Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission

 

Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission

HELCOM joins UN initiative on marine litter

HELCOM has recently become a member of a United Nation initiative on land-based pollution, the Global Partnership on Marine Litter (GPML).

Bringing together various stakeholders dealing with marine litter and microplastics challenges, the GPML partnership was launched at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June 2012. The GPML is hosted under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The GPML further seeks to facilitate the implementation of the commitments expressed in the Manila Declaration, under which 65 countries pledged to develop policies to reduce and control wastewater, marine litter and pollution from fertilizers.

Marine litter and microplastics are of particular concern in the Baltic Sea. In response, HELCOM has adopted its own Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (RAP ML) in 2015. The plan is currently under review. 

HELCOM is also involved in an EU-funded initiative on microplastics, FanpLESStic-sea, for which it has recently published a review of existing research and policies on the tiny plastic particles.

The updated HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP), due to be adopted in October 2021, is also expected to include new objectives and measures on marine litter.

HELCOM updates its online tool for assessing the risk of introduction of alien species via ballast water

Aliens in the Baltic Sea? Not if shipping managers utilize the free online tool developed by HELCOM and OSPAR to minimise the introduction of non-indigenous species (NIS, also known as alien species) via the ballast water of ships. The tool has recently been updated as part of the Interreg COMPLETE project

“The updated tool now makes it even easier to evaluate the risk of introduction of alien species by ships traveling between two ports in the HELCOM-OSPAR area,” said Manuel Sala-Pérez, the COMPLETE project’s coordinator at HELCOM.  

Alien species often travel with ballast water in ships, being sucked up into ships in one port and then discarded in another where they could potentially proliferate, take over habitats and disrupt the food chain and existing biodiversity. “For fragile marine ecosystems such as the Baltic Sea, NIS can be a serious issue,” cautioned Sala-Pérez. 

The free online tool, the so-called Ballast Water Exemptions Decision Support Tool, assesses the risk of introduction of NIS in a simple way, yet based on the latest scientific knowledge on the occurrence and distribution of species as well as the environmental characteristics of each port. 

“The online tool is now more user-friendly and contains improved GIS functionalities and data visualisations,” said Sala-Pérez, adding that it also includes updates to the underlying technology such as databases and algorithms. “It should be the go-to tool for whoever is dealing with ballast water management in the Baltic and North Seas.”  

COMPLETE is an EU INTERREG Baltic Sea Region project aimed at minimizing the introduction and spread of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens by shipping, notably via ballast water and biofouling. In the project, HELCOM led the activity tasked with updating the NIS online tool. 

HELCOM further took part in the development of a proposal for a Baltic Sea Biofouling Roadmap and a HELCOM monitoring programme on NIS. It also participated in the review process of the HELCOM-OSPAR Joint Harmonised Procedure on ballast water exemptions, particularly on risk assessments of NIS introductions, and the update of the selection criteria for target species.

HELCOM publishes reports on chemical contaminants

In a bid to better understand the effects of certain hazardous substances on the Baltic Sea, HELCOM, in collaboration with Stockholm University’s Baltic Sea Centre, has compiled the latest science on selected chemical contaminants.

The results were published in four reports, namely on dioxins and PCBsbrominated flame retardantsPFOS and PFAS, and diclofenac.

“We must identify the major sources of the hazardous substances and understand how they move in the ecosystems to be able to do something about the problem,” said Emma Undeman, a researcher at Stockholm University and lead author of the reports. 

The reports give insights into the sources and pathways to the sea of the addressed substances, as well as on how their concentrations have changed in the Baltic Sea over time.

Dioxins and PCBs, mainly by-products from industrial processes, primarily stem from atmospheric emissions, further persisting in the environment and accumulating in the food chain. This is a particular cause for concern since these substances are known for their adverse effects on the nervous, immune and endocrine systems of living organisms.

The levels of brominated flame retardants (PBDE) – which are now either banned or regulated but were heavily used in the past as additives to prevent ignition and delay spread of fire such as in furniture and curtains – seem to be declining, but trends show that it could take up to 40 years for these contaminants to reach safe levels in the Baltic Sea.

With regard to PFOS and PFAS, used for instance in metal coatings such as Teflon or in firefighting foams, the main pathways are discharges from wastewater treatment plants, and runoff from contaminated sites via groundwater and drainage ditches. Research on PFOS in Baltic Sea biota further indicates that transport to the sea has dropped but that concentrations have not yet declined, pointing towards a high persistence in the marine environment.

Diclofenac, a widely used painkiller that is water soluble, mainly enters the sea through wastewater treatment plants which have a low removal rate of the drug. Despite good absorption by the human body when ingested, diclofenac is overused, leading to significant excretions reaching sewer systems. Some of the diclofenac in wastewater may also originate from dermal application which has a low absorption rate by the body. 

The four reports support the update of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP), HELCOM’s strategic programme of actions for restoring good ecological status of the Baltic marine environment. The BSAP is due to be updated in 2021.

Information from the reports will notably serve to evaluate the efficiency of currently implemented measures under the present BSAP, and for suggesting additional measures needed to improve the Baltic Sea’s state in regard to the reduction of concentrations of hazardous substances. 

Download the reports:

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.

Marine litter, underwater noise and chemical contamination are addressed at HELCOM PRESSURE in Brussels

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©Aliaksandr Marko – stock.adobe.com

​Marine litter, underwater noise and chemical contamination of the marine environment were prominently featured on the agenda of the PRESSURE 11-2019 meeting held in Brussels from 22 to 25 October. The meeting was further complemented by two workshops on hazardous substances and marine litter.

“Marine litter is posing a threat to the Baltic Sea’s biodiversity, so it needs to be solved rapidly,” said Dmitry Frank-Kamenetsky, adding that the issue is being successfully addressed through the implementation of the HELCOM Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter.

In Brussels, progress in the implementation of the plan was particularly acknowledged, and further steps were outlined to deal with derelict fishing gear, to improve stormwater management – crucial in addressing microplastics – and to address expanded polystyrene, one of the top litter items found on the entire Baltic Sea coast.

“Since rivers are significant pathways bringing litter and all sorts of substances to the sea, we also need to look upstream and beyond our shores,” said Frank-Kamenetsky, echoing the common view that further cooperation with river basin management authorities needs to be strengthened to address the marine litter issue.

Furthermore, a new draft of the action plan to mitigate manmade underwater noise was presented at PRESSURE 11-2019. “Although the document is still in a drafting phase, it is a first step in the HELCOM process that may eventually lead to concrete measures to ease the effects of man-made sound and noise on aquatic wildlife,” said Frank-Kamenetsky.

Marine mammals and certain type of fish are particularly affected by underwater noise since they rely heavily on hearing throughout their entire life, such as for geolocation, communicating, feeding or mating.

Chemical contamination of the marine environment was another of the key environmental pressures emphasized at PRESSURE 11-2019, highlighting the vast variety of chemicals currently used in industries and households. New products are continuously flooding the markets, and their effects on the marine environment aren’t always clear.

At the meeting, the HELCOM members therefore welcomed the progress on a knowledge base on micropollutants including pharmaceuticals currently in development, and concluded that the HELCOM framework on hazardous substances might require a significant revision to be able to respond to threats posed by these new chemicals.

Moreover, a new assessment of the input of nutrients to the Baltic sea was presented at PRESSURE 11-2019, illustrating the substantial reduction of nutrient inputs since the reference period. The assessment shows that inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Baltic Sea were reduced by 14 and 24 percent respectively since early 2000.

The highest nitrogen input reduction in this period was observed in the Danish Straits (24 percent) and Kattegat (21 percent), while the highest reduction of phosphorus load was noted in the Gulf of Finland (51 percent) and Baltic Proper (22 percent).

The reduction indicates the joint effort of all HELCOM countries to reduce input of nutrients and commitment to abate eutrophication – the major threat for the Baltic Sea. But the assessment shows that the nutrient input targets for the whole Baltic Sea have not yet achieved.

PRESSURE 11-2019, the “11th Meeting of the Working Group on Reduction of Pressures from the Baltic Sea Catchment Area (HELCOM Pressure Group),” was hosted by the European Commission in Brussels.

The HELCOM Pressure Group seeks to provide the necessary technical background to the work on inputs of nutrients and hazardous substances from both diffuse and point sources on land, including follow-up of the implementation of the HELCOM nutrient reduction scheme. It currently also works on emerging challenges such as underwater noise and plastic pollution.

Read the outcome of PRESSURE 11-2019

How to make the most of manure

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Closed nutrient loop illustration from the handbook How to make the most of manure. © Manure Standards

In a bid to curb nutrient losses from agriculture, the root cause of eutrophication and algal blooms in the Baltic Sea, a handbook on smarter use of manure has been published this September by the Manure Standards project.

Targeted towards farmers and agricultural advisory organisations, the How to make the most of manure handbook provides hands-on and easy-to-read information on good manure management practices.

“Manure is a good natural fertilizer and valuable source of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, but we need to ensure that these stay on the fields and don’t enter the sea where they cause eutrophication,” said Kaisa Riiko, the HELCOM project coordinator at Manure Standards.

“The handbook will show farmers in an easy way how to best go about analysing, storing, spreading or dealing with excess manure,” she said.

The publication is part of the region’s wider effort to address eutrophication, currently the single largest pressure on the Baltic Sea.

According to a recent HELCOM report, 97 percent of the waterbody is affected by eutrophication, causing economic losses of up to EUR 4 billion per year in the region. Manure used in agriculture still remains a large source of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff to the sea.

At their Ministerial Meeting in 2018, HELCOM Contracting Parties therefore agreed to elaborate a Baltic Sea Regional Nutrient Recycling Strategy by 2020, to reduce nutrient loading to the Baltic by circulating the nutrients in a closed loop in the food chain.

Measures developed under the nutrient recycling strategy are also expected to be included in the updated Baltic Sea Action Plan.

Manure Standards, the publisher of the handbook, seeks to increase the capacity of farmers and other agricultural stakeholders to turn manure use towards improved sustainability and resource-efficiency.

Manure Standards is coordinated by Natural Resources Institute Finland and, besides HELCOM, includes partners from the nine Baltic Sea countries. The project is a flagship project of the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region Policy Area Bioeconomy and it is co-financed by the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme

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Download the How to make the most of manure handbook

HELCOM publishes report on noise sensitivity of animals in the Baltic Sea

The recently published HELCOM report “Noise sensitivity of animals in the Baltic Sea” shows how marine mammals, fish and diving birds may react to underwater sound in the Baltic Sea.

“In the past few years, HELCOM has been keen on understanding how underwater noise impacts the different Baltic Sea animal species,” said Marta Ruiz, the HELCOM expert on underwater noise and co-author of the report.

In 2013, the HELCOM members had agreed in Copenhagen that “the level of ambient and distribution of impulsive sounds in the Baltic Sea should not have negative impact on marine life.” The report is a direct response to that announcement.

A first at the Baltic Sea scale, the report identifies species which may be impacted by noise, based on the hearing sensitivity, threat status and commercial value of the animals as well as the impact of noise and the availability of data.

Seals and harbour porpoises are particularly affected by noise due to their high hearing sensitivity. These species rely heavily on hearing throughout their entire life such as for geolocation, communicating or mating, and excessive noise may lead to behavioural changes and physiological stress.

According to the report, “spatial distribution of a species is important when considering the potential risks of impacts from noise.” The report therefore provides a prioritized list of noise sensitive Baltic Sea species and highlights their distribution, to map biologically sensitive areas which also consider periods of biological significance for those species. These areas and the list of species are expected to be updated whenever more data becomes available.

Supported by the HELCOM coordinated and EU co-financed BalticBOOST project, the report is part of the flagship publication series of HELCOM, the Baltic Sea Environment Proceedings (BSEP) that have been running since the ratification of the first Helsinki Convention in 1980.

The HELCOM report “Noise sensitivity of animals in the Baltic Sea” is now publicly available as BSEP n° 167.

At PRESSURE 10-2019, the HELCOM group dealing with pressures on the Baltic Sea ploughs through nutrients, stormwater and microlitter

Nutrient reduction is central point of discussion at PRESSURE 10-2019.Kaliningrad city gets recommendation to be removed from HELCOM hotspot list because of reduction of nutrient inputs.

Expanded polystyrene will receive special attention from HELCOM. Nutrients, stormwater and microlitter were headlining the Tenth Meeting of HELCOM Working Group on Reduction of Pressures from the Baltic Sea Catchment Area (PRESSURE 10-2019) that was held in Tallinn from 9 to 12 April 2019.

High nutrient load from land-based sources – the central discussion point of PRESSURE 10-2019 – remains one of the largest pressures on the Baltic Sea, leading to eutrophication that causes growth of toxic algae and oxygen depletion.

At PRESSURE 10-2019, the delegates proposed to advance regional policy instruments to inspire additional efforts for minimizing this environmental pressure on the marine ecosystem. The proposals include further development of the and its follow up system, and of the HELCOM nutrient recycling strategy. will be key for curbing eutrophication.

Specifically, attention was directed to the effectiveness of implemented or planned measures to reduce nutrient load on the marine environment, as well as their sufficiency to achieve targets set by the Baltic Sea Action Plan. The delegates also agreed to intensify cooperation on nutrient reduction with river basin management authorities, for instance through workshops.

The alignment of nutrient reduction targets for river basins with the ones set for the marine environment was also foreseen as a tool for targeted measures to effectively decrease the nutrient load in the Baltic Sea.

The HELCOM delegates also welcomed the first official results from the newly commissioned waste water treatment plant in Kaliningrad. Two years of constant environmental monitoring showed that nutrient input to the Baltic Sea from the city of Kaliningrad was reduced by about 200 tonnes of phosphorus and 1200 tonnes of nitrogen annually.

Because of the improvement, the delegates of PRESSURE 10-2019 recommended to remove the Kaliningrad municipality from the HELCOM Hotspot list where it is currently listed.

“The HELCOM list of hot spots now stands a good chance to become shorter,” said Dmitry Frank-Kamenetsky, the Professional Secretary handling nutrient related issues at HELCOM. On stormwater, PRESSURE 10-2019 agreed to revise the related HELCOM Recommendation and to open it to reflections on microlitter and resilience to climate change.

Further on marine litter, Denmark presented a comprehensive study on expanded polystyrene (EPS) which is a widespread litter item found in the Baltic Sea. The delegates subsequently agreed to start work on regional measures to deal with EPS litter.

On underwater noise, PRESSURE 10-2019 agreed on the structure of the Action Plan on Underwater Noise which will be elaborated by 2020. The plan will specifically look into keeping marine habitats undisturbed by underwater noise.PRESSURE 10-2019 was hosted by the Ministry of the Environment of Estonia in Tallinn, and was chaired by Lars Sonesten, Chair of the .

Nutrients, stormwater and microlitter were headlining the Tenth Meeting of HELCOM Working Group on Reduction of Pressures from the Baltic Sea Catchment Area (PRESSURE 10-2019) that was held in Tallinn from 9 to 12 April 2019.

SuMaNu, a new regional project platform on nutrient management gets launched at HELCOM

SuMaNu partners meet in Helsinki from 23 to 24 October 2018 for the platform’s kick-off meeting.As part of the Baltic Sea region’s efforts to thwart eutrophication and its causes, the project platform “Sustainable manure and nutrient management for reduction of nutrient loss in the Baltic Sea Region” (SuMaNu) had its kick-off meeting at the HELCOM Secretariat in Helsinki from 23 to 24 October 2018.The  seeks to address excess nutrient loading – the main cause of eutrophication in the Baltic Sea – through more efficient management of nutrients, with a special focus on manure. A large share of the nutrient load in the Baltic Sea stems from agriculture. SuMaNu aims at promoting positive attitudes and best practices for a more efficient management of nutrients and the use of manure, notably to minimize leaks into watercourses and the Baltic Sea. The platform will gather and synthesize the best practices and recommendations on sustainable nutrient management from the existing projects of  (MS),  (BSA),  (GA) and  (PR). The intended beneficiaries of the project are national authorities and policy implementors such as agricultural and environmental ministries, regional policy makers such as HELCOM and EU bodies handling environmental matters, as well as farmers, farm advisors and other agricultural stakeholders.SuMaNu will build upon the results of previous manure-related projects, to provide holistic recommendations on nutrient and manure management, to ensure they are useful for both policy making and at the farm level.The results will also feed into the update process of the , HELCOM’s strategic tool for a healthy Baltic Sea. The outcomes will also support the elaboration of the Baltic Sea Regional Nutrient Recycling Strategy by 2020. Lead by the  (Luke), the partners of the platform are HELCOM, the  (BSAG), the  (ECRI), the  (ZSA), the , the  (CDR), the  (JKI), and the  (RISE).The  (Policy Areas Bioeconomy and Nutri), the  (CBSS) and the (ESPP) are associate partners.The project platform is co-financed by the EU’s .

As part of the Baltic Sea region’s efforts to thwart eutrophication and its causes, the platform “Sustainable manure and nutrient management for reduction of nutrient loss in the Baltic Sea Region” (SuMaNu) had its kick-off meeting at HELCOM.

HELCOM publishes reports on hazardous substances and input of nutrients to the Baltic Sea through the region biggest rivers

​HELCOM recently published two reports on hazardous substances and inputs of nutrients through the seven biggest rivers in the Baltic Sea region. The reports show the results from the  project that carries out pollution load assessment of the Baltic Sea from waterborne, diffuse and natural sources.”Both reports provide valuable information for assessing progress in reaching the HELCOM  (BSAP) reduction targets for hazardous substances and nutrients,” said Dmitry Frank-Kamenetsky, the HELCOM Professional Secretary handling matters related to hazardous substances and nutrient inputs. The first report, , presents the findings on heavy metals cadmium, mercury and lead, as well as atmospheric deposition of selected organic pollutants, pharmaceutical residues, and persistent organic pollutants – chemicals that can’t biodegrade or take a long time to do so.According to the report, the inputs of heavy metals and organic pollutants are on the decline overall. On the other hand, pharmaceuticals and persistent organic pollutants are already causing apprehension, despite having been added only recently to the assessment.  released to the Baltic Sea through wastewater treatment could amount to 1800 tonnes per year. Some of these residues have already been detected in various compounds of the Baltic Sea ecosystem.Nonylphenols, octylphenols and PFOS – persistent organic pollutants which are mainly used for treating metals and textile products, and as flame retardants – were particularly identified as of high concern by the HELCOM countries. Some of these chemicals can disrupt the hormonal balance in living organisms. The second report published by HELCOM, , highlights the inputs of nitrogen and phosphorous to the sea from the Daugava, Gota, Nemunas, Neva, Oder, Tornio and Vistula. These rivers cover about half of the Baltic Sea catchment area. 55 million people inhabit this region, leading to high man-made, or anthropogenic, pressure. The nutrient loads are highest in the southern catchments, where population is densest and agricultural activity is intense.  According to , the riverine inputs of total nitrogen and total phosphorus contribute about 80 percent and over 90 percent to the total input of these nutrients respectively. The report emphasizes the importance of measures in upstream parts of river basins, including transboundary parts, to reduce nutrient loads and achieve the environmental targets set by the .Over-supply of nitrogen and phosphorous remains the lead cause for  and the growth of algae in the Baltic Sea.Download the reports: (.pdf) (.pdf)

HELCOM recently published two reports on hazardous substances and inputs of nutrients through the seven biggest rivers in the Baltic Sea region. The reports show the results from the HELCOM Pollution Load Compilation (PLC) project.