Water quality of Baltic Sea has improved since 1980

The quality of the water in the Baltic Sea has improved since 1980 as a result of the billions of Euros invested by countries bordering the sea, although the levels of some toxins are still of concern, according to a new report on the state of the Baltic.

The Fourth Periodic Assessment of the State of the Marine environment of the Baltic Sea, 1994-1998, launched by the Helsinki Commission on March 22, reports that, in general, water quality in coastal areas has been enhanced (see related story). Improvements include a reduction in DDT by over 90%, and diminishing levels of mercury and lead, which have resulted in the white tailed sea eagle reproducing as successfully as it did before 1950, and the guillemot being able to produce eggs with shells as thick as they were 25 years ago.

Phosphorus inputs have also been reduced due to improved sewage and wastewater treatment, although the water in the Baltic Sea is still less transparent than it was 50 years ago, indicating continued nutrient overload.

However, contaminants such as PCBs and dioxins remain at high levels within the food chain, with the result that many female seals are still unable to produce pups, and cadmium levels in herring have climbed for, as yet, unknown reasons. There is also concern over a growing number of unknown contaminants which are causing Baltic fish, whose populations are already strained by over-fishing, to produce two to three times more detoxifying enzymes than before. Shipping is also continuing to illegally discharge wastes into the Baltic Sea, with no significant drop in the number of oil slicks.

Based on the report, representatives of the European Union, and from the governments of the countries bordering the Baltic Sea, namely Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden, have adopted four recommendations aimed at protecting the marine environment:

  • proper disposal of household and electrical goods, and batteries, with ships disposing of wastes in an appropriate manner before leaving port;
  • the phasing in of on-board toilet retention systems, instead of flushing sewage into the sea from pleasure boats and other small craft;
  • harmonised principles for waste delivery and management; and
  • mechanical combat of oil spills, to cut down on the use of chemical absorbents and dispersants.

The Helsinki Commission has highlighted a number of priorities for future action. One of the most pressing tasks, according to the Commission, is the phasing out of hazardous substances, which will necessitate the investigation and identification of currently unknown sources of pollution, particularly cadmium. There also needs to be a reduction of the nitrogen input from ships, which makes up 12-20% of the total nitrogen deposition into the sea. Finally, there also needs to be a strengthening of the personal, organisational and financial capacities of the Baltic Sea states, in order to allow the efficient implementation of the decisions taken by the Commission. This can be achieved partly through the development of new funding mechanisms and the involvement of public private partnerships.

The Fourth Periodic Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea, 1994-1998 was written in collaboration with 150 scientists from the region, and will now form the basis for future activities of the coastal states concerning the Baltic marine environment.

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