Still striving to clean up the Baltic Sea

  • 2005-03-09
  • Interview by Aleksei Gunter
The Helsinki Commission, or Helcom, helps protect the Baltic Sea's marine environment from pollution by cooperating with the sea's bordering countries at a governmental level. The Helsinki Convention, an agreement to address and map the source of the region's pollution, was developed in 1974 and updated in 1992. Today the prestigious organization includes Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Anne Christine Brusendorff, executive secretary of Helcom, updated The Baltic Times on the current situation.

How can you describe the overall condition of the Baltic Sea basin and adjacent areas?

We've seen improvements in various fields. One example is the considerable reduction of nutrients, which has led to cleaner beaches and cleaner water. The discharge and emission level of specific hazardous substances has also decreased - a key factor in the recovery of species such as seals and seagulls.

While these are very encouraging results, we are by no means ready to shut down our office and go home. There are still a lot of things we need to work on for the future. While we have seen quite a vast reduction in hazardous substances, we don't see an equal decrease when measuring concentrations in the marine environment. Of course, one of the reasons for this is the Baltic Sea's slow water exchange.

Helcom has decided to prioritize four areas over the next couple of years; eutrophication (an input of nutrients through agriculture), the decline of biodiversity and marine habitats, as well as navigation safety and upholding a transnational response to accidents at sea.

How are the Baltic countries doing in cooperation with Helcom? What has their input been and what should they improve on?

As you know, pollution knows no boundaries. This is especially true when we are taking into account the closed nature of the Baltic Sea. For that reason there is a need for all sea-bordering countries to work together. With this understanding the Baltic coastal countries have politically committed themselves by ratifying the convention on the protection of the Baltic's marine environment and by upholding the idea of joint cooperation. Only when we adopt something unanimously by the nine coastal countries and the EU, can we reach a decision. I hope this shows that efforts by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are very important. We need all countries on board.

Maybe it's too simplistic to reduce it to numbers and say that one country is better because there are 100 people working [for Helcom] in one place, while only 10 people work in another.

How serious is the high dioxin content in fish from the Baltic Sea - particularly herring and salmon - and what should people be aware of?

This is yet another effect of the slow water exchange in the Baltic Sea. The EU has set some standards for dioxin levels in human food. At the moment, the sea's fatty fish do not comply with these regulations, especially fish caught in the northern part of the Baltic. For this reason Sweden and Finland have been granted a transition period - ending Dec. 31, 2006 's during which they can sell fish that don't meet EU dioxin regulations. However, one important detail is that the fish can only be placed on the domestic market with consumer information about dioxin levels. We have released a publication about dioxins in the Baltic Sea, available on our Web site.

There will also be an EU commission study on this, and we're looking into whether it needs any tailor-made recommendations from Helcom. We need to take into account what has been carried out within the EU and other international organizations in order to ensure the most appropriate regulations.

Do you think that people living on the Baltic Sea might have to change their food habits due to the high dioxin levels of fish?

I would like to refer to the precautions that are now being taken. Nothing has yet been stated against eating fish from the Baltic Sea. What some countries have stated is that, for instance, pregnant women should avoid eating some of the most fatty fish.

Environmentalists recently gave the Estonian government the symbolic title of "enemy-of-nature" for being unable to improve the country's preparedness for oil spills. How do you assess this ability and has your organization put any pressure on the government?

I am surprised by this question because I do not at all recognize this description of Estonia. According to my information, Estonia is now constructing a multi-purpose vessel to be used for [oil spill] response activities. I think it might be appropriate to explain how response capacity and cooperation is built within the Baltic Sea area. We are dealing with a three-level system, which includes response capacity at the national, regional and trans-Baltic Sea level. While we must ensure what we call a minimum national response capacity, we focus on regional capacity - cooperation between neighboring countries. There is cooperation to a very great extent between Estonia, Finland and Russia in the Gulf of Finland. This is not only on paper, but in practice, and true for all nine countries.

To sum it up, you think Estonia's ability to deal with oil spills is normal?


Helcom has repeatedly emphasized eutrophication and biodiversity as some of the most important issues to address. What exactly is being done?

We have a problem of over-enrichment, meaning there are too many nutrients in the Baltic Sea. This causes a situation where algae blooms in the summer, which leads to depleted oxygen in some areas. This has an effect on biodiversity. For instance, cod cannot lay their eggs at the bottom of the sea because eggs need oxygen. Another example of the over-enrichment effect is the reduced water clarity.

We are working on finding a link between the nutrient input coming from land activities and its effect on the sea. We must not only show the source of the problem, but also find the best way to address the issue. Then we can find the most cost-effective measures.

The runoff from rivers in Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland is caused by activities in Belarus and eventually finds its way to the Baltic Sea. Another example is shipping activity in the Northern Sea, since nitrogen oxide emission from ships have an influence on the Baltic Sea.