Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission

 

Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission

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. 

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.

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).

HELCOM body advocates smarter use of nutrients in agriculture to curb eutrophication

Smarter use of nutrients in agriculture will be key to curb eutrophication in the Baltic Sea, as was emphasized during the last meeting of the HELCOM Group on Sustainable Agricultural Practices (HELCOM Agri) that took place in Berlin, Germany from 5 to 6 November 2019.

Consisting of representatives from environmental and agricultural stakeholders such as national authorities, industry associations and NGOs, the HELCOM Agri group primarily aims at reducing the nutrient inputs from agriculture to the Baltic. Excessive nutrient concentrations in the sea remain the lead cause for eutrophication and toxic algal blooms.

The group is currently revising the Annex to the Helsinki Convention that sets legally binding requirements for sustainable practices of agricultural production for all Contracting Parties to the Helsinki Convention.

Growing ammonia emissions, regularly reported by the European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP), and their subsequent deposition of nitrogen in the Baltic Sea are of particular scrutiny to the group as agriculture is the main source of emission of this gas.

The group compiled information on measures to reduce ammonia emissions which can be applied in agricultural practices, revealing that only a few of them have been implemented in almost all Baltic Sea countries.

“Ammonia emissions could be reduced through improved management of manure and better agricultural practices such as covering manure storage facilities, as well as injection and fast incorporation of manure to soils,” said Susanna Kaasinen, the project manager handling agriculture at HELCOM.

The group agreed that the currently valid HELCOM Recommendation on reduction of ammonia emissions is outdated, does not reflect modern state of scientific knowledge and is to be revised.

The group is also promoting smart nutrient management in the HELCOM countries by developing the Baltic Sea Regional Nutrient Recycling Strategy with the aim to close nutrient loops, return these valuable components to the food production and minimize their losses to the aquatic environment.

To advance smart nutrient management – one of the pillars of sustainable agriculture – the group has drafted HELCOM Recommendation on the use of national manure standards. 

In Berlin, the Agri group also elected its new Chair, Ms Sari Luostarinen, a senior research scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke).

Read the outcome of the AGRI 8-2019 meeting

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