Bad News Blooms in the Baltic Can a New Cleanup Plan Save the Sea?

The Baltic Sea is sick. From massive algae blooms to an invasion of dangerous jellyfish, the sea may soon be too polluted for both the fishing industry and for vacationers -- unless a new pollution control plan is successful.
Von Patrick McGroarty

The news brought back to port by the Aranda was not good. First, the 59-meter (194-foot) research vessel happened across an invasive species of jellyfish in the eastern Gulf of Finland -- the same creature already responsible for decimating fisheries in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

Second -- and more concerning -- the Helsinki-based ship found rising levels of phosphorous in the waters off Poland and Russia. Phosphorous is a by-product of agricultural runoff and human waste -- and it's a warning that massive, deadly algae blooms could be on the horizon.

The ship cruises the Baltic Sea on behalf of the Finnish Institute of Marine Research, monitoring the sea's vital signs. For years they have not been good, with fisheries suffering, pollution rampant and algae at times spreading out of control. Last month, though, the countries on the shores of the northern European sea got together to sign a treaty to do something about it. Called the Baltic Sea Action Plan, the accord follows years of efforts at bringing Baltic Sea pollution under control -- including a similar effort launched in Russia to curtail untreated wastewater reaching the sea from the densely populated region around St. Petersburg.

The Aranda, though, has found that phosphorous levels have continued to go up. "It is very important to monitor if these efforts have had any effect," Dr. Markku Viitasalo, a leading scientist at the Finnish Institute of Marine Research, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And the answer is, not yet."

According to recent statistics gathered by the Helsinki Commission (Helcom), a 10-member organization that has been seeking to improve the Baltic Sea's health since 1974, some 730,000 tons of nitrogen and 36,300 tons of phosphorous make their way into the sea each year through a combination of human sewage, agricultural and industrial runoff, and airborne pollution. It's enough to trigger blue-green algae blooms massive enough to choke out the oxygen that sustains marine life.

Not only that, but there is a vast quantity of industrial waste  strewn about on the floor of the Baltic Sea. Thousands of tons of chemical weapons were dumped into the sea following World War II, and waste from heavy industry was poured into the water as well. In August 2006, some 23,000 barrels of mercury were found on the sea floor off the coast of Sweden. There are also fears that the construction of a planned natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany may stir up some of the heavily toxic waste resting on the sea floor.

"The Baltic Sea is one of the most polluted seas in the world," Juhu-Markku Leppänen, a Baltic Sea habitat expert with Helcom, told SPIEGEL ONLINE last year. Fifty years ago, he says, dumping industrial waste into the sea "was really considered at the time to be good environmental practice."

Now, though, the race is on to help the sea recover before the Baltic dies completely. The new plan outlines a range of measures to help stave off pollution and restore the sea to a state of "good ecological status" by 2021. The plan gives each of the Baltic's nine border nations (the European Community is the 10th Helcom member) an individual pollution reduction target. If each country reaches their target by 2021, 135,000 fewer tons of nitrogen and 15,250 fewer tons of phosphorous would flow into the sea each year.

Other major objectives in the plan aim at protecting the sea from pollution caused by heavy shipping traffic and guarding marine stocks against overfishing. Indeed, the Baltic Sea fishery is of particular concern, with cod catches having fallen drastically in recent years and many other species likewise facing uncertain futures.

Implementation of the 101-page plan, passed in late November, will begin next year with a fundraising conference. A committee will also be set up to help each Baltic coastal nation draft an individual action plan by 2010.

Many, though, wonder if the plan might be a case of too little too late. Findings like those from the Aranda last week have led some scientists to question the effort's chances for success. And previous plans have seen only limited effectiveness, although the sea is no longer an industrial dumping ground.

Proponents, however, insist that obtaining "good ecological status" by 2021 is a reasonable target. Anne Christine Brusendorff, Helcom's executive secretary, argues that the plan may not restore the sea to the pristine ecological conditions that existed prior to the 20th century, but that it could ensure the sea's status as a viable shipping corridor, tourist attraction, and fishing ground. She speaks of an investment in "environmental development."

"The Baltic that we want to obtain is healthy enough to guarantee that we will still be able to carry out various sustainable economic activities, such as fishing, shipping and recreation," Brusendorff told SPIEGEL ONLINE. She added that the main indicator of progress would be water clarity, which is seriously degraded by blue-green algae blooms.

While runoff from farms in Poland and cities in Russia are main sources of dirty Baltic water, pollution from other countries is also damaging, and often more difficult to control. In Sweden, for example, sparse coastal settlements and vacation homes not connected to sewage systems are discharging human waste directly into the sea.

"We knew before this plan was finished that we have problems with individual eutrophication contributions" -- a reference to chemical nutrients, like those containing nitrogen or phosphorous, that dramatically improve conditions for algae -- "especially in the archipelago around Stockholm where there are a lot of people living and vacationing," said Ulla-Brita Fallenius, a Swedish delegate to Helcom and a researcher with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

Sweden has been asked to reduce its annual nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 20,000 and 300 tons, respectively. Fallenius said that runoff from coastal and vacation homes presents a unique challenge because unlike building a central sewer system, each home would have to be retrofitted individually at a cost of between €10,000 and €20,000 ($14,400 and $28,800) each.

"We are working very hard on it, but it's very expensive compared to other measures because we have to do that on a local level," she said.

The challenges aren't just limited to Sweden . Germany proudly points to current policies expected to drastically reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff by 2021. Nevertheless, the country is responsible for a significant chunk of the 25 percent of eutrophic compounds that reach the sea through airborne emissions. Heike Imhoff, head of the German delegation to Helcom and a staff member at the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, admits that Germany -- the world's sixth-largest producer of greenhouse gases -- needs to improve.

Berlin, however, has made a major push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet approved a €3.3 billion plan  at the beginning of December to cut the country's emissions by 40 percent by 2020. Merkel has tried to position Germany as an international leader when it comes to combating climate change.

Imhoff hopes that Germany takes on a similar role when it comes to Baltic Sea pollution -- for example, on tougher emissions regulations for ships that enter the Baltic. "It is of course important what kind of country proposes something like that and becomes the lead party of such a movement," she says.

She also expressed hope that Germany might use its clout when it comes to European fishing regulations. The European Union sets catch limits each December, and they have generally been higher than levels considered sustainable by scientists and environmental groups. According to Imhoff, the fishing industry in Germany is beginning to support stricter EU fishing regulations. They are beginning to recognize, Imhoff suggested, that without stricter rules, the source of their livelihood may disappear completely.

But fish in the Baltic face threats from more than just anglers. Mnemiopsis leidyi, the species of comb jellyfish that the Aranda found in the Baltic last week, likely made its way there in the ballast water of huge ships from its native waters off the coast of North and South America. That is the route the jellyfish took to the Black Sea and Caspian Sea -- before decimating those fisheries almost completely. Viitasalo said with regret that no policy recommended by the action plan would do anything to stop the jellyfish's progress in the Baltic.

"How do you evaluate this? What is the threat? The threat is that the entire sea becomes disturbed and unpleasant," said Viitasalo. Yet all hope is not lost. Portions of the action plan that address eutrophication and shipping, he said, could be the beginning of policy reforms that would help the sea recover. "I would say that this is already a small revolution in the thinking and it’s the right way ahead," he said.