Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission


Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission

Illegal Discharges of Oil in the Baltic Sea

Illegal Discharges of Oil in the Baltic Sea During 2015

Baltic Sea Environment Fact Sheet 2016, Published: 11 July 2016

Author: HELCOM Response

Key Message

The number of detected oil discharges in the Baltic Sea has constantly decreased even though the density of shipping has grown and the aerial surveillance activity in the coastal countries has substantially improved, e.g. a high number of flight hours has been maintained and remote sensing equipment on board aircrafts has been more widely used. Moreover the, size of the oil discharges has decreased significantly. This illustrates the positive results of the complex set of measures known as the Baltic Strategy, implemented by the Contracting Parties to the Helsinki Convention.

Altogether 82 oil discharges were observed in 2015, which is 35 less than in 2014, and the lowest ever recorded number of oil spills in the Baltic Sea. Of these discharges 98% (80) were smaller than 1m3, and even as many as 64 spills were smaller than 0.1m3 (100 liters). In total 4062 flight hours with fixed-wing aircraft were carried out in 2015 within the aerial surveillance activities of the Baltic Sea countries. The Pollution per Flight Hour (PF) Index, which compares the total number of observed oil spills to the total number of flight hours, was the lowest ever recorded in 2015.

Total estimated amount of oil detected versus number of observations, 1988-2015

​Figure 1. Total estimated amount of oil detected versus number of observations, 1988-2015.

Figure 2. Pollution per flight hour index for the Baltic Sea, 1989-2015.

Results and Assessments

Environmental Context

Oil is a major threat to Baltic Sea ecosystems. In the last decade maritime transportation has been growing steadily, reflecting the intensified co-operation and trade in the Baltic Sea region and a prospering economy.
An increase in the number of ships also means that one could expect a larger number of illegal oil discharges. Both oil tankers and other kinds of ships are among the suspected offenders of anti-pollution regulations.

Policy Context

Any discharge into the Baltic Sea of oil, or diluted mixtures containing oil in any form including crude oil, fuel oil, oil sludge, or refined products, is prohibited. This applies to oily water from the machinery spaces of any ship, as well as from ballast or cargo tanks from oil tankers.

The prohibition stems from the international designation of the Baltic Sea area as a “special area” under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78).

To uphold the prohibition, the 1992 Helsinki Convention requires all ships, with some exceptions, to deliver the oil to a reception facility before leaving the port. To further encourage the delivery the countries bordering on the Baltic Sea have agreed that a ship should not be charged for using the reception facilities (also known as the no-special-fee system). The costs have to be covered e.g. by general harbor fees or general environmental fees.

The Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area, 1992 (the 1992 Helsinki Convention) spells out a duty for the States bordering on the Baltic Sea to conduct aerial surveillance for detecting suspected offenders of anti-pollution regulations at sea. All coastal states should endeavor to fly – as a minimum – twice per week over regular traffic zones including approaches to major sea ports as well as in regions with regular offshore activities. Other regions with sporadic traffic and fishing activities should be covered once per week. Experienced observers/pilots shall hereby conduct reliable detections, classifications and quantification of observed pollution, their frequencies and geographical distributions.  

The Coordinated Extended Pollution Control Flights (CEPCO) constitute continuous surveillance of specific areas in the Baltic Sea and are adjoined by surveillance aircraft of several countries. Super CEPCO flights are held biannually in the Baltic Sea in coordination with Bonn Agreement with duration of several days. CEPCO Shouth and CEPCO North are operations of 24h or more and Mini CEPCO fligths may  be  arranged  by  neighbouring  countries,  during  which  a  common area is continuously overflown for 12h or more.

Directive 2000/59/EC of 27 November 2000 has as its aim to reduce the discharges of ship-generated wastes and cargo residues into the sea, especially illegal discharges, by improving the availability and use of port reception facilities. The Directive recognizes and does not contradict with the procedures and mechanisms agreed by the Contracting Parties to the Helsinki Convention.


Deliberate illegal oil discharges from ships are regularly observed within the Baltic Sea since 1988. As from 1999 the number of observed illegal oil discharges has gradually decreased (from 488 in 1999 to 82 in 2015). A significant decrease in the number of deliberate oil spills has been observed during the last years, which is a positive sign, especially considering the increased shipping traffic as well as enhanced use of satellite imageries provided by the CleanSeaNet satellite service of the European Maritime Safety Agency. Also the size of spills has declined – today, the majority of spills are smaller than one cubic metre, or even less than 100 litres. 

Decrease in the number of observed illegal discharges despite rapidly growing density of shipping, increased frequency of the surveillance flights and improved usage of remote sensing equipment is illustrating the positive results of the complex set of measures known as a Baltic Strategy implemented by the Contracting Parties to the Helsinki Convention.

Also increased amount of waste delivered to the Baltic Sea ports illustrate that more and more ships rather deliver oil waste to ports than illegally discharge into the Baltic Sea.

Although the number of observations of illegal oil discharges shows a decreasing trend over the years it should be kept in mind that for some areas aerial surveillance is not evenly and regularly carried out and therefore there are no reliable figures for these areas. Furthermore, a large number of discharges of other substances than oil and unknown observations have been detected in recent years (98 in 2014 and 118 in 2015).

To see maps illustrating illegal oil discharges, click on the years below:

19981999200020012002200320042005200620072008200920102011201220​132014​, 2015


HELCOM Annual report on discharges observed during aerial surveillance in the Baltic Sea 2015

The data has been collected by the HELCOM Response group – HELCOM RESPONSE and quality checked by HELCOM IWGAS.


Table 1. Number of aerial surveillance flight hours performed by the HELCOM countries, 1989-2015


Table 2. Country-wise data on the number of illegal oil discharges observed in national waters, 1988-2015



The data is gathered annually on the basis of national reports from the nine countries bordering on the Baltic Sea area being Contracting States to the 1992 Helsinki Convention.

For reference purposes, please cite this Baltic Sea environment fact sheet as follows:

[Author’s name(s)], [Year]. [Baltic Sea environment fact sheet title]. HELCOM Baltic Sea Environment Fact Sheets. Online. [Date Viewed],