation process within HELCOM, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) designated the Baltic Sea as “Special Area for sewage discharges from passenger ships under Annex IV of the MARPOL Convention.” Worldwide, it is the only region so far regulating these discharges

The more stringent Special Area regulations, which already applies to newly built vessels, require passenger ships to either discharge their sewage into port reception facilities (PRF) or to treat sewage with an advanced on-board sewage treatment plant capable of reducing nutrients to a safe level for discharging at sea. 

This is an important step forward towards a healthier Baltic Sea, while, at the same time, showing how a MARPOL Annex IV Special Area may be implemented.  

Why the Technical Guidance? What’s its objective, background?

Handling big volumes of sewage in ports requires new and innovative approaches. Initial experiences show that there is no “one size fits all” solution. Almost each port, with its own, specific infrastructure requirements, needs a tailored solution. 

To facilitate proper management of wastewater from ships, we therefore developed the “Technical Guidance for the Handling of Wastewater in Ports of the Baltic Sea Special Area under MARPOL Annex IV.”

The Technical Guidance sets out probable problems a port may encounter, and presents possible solutions on the different aspects of the management of wastewater from ships, be they of infrastructural or technological nature, or related to planning and communication.

Who is the Technical Guidance meant for?

The Technical Guidance offers recommendations to port operators and shipping companies. It can also be useful for administrations and municipal wastewater companies dealing with the issue.  

How do you expect the Technical Guidance to improve wastewater management in the Baltic Sea?

The Technical Guidance will hopefully aid all involved stakeholders to better understand the major and various challenges ports and ships face when it comes to managing wastewater. Awareness and good communication is a first step in working together on practical solutions, and ultimately, on improving the environment of the Baltic Sea.

Download the Technical Guidance:

Handling of wastewater from ships in ports of the Baltic Sea is facilitated by new guidance

The handling of wastewater from ships in ports of the Baltic Sea just got easier with the newly published Technical Guidance for the handling of wastewater in Ports of the Baltic Sea Special Area under MARPOL Annex IV.

Intended for shipowners, port operators, local administrations as well as municipal wastewater companies, the Technical Guidance was developed to facilitate the management of wastewater from ships to better comply with IMO regulations on wastewater handling in the Baltic Sea region. 

In 2011, the IMO designated the Baltic Sea a Special Area for sewage discharges from passenger ships, directing passenger ships operating in the Baltic Sea and not equipped with an on-board sewage treatment facility to discharge their sewage – or black water – at port, in a so-called port reception facility (PRF). 

“Initial experiences show that there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” said Susanne Heitmüller, the Chair of HELCOM Maritime, the HELCOM working group that deals with shipping-related topics. “Almost each port, with its own, specific infrastructure requirements, needs a tailored solution,” she added.

The current lack of experience with sewage handling in ports requires the development of new and innovative approaches to manage these new challenges. The Technical Guidance for the handling of wastewater in ports was produced to fill this gap and offer a wide range of possible options to several scenarios ships and ports may face. 

“The Technical Guidance sets out probable problems a port may encounter, and presents possible solutions on the different aspects of the management of wastewater from ships,” said Heitmüller.

Under the IMO regulations, all newly built passenger ships after June 2019 are required to comply to stricter rules on wastewater discharges, while older passenger ships will have to comply to the same rules by June 2021, with some exceptions until June 2023 for ships en route directly to or from a port located outside the Baltic Sea and to or from a port located east of longitude 28˚10′ E.

According to the rules, passenger ships which carry more than 12 passengers will have to either discharge sewage into port reception facilities, or alternatively at sea – provided that nutrients have been reduced by 70% for nitrogen and 80% for phosphorus through on-board treatment. 

Untreated wastewater has been identified as an important source of both hazardous substances and nutrients, the main cause of eutrophication leading to unwanted growth of blue-green algae that upset the Baltic Sea’s biodiversity.

Published by HELCOM, the Technical Guidance was developed by the Development and Assessment Institute in Waste Water Technology at RWTH Aachen University (PIA) on behalf of the Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany (BSH) and in collaboration with the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI).