After several years in the making, HOLAS 3 thematic assessments on the state of the Baltic Sea have been published, covering the period of 2016–2021. The thematic assessments are part of the third HELCOM holistic assessment (HOLAS 3), providing a holistic view of the Baltic Sea ecosystem health.
The holistic approach highlights the interconnectedness of various environmental factors and their impact on the ecosystem. The five assessment reports each focus on a specific topic, addressing the state of biodiversity, environmental pressures, eutrophication, and the relationship between humanity and nature. The findings offer valuable insights for policymakers, scientists, and stakeholders alike.
The results of HOLAS 3 have been published in stages, commencing in March 2023, and the process will culminate in the publication of the summary report State of the Baltic Sea, expected at the end of October 2023.
A comprehensive holistic assessment on the state of the Baltic Sea is conducted once every six years. The reports result from collaborative efforts among HELCOM member states, scientific experts, and organizations dedicated to the protection of the Baltic Sea. They serve as a cornerstone of HELCOM’s work and policymaking, assisting in the monitoring of the implementation and the effectiveness of the Baltic Sea Action Plan(BSAP).
The recently updated online tool HELCOM Explorer allows to easily see how HELCOM cooperation bears fruit, and how the countries’ actions are being fulfilled when reaching the majority of their ambitious HELCOM targets and the ultimate goal: Baltic Sea in good ecological state.
The actions listed in the Explorer include the entire updated Baltic Sea Action Plan (2021), HELCOM Ministerial Meeting commitments from 2010 onwards as well as selected HELCOM Recommendations. The updated BSAP contains 199 concrete actions and measures addressing biodiversity, eutrophication, hazardous substances, and sea-based activities such as shipping and fisheries. In addition, it includes new actions on emerging or previously less highlighted pressures such as climate change, marine litter, pharmaceuticals, underwater noise, and seabed disturbance.
“As the HELCOM Explorer provides a comprehensive overview and a great amount of information on both joint and national actions, with easy filtering tools, it is quite a unique system in regional marine governance. Moreover, it is a very concrete indicator of transparency for our stakeholders and to the broader audiences”, says Rüdiger Strempel, Executive Secretary of HELCOM.
Joint actions are carried out together by all HELCOM Contracting Parties, for example creating a new Recommendation, joint management guidelines, or assessments of environmental status. National actions are implemented at the country level, and they include e.g. incorporating the provisions of a HELCOM Recommendation into relevant national legislation or guidelines.
The Explorer allows for easy overview browsing, but also for more detailed filtering, according to the details of the actions in the Baltic Sea Action Plan such as segment, theme, or target year. The tool further provides information on why the action is needed (rationale), what pressures or activities are addressed by the action in question, and, for some, what is the potential effect of the measure to reduce pressures or improve the state of the Baltic Sea. All data is available for download.
The HELCOM Explorer tool to track the progress on the implementation of HELCOM commitments was first launched in 2016, and the interface was updated in 2020.
The reporting on the implementation of the joint actions is done by relevant HELCOM Working Groups and the reporting on the national actions by the countries. The first reporting on the implementation of actions in the 2021 BSAP is planned to take place in 2025, followed by the second reporting round in 2029.
Associate Professional Secretary
About the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP)
The Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) is HELCOM’s strategic programme of measures and actions for achieving good environmental status of the sea, ultimately leading to a Baltic Sea in a healthy state.
Initially adopted by the HELCOM Contracting Parties in 2007, the 2021 BSAP is based on the original plan and maintains the same level of ambition. It also retains all actions previously agreed on that are still to be implemented, while, in addition, includes new actions to strengthen the existing efforts and tackle emerging concerns.
Guided by the HELCOM vision of “a healthy Baltic Sea environment with diverse biological components functioning in balance, resulting in a good ecological status and supporting a wide range of sustainable economic and social activities”, the updated BSAP is divided into four segments with specific goals: biodiversity, eutrophication, hazardous substances and sea-based activities.
About HELCOM Recommendations
One of the most important duties of the Helsinki Commission is to make Recommendations on measures to address certain pollution sources or areas of concern. Since the beginning of the 1980s HELCOM has adopted some 260 HELCOM Recommendations for the protection of the Baltic Sea. The implementation of various HELCOM recommendations by the HELCOM Contracting Parties plays an important role in achieving the objectives of the Baltic Sea Action Plan. The HELCOM Explorer covers the reporting on the implementation status of selected HELCOM Recommendations.
The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission – also known as the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) – is an intergovernmental organization (IGO) and a regional sea convention in the Baltic Sea area, consisting of ten members: the nine Baltic Sea countries Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden, plus the European Union. A platform for environmental policy making at the regional level, HELCOM works for a healthy Baltic Sea. Its mandate stems from a regional treaty, the Helsinki Convention, whose implementation it oversees. The HELCOM Secretariat is located in Helsinki, Finland.
To improve on the quality of monitoring data in the Baltic Sea, an intercalibration of analyzing methods of nutrients and heavy metals was recently carried out involving 22 laboratories across the region. The results were published in a report.
“For accurate Baltic-wide assessments of nutrient and metal concentrations, intercalibration between laboratories is crucial as it guarantees the compatibility of reported data, basically allowing us to compare apples with apples,” said Dmitry Frank-Kamenetsky, the coordinator of the HELCOM Pollution Load Compilation (PLC) projects.
HELCOM now regularly organizes intercalibration campaigns at the beginning of each PLC project, to assure compatibility of reported data regarding nutrients and heavy metals. The latest campaign was already the third of its kind.
“The more we intercalibrate, the better data we get,” said Frank-Kamenetsky. “The good results of the recent intercalibration exercise confirm the trend of a continuous improvement of environmental monitoring data produced by the HELCOM countries.”
A revised full version of the HELCOM Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter (RAP ML) was presented at PRESSURE 14-2021. Based on the initial plan that was adopted in 2015 and incorporating the lessons learnt from all previous implementation efforts, the updated version is due to be adopted in October 2021 during the HELCOM Ministerial Meeting 2021, alongside the new Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP).
PRESSURE 14-2021 further recognized the successful implementation of some of the actions under the current RAP ML, notably on including HELCOM guidelines on marine litter in national and local waste prevention and waste management plans, as well as sharing best practices on waste management.
Other completed actions under the RAP ML include the development of best practices on the disposal of scrapped pleasure boats and handling of expanded polystyrene, the identification of key practical aspects of prevention of litter, and the retrieval and the management of ghost nets, among others.
On underwater noise, a factor affecting species that are reliant on hearing, such as harbour porpoises, seals and some species of fish, wide support was expressed for the draft Regional Action Plan on Underwater Noise that is currently under development. The plan is due to be adopted with the BSAP later this year, along with an accompanying HELCOM Recommendation.
PRESSURE 14-2021 further developed recommendations on the regional policy document on hazardous substances that provides guidance on the upcoming HELCOM framework for hazardous substances. The framework is being developed to provide a more efficient and future-proof response to threats to the marine environment stemming from hazardous substances, especially from new chemicals.
During the meeting, the topics of physical damage to the seafloor, the next HELCOM holistic assessment (HOLAS III), the update of the Baltic Sea Action Plan, eutrophication and issues pertaining to nutrients such as the Nutrient Recycling Strategy and the HELCOM framework on internal nutrient load management were also discussed.
The meeting was attended by all HELCOM Contracting Parties and observers from Coalition Clean Baltic (CCB), Baltic Farmers’ Forum on Environment (BFFE), the Federation of European Aquaculture Producers (FEAP), European Federation of National Associations of Water and Wastewater Services (EurEau), Race for the Baltic, and John Nurminen Foundation, as well as by invited guest from Baltic Nest Institute (BNI) and the City of Helsinki.
Building on the existing plan, the updated BSAP is expected to maintain and adapt the current structure and segments that seek to reflect the pressures stemming from land (“Eutrophication” and “Hazardous substances and litter”) and from our activities at sea (“Sea-based activities”) as well as the state of the environment (“Biodiversity and ecosystems”).
In addition, the updated plan is due to feature a segment on horizontal actions having an incidence on the four main segments. These are climate change, monitoring, maritime spatial planning, economic and social analysis, and financing.
Furthermore, all measures and actions contained in the new plan are intended to be implemented by 2030 at the latest.
The updated BSAP is expected to be adopted by the Ministers of the HELCOM Contracting Parties during the HELCOM Ministerial Meeting that will be held in Lübeck, Germany on 20 October 2021.
With its set of targets for protecting biodiversity and reducing the pressures affecting the Baltic, as well as its number of concrete measures, the BSAP remains one of the most effective instruments for achieving the HELCOM ecological objectives, offering a long-term vision and strategic orientation for attaining good environmental status in the Baltic.
The original plan, adopted in 2007, can be credited with significantly reducing inputs of nutrients and hazardous substances, improving the protection of biodiversity, and boosting cleaner and safer shipping practices.
At HOD 59-2020, the decision-makers also approved a draft of the HELCOM Science Agenda that is meant to support the implementation of the BSAP and other HELCOM processes, by identifying the scientific knowledge needs related to the Baltic marine environment and which are foreseen to surface in the next 10 years.
Meant to be launched alongside the new BSAP, the first draft of the Baltic Sea Regional Nutrient Recycling Strategywas also presented during the meeting. In a bid to curb eutrophication, the strategy seeks to minimize the run-off of nutrients, stemming mainly from agricultural sources such as fertilizers, to the Baltic Sea by keeping them in a closed loop.
More good news: the Heads of Delegation announced the removal of HELCOM Hot Spot n°42, the Riga wastewater treatment plant (WWTP), from its list of pollution sites.
More than EUR 200 million were invested in the plant over the last 20 years, leading to a significant reduction of the discharges of nutrients and hazardous substances to the Baltic via the Lielupe river. The WWTP is now complying with EU regulations and almost fully meets the more stringent HELCOM targets on water purification.
The Riga WWTP had been added to the list of significant pollution sites due to insufficient treatment of wastewater and a large share of untreated municipal wastewater being released to the environment.
The HELCOM Heads of Delegation further approved the draft of a key regional instrument for fighting pollution incidents at sea, the Joint Inter-Regional Marine HNS Response Manual which will replace the current HELCOM Response Manual Volume II. A guideline for addressing and coordinating response to major accidents such as oil or chemical spills, the manual is expected to be adopted during the next meeting of the Helsinki Commission in March 2021.
The procedure is supported by an online decision tool that gives shipping professionals a quick overview of the risk of introducing non-indigenous species (NIS) through ballast water between two ports. Co-developed with OSPAR and recently updated, the tool covers both the North and Baltic Seas.
The collaboration between HELCOM and OSPAR comes at a time when both organizations are actively seeking to strengthen their partnership, a fact particularly welcomed during HOD 59-2020.
Chaired by Germany, HOD 59-2020 was attended by participants from all Contracting Parties, by Observers from Baltic Farmers’ Forum on Environment (BFFE), Baltic Sea Advisory Council (BSAC), Baltic Sea Parliamentary Conference (BSPC), Baltic Sea States Subregional Co-operation (BSSSC) & CPMR Baltic Sea Commission, Coalition Clean Baltic (CCB), Cruise Lines International Association Europe (CLIA Europe), Federation of European Aquaculture Producers (FEAP), Global Water Partnership Central and Eastern Europe and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and by invited guests.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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