The Baltic Sea – is it getting better or worse?

Some two weeks after the visit to Kalmar, Briggen Tre Kronor and Hållbara Hav hosted a rewarding seminar about the current status of the Baltic Sea. ”Is it getting better or worse?” was the intriguing title. The question requires quite complex answers, but still the different speakers gave hope to the audience. The status of the Baltic Sea is critical, but in the long run it is certainly possible to make the sick sea healthy again.

Central Stockholm - the home harbour of Briggen Tre Kronor and the Hållbara Hav premises.
Central Stockholm – the home harbour of Briggen Tre Kronor and the Hållbara Hav premises.

To begin with, the wonderful location of the brig´s home harbour and the Hållbara Hav premises brings hope and inspiration. Furthest out on Kastellholmen, right at the entrance from the Baltic Sea into central Stockholm, the site couldn’t be prettier – especially not on a warm and sunny September day like this. The beautiful sight really makes you feel the urging need to cure the sea and its surroundings. And Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Victoria, agrees. Being the protector of the Hållbara Hav Initiative she took part in the seminar, which was also broadcasted by Sveriges Television.

Coffe break with Crown Princess Victoria in the centre.
Coffe break with Crown Princess Victoria in the centre.

The event was moderated by Folke Rydén, a journalist and film maker who took on the Baltic Sea situation some seven years ago, after many years of reporting about environmental disasters far away on other places on earth. ”Suddenly I asked myself what right I had to put the blame far away as long as we have this ecological mess right around the corner.”

Folke skilfully guided the audience through four themes: the eutrophication, the fish, the chemicals and the birds. One expert and a panel of each theme provided facts and discussion on their respective areas.

Bo Gustafsson, docent from the Baltic Sea Center at Stockholm University, started up with a graph showing the nutrition leakage (nitrogen and phosphorus) from the river Oder during 100 years. ”We have destroyed the Baltic Sea during 100 years. It may take 100 years to restore it – but it is worth waiting for, I think,” he commented.

Bo Gustafsson explained the complex ”budget” of import respective export of nitrogen and phosphorus, resulting in a net amount of which 25 percent is leaking out into the sea. Comparing the leakage from different countries, calculated per square kilometre, he could show that Denmark, with its extensive agricultural industry, is ”in the lead”. But he could also show that Denmark has decreased its leakage heavily during the past 20 years, while the leakage from Poland has increased. ”Denmark has been somewhat a pioneer in reducing the leakage of nitrogen and phosphorus and we may have things to learn from them.”

Bo Gustafsson warned about some trends in the South Baltic area which may increase eutrophication. ”Increased consumption of meat, increased cultivation of bioenergy crops and rapid, structural changes in land use are some of these threats”, he stated.

Still Bo Gustafsson ended up in noticing that nutrition leakage, after all, has decreased during the past 20 years and that we, with a bit of luck, may already have seen the culmination of algal blooming.

The fish theme of the seminar was introduced by Joakim Hjelm, researcher from the SLU Marine Fish Laboratory in Lysekil. He started up with the well known problem of the over-expansive cod fishing, resulting in an increased population of sprats and sprats eating a lot of zooplankton, ending up in increased volumes of phytoplankton. ”So, how we fish may also give symptoms of eutrophication”, commented Johan.

He underlined that the administration of fishery can change the access of fish spieces quite rapidly and that the measures taken need to vary between different parts of the sea, in line with varying conditions of nature. Joakim explained that although the volumes of cod in the Baltic Sea have increased heavily during the last years, the single cods are very small, resulting in the fact that as much as 20-90 per cent of the full catches of fish is being thrown away. In this context, Joakim Hjelm pointed at next year´s new rules about how to enter the landing of fish into the books. ”There is an obvious risk that the logbooks will not be 100 percent trustworthy when the fishermen have to account for their full catches.”

The panel discussing fish included Lisa Emelia Svensson, Ambassador of Sea and Water at the Ministry of Environment, Johan Cejie, Sales Manager from KRAV and Inger Näslund, Expert on Marine and Fish issues at WWF. They gave some advice to the public regarding the relation to fish: ”Change a bit of your attitudes and eat more small fish, remember the mussels too, claim certification and buy fish marked by MSC or KRAV.”

Anna Beronius, PhD in medical science at ITM/Stockholm University, told us the alarming facts about chemicals circulating in the sea – and thus in our bodies and general environment. In 3000 analyses she and her colleagues have detected a little more than 300 different ones – but there are totally 30 000-50 000 around. ”The good news is that we have managed to decrease the well known ones – dioxin, PCB, DDT, led – quite significantly. The bad news is that substances affecting our hormones are very much around and the volumes of heavy metals are still varying.”

The hormone-affecting substances and new nano materials may cause complex effects, of which many may not show until several years have passed. ”Subtle effects, like long-term changes in our brains may be difficult to spot”, explains Anna.

Still she keeps good hope in the fact that massive research is going on to fill the gaps of knowledge and that legislation against substances like led, PCB, etc, really has had good effects. ”As a private person I buy ecologic food, cosmetics and detergents without perfume and I´m diligent in hoovering, as dust contain a lot of chemicals.”

Martin Green, PhD from Lund University, concluded the seminar by giving a review of the bird-life in and around the Baltic Sea. He referred to mappings of 32 spieces of water fowls from 1980 and forward. The result show that almost half of them have decreased in numbers, while 40 per cent have increased. The ones who have increased are those feeding on vegetables. From birds feeding on animals, the eider is an example of one which has decreased heavily in numbers. ”It is alarming to notice how well that graph corresponds to the graph describing the supplying of nitrogen”, comments Martin.

So in the perspective of bird-life, is it getting better or worse? According to Martin Green the answer is both. ”Bird-life is a good indicator, but on a scale of 10 my worries for the birds stops at 3-4, while my worries for the Baltic Sea generally is up to 9-10.”

After all, Folke Rydén and the President of Hållbara Hav, Göran Lindstedt, concluded the seminar in hope. Hope referring to good examples and possibilities mentioned during the seminar and to the fact that the audience will go home and spread the knowledge about good examples and possibilities further.

Göran Lindstedt quoted Samuel, 7 years old: ”The future has already started.”


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