Baltic ecology is recovering, but more work on pollution reduction is needed

Improved water quality in the Baltic Sea means that seal populations have recovered to such an extent that they may face a limited cull next year in order to protect fisheries, but further pollution cuts still need to be achieved in order to protect the ecology of the sea, according to experts on Baltic Sea conservation.

At the biannual nature conservation and coastal zone management meeting of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM), known as the Helsinki Commission, held in Latvia, the clashing demands of nature and society were addressed. Among the agreements reached was an arrangement between HELCOM and the International Baltic Sea Fishery Commission (IBSFC) to hold a workshop in Warsaw, Poland, at the beginning of next year in order to discuss subjects such as dwindling stocks of commercially important fish, including cod, salmon, sprat and herring, and persisting problems of both known and unknown contaminants. By-catch and habitat degradation by some fishing practices, such as bottom-trawling, will also be examined at the meeting, says the Commission.

“The dialogue could be a test case for successful regional co-operation between fisheries and environmental bodies, and interesting in the light of the new EU Fisheries Directive that will be ratified next year,” said Henning von Nordheim, Chairman of the HELCOM Habitat group.

The integration of conflicting interests of society in the use and protection of the Baltic Sea is becoming a central challenge for the Helsinki Commission, it says. Problems can no longer be addressed purely through pollution legislation, which tends to only control urban industry, but needs to involve activities throughout the coastal zone, both on the land and in the water, Kjell Grip, from the Nature Conservation and Coastal Zone Management group, told edie. As a result of this, HELCOM contracting parties have agreed to implement a process of integrated coastal zone management, which will include sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fishing, but will also include development activities such as the placing of wind turbines or new harbours.

“For example, in agriculture, the farmers use different agricultural practices,” said Grip. “These practices are related to fertilisers, and how they are sowing and ploughing. How they carry these out relates to how pollution goes into the sea.” The Commission needs to work with the agriculture sector in order to change the attitudes of individual farmers, explained Grip, with the same applying for other sectors.

At the group’s next meeting in six month’s time, ideas will be discussed on how to proceed with integrated coastal zone management, although the process will be considerably speeded up by the publication of the European Union guidelines on coastal management later this year, said Grip.

With regard to the conservation of marine habitats, national nature conservation experts from all the Baltic Sea states reconfirmed their commitment to implement a network of 62 protected areas agreed on in 1994. However, so far only Lithuania has legally protected all of its proposed Baltic Sea Protected Areas, although a number of other countries have protected some sites.

However, primarily due to its own work, according to the Helsinki Commission, improved water quality in the Baltic Sea (see related story) has meant that populations of harbour seals, grey seals, and, to a lesser extent, ringed seals have grown. Unfortunately, this population growth has corresponded with increasing reports from fishermen of damage to fishing gear and catch due to grey and harbour seals feeding on trapped fish. As a result, HELCOM delegates discussed changing the current recommendations on the protection of seals by next year, which could include a restricted and clearly regulated hunting of grey seals in some parts of the Baltic Sea. Nevertheless, the overall situation of health problems among Baltic seals due to pollution still remains, with reproductive dysfunction among females still common, according to the Commission.

The Helsinki Commission is an intergovernmental co-operation between Denmark, Estonia, the European Community, Finland, Germany Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, and Sweden.

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