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The Baltic Sea sends warning signals

BRUSSELS – The Council of the European Union acknowledges that the current environmental  situation of the Baltic Sea is critical. It is considered to be one of the most polluted seas in the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), seven of the ten world’s largest marine dead zones are found in the Baltic Sea.

By Agne Grineviciute

“Poland is considered as the biggest polluter especially referring to phosphorus and nitrogen and thus contributing to the eutrophication,” acknowledges Anna Marzec, WWF representative in Poland. Eutrophication is probably the biggest threat to the Baltic Sea biodiversity because it encourages the growth of algae. The algae consumes oxygen, so that many species of fish and fauna suffer from the lack of oxygen.

Hopes for Poland

During the Baltic Sea Action summit in Helsinki last February, Poland has made some commitments. For example, to invest eight billion euros in wastewater management and to ban phosphates in Polish detergents by 2014. Anna Marzec explains:

“This process is still ongoing. But we still do not have, for example, legal phosphates ban, and we won’t have it earlier than it will be adopted for the entire EU. Polish ports are also not yet prepared to receive and treat waste water from ships.”

Interestingly, the European Commission’s proposal banning phosphates and phosphorus compounds in laundry detergents as well as domestic dishwashers and domestic washing machines was approved in the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee in June.

“On the 14th of November The Permanent Representatives Committee and the Council of Ministers also agreed with this proposal, with only two member states voting against,” says Bill Newton Dunn, the European Parliament’s (EP) rapporteur. But he also adds that the next stage is that the EP will have to vote to confirm this agreement in the mid-December plenary session and that the Council must also vote in favor.

“The most significant consequence of the Commission proposal is that it will automatically become law in all 27 member states. Poland voted in favor and so it will be law in Poland as well. Unfortunately, Russia won’t be affected,” Bill Newton Dunn concludes. Notably, this law could take effect only from 2015.

Eutrophication is the biggest threat to the Baltic Sea because algae cause the lack of oxygen. Photo: Vidas Dulke

According to the Helsinki Commission, or HELCOM, Poland has already achieved a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen inputs and a 35 percent reduction in phosphorus inputs, as compared to the Polish reduction target set in the Baltic Sea Action Plan.

 “Where there is EU money, there is Russia”

The European Commission has also expressed its concern about this sea by launching the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region in 2009. The latter strategy is the first macro-regional cooperation in the EU. However, the EU Strategy for the Baltic Sea Region has received some criticism. Opponents claim that it lacks an external perspective of how to work with Russia and ignores it as a key determinant for the potential success of this strategy. Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuanian MEP, who is a substitute of the Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee, has a different opinion.

Lithuanian MEP Vytautas Landsbergis thinks that Russia is not tend to invest in long term ecological projects. Photo: Vidas Dulke

“The criticism has come through the Russian lobbyists who are in all the EU institutions. Interestingly, when it comes to money, Russia has declared that it must participate in all the programmes as well as the distributions of money,” says MEP Vytautas Landsbergis.

He emphasizes that this document unites only the members of the EU. But he was in astonishment after he had seen the final version of the strategy:

“The statement had suddenly appeared which said that all the programmes must be done together with Russia”, recalls Vytautas Landsbergis.

Another controversial issue related to Russia and the Baltic Sea is the gas pipeline called the “Nord Stream”. Radvile Morkunaite, another Lithuanian MEP, was the coordinator of the international project “Save the Baltic Sea before it is too late.” The main aim of it was to stop the construction of the “Nord Stream” in the Baltic Sea.

Lithuanian MEP Radvile Morkunaite believes that if you want to save the Baltic Sea, you must begin with yourself. Photo: Vidas Dulke

“We finally agreed that the “Nord Stream” was a political decision. But we have attracted international attention and got some data, confirming that this pipeline increased toxicity, although representatives of the “Nord Stream” disagreed,” explaines Radvile Morkunaite.

Another threat that is worrying is a chemical weapon that had been buried by the Soviets in the Baltic Sea. It also contributes to the pollution because of the toxics.

“It is very important to get answers from the Russian scientists about the exact location of this weapon because the toxics penetrate into the water. If Russia wants to help reduce the pollution, it must reveal all the relevant data concerning the weapon,” stresses MEP Vytautas Landsbergis.

According to him, there is no dialogue between the EU and Russia because Russia always draws its own positive conclusions regarding pollution or just disregards the EU and collaborates with separate member states, in that way weakening the EU.

Positive signs of recovery?

HELCOM was established in 1974. Its aim is to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution through intergovernmental cooperation among nine countries around the Baltic Sea. Monika Stankiewicz, Professional Secretary at HELCOM, expresses her concern:

“The Baltic Sea ecosystem has degraded to such an extent that its capacity to deliver goods and services to humans living has been hampered. None of the open basins of the Baltic Sea has an acceptable ecosystem health status”.

Despite that, she sees some positive signals such as decreasing trends of certain persistent organic pollutants like Polychlorinated biphenyls (it’s a man-made organic chemical that has a range of toxicity), DDT (it’s a synthetic pesticide) and dioxins because of banning of these substances.

“Our findings have shown that there is great potential for further reductions in the waste water sector. Implementing the more stringent requirements in the HELCOM recommendations would eventually make us closer to the overall nutrient reduction targets, especially for phosphorus and to a lesser extent for nitrogen, which are required to achieve a healthy Baltic Sea,” announced Lars M. Svendsen, Chairman of the HELCOM LOAD Group on the 5th of September during the meeting of HELCOM experts.

A WWF report called “Baltic Sea Scorecard 2011” is also hopeful. It states that “industrial hot spots are being cleaned up; municipal waste plants are being built and improved; farmers are looking for and implementing solutions to reduce excess nutrients; cod stocks are showing signs of recovery.”

Predictions for the future
The beautiful Baltic Sea could soon become the second Dead Sea if we don't act immediately. Photo: Vidas Dulke

When it comes to the future of the Baltic Sea, the interviewees have more or less similar opinion. For example, Radvile Morkunaite believes that algae blooms show that situation is sad and that’s impossible to clean up this sea.

“Now it’s important not to deteriorate the current position,” she mentions.

Another MEP, Vytautas Landsbergis, also thinks that the future of the Baltic Sea is very sad because of the huge amounts of nitrates form the fertilizers. What is more, Vytautas Landsbergis points out that he can’t see any improvement even in the global perspective because nobody even talks about stopping the pollution, only about reducing it.

“It is possible to save the Baltic Sea, but it requires political will and commitment from all relevant stakeholders,” believes Monika Stankiewicz.

HELCOM emphasizes that actions to improve the state of the Baltic Sea are costly but there is a great risk that non-action will result in even higher costs.