Published on October 31 this year. In Helsinki, the HELCOM 2023 report on the state of the Baltic Sea gives no reason for optimism. A comprehensive assessment conducted as part of the HOLAS 3 initiative indicates that the most serious challenges to the marine ecosystem are eutrophication, contamination with hazardous substances, adverse land use and overharvesting. However, there are more problems.
HOLAS 3 – objectives and significance
The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM) conducts a holistic assessment of the Baltic ecosystem once every six years to monitor the effectiveness of ongoing remediation efforts. HOLAS 3 is for the period 2016-2021 and is the result of cooperation between the Baltic states, scientific experts and organizations involved in the protection of the Baltic Sea. Its purpose is to monitor the effectiveness of the implementation of the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) developed in 2007. and updated four years later.
The just-released HELCOM 2023 report on the state of the Baltic Sea is the commission’s third holistic analysis and includes both numerical and indicator data and thematic studies. Unfortunately, environmental pressures were recorded throughout the study area, and the status of marine mammals and fish deteriorated compared to the previous period (HOLAS 2). Threshold values of the studied indicators were identified only in selected parts of the ecosystem. Changes for the better are minimal.
HELCOM 2023 report on the state of the Baltic Sea warns of the costs of neglect
HOLAS 3 analyzed the status of such parts of the ecosystem as pelagic and benthic habitats, coastal fish, seals, porpoises and waterfowl – indicators were very bad in the latter three spheres. The condition of commercial fisheries is also negatively assessed.
The authors of the report point out that in the current situation, the sustainable use of marine resources is at risk. The Baltic’s deteriorating environmental condition is negatively affecting profits from fishing and tourism. The repercussions also cover a wide range of functions of marine ecosystems in our daily lives. If the regional ecological status could be improved by 2040, the Baltic societies could expect gains of 5.6 billion euros a year.
Positive effects of regional activities
The third HELCOM 2023 report on the state of the Baltic Sea also contains some positive conclusions. Regional agreements have made it possible to achieve in each area a balanced level of inflows of harmful pollutants and nutrients responsible for eutrophication. This aspect showed an improvement over the previous assessment.
In addition, measures to preserve the biodiversity of the Baltic ecosystem have been evaluated positively. It seems that the adopted goal of protecting 30 percent. area by 2030 is feasible. However, it is necessary to continue coordinated efforts, with particular emphasis on reducing nutrient emissions within regionally established limits. As a goal for the future, the HELCOM 2023 report suggests moving toward ecosystem-based management so that fishing does not negatively impact the functioning of food webs.
The significance of climate change for the state of the Baltic Sea
It is not only human activity that threatens the future of the marine ecosystem. The report’s authors emphasize that existing anthropogenic pressures are being intensified by climate change, and are expected to grow in importance in the coming years. This fact is associated with an increased risk of further reduction of biodiversity in the region.
The HELCOM 2023 report on the state of the Baltic Sea clearly shows that water temperature is increasing, winter ice cover is decreasing, and average annual precipitation is increasing in the north. Also of concern are the high probability of marine heat, climatic variability and weather extremes. All these factors have a real impact on the abundance and distribution of species and, consequently, the functioning of the entire ecosystem.
What does the HELCOM 2023 report on the state of the Baltic Sea suggest?
The pressures considered in the holistic analysis do not act individually, but have a cumulative effect on the condition of the Baltic. Therefore, preventive and corrective measures should also be consolidated, trying to solve multiple problems at the same time. For this to be possible, changes are needed in many socioeconomic sectors.
The future of the Baltic Sea also depends to a large extent on the continuity and international coordination of activities related to monitoring, assessments and analyses of the current state. The ecosystem approach requires operational coherence and good communication among the countries bordering the Baltic Sea.
As Jannica Haldin, secretary to HELCOM’s deputy executive director, adds, HOLAS 3 is the most comprehensive analysis of the health of the Baltic Sea ever completed. The knowledge gained from it must now be translated into active measures.