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.