Toxic waters beneath the waves

  • 2011-09-21
  • By Matt Garrick

More to do: Companies and individuals need to be educated better in how to reduce pollution flowing into the Baltic Sea.

VILNIUS - If one manages to secure the time, trekking the coastline along the Baltic Sea brings to the senses a feeling of wonderment: icy water against the soles of one’s feet, the sights of rare wildlife, and the occasional score of finding a piece of amber underfoot. At times it paints a scene of idyllic, untouched splendor.

But unfortunately, if you stroll far enough, chances could be you will stumble upon less than idyllic realities.
The inky tides of the Baltic Sea harbor all the romanticism of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. They also, tragically, harbor thousands of square kilometers of toxic waters, tainted from chemical waste and agricultural run-off slopped in from its surrounding countries, including industrial giants Russia and Sweden, making it one of the most polluted seas in the world.
Dead seals and chunks of coagulated oil have been found along the coastline between Latvia and Lithuania in the last months: After-effects from mass dumping of pollutants into the sea from industries such as transportation, farming and fisheries. Environmental experts have touted a main cause of this veritable environmental disaster as a lack of proper education for industries in the risks of their procedures.

So can the sea be cleaned up? And what kind of changes will industries have to make to achieve it? Something has to happen, as without alteration, endangered species of animals will continue to suffer from the consequences.
The grey seal species, one of the largest water mammals of the region, have been victims of this lack of education for the past decades.

“Grey seals suffer from chronic intestinal ulcers, thought to be caused by contaminants disturbing their immune systems,” confirmed Monika Stankiewicz, a spokesperson for the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, HELCOM, also known as the Helsinki Convention - the major authority in charge of directing resources for the protection of the marine environment in the Baltic Sea area.

Under the governance of HELCOM, Baltic marine authorities are now looking towards the future, to figure out how to reverse the situation and help water animals bloom once more in their natural habitats. Though, in order for success, metaphorical mountains must be moved.
In Lithuania, experts from the Ministry of Environment and the nation’s Marine Research Department have agreed on one key factor necessary for restoring the sea to a healthy natural habitat: countries neighboring the Baltic Sea have to bind together to search for solutions.

“As there are no clear ‘borders’ in the sea for pollution and biota migration, all [surrounding] countries have to put in efforts for the future of the Baltic Sea,” Nijole Remeikaite from the Lithuanian Marine Research Department told The Baltic Times.
And governments of the countries won’t have much choice. European Union members neighboring the sea will be forced to aid in assistance, due to directives imposed as conditions for their EU membership.

“The environmental protection policy of the EU has a decisive role for establishing legal protection of the marine environment. EU requirements provided within its directives are binding for all member states. Requirements are laid down in directives including the Water Framework Directive, Habitat Directive, Birds Directive, Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, and the Marine Strategy Directive,” explained Remeikaite.

Though the EU regulations may help spur surrounding governments to get to work cleaning up the Baltic Sea, primarily because of their binding legal necessity, experts have suggested the directives were not much more than polite bureaucracy: trying to put a band-aid over a missing limb, so to speak. Some have indicated the real key to fixing the problems of the sea lay in one-on-one education for the industries and individuals involved in its pollution.

“No industry really takes care of the water, because there’s not enough knowledge. For example, agricultural waste goes into the water because farms were being managed badly. There was not enough information on sustainable environmental farming techniques, which would also be economically sound to run,” lamented Arunas Svitojus, director of the Baltic Foundation, an arm of international environmental organization Heifer International, which aimed at supplying education to support economically sustainable green farming, among other initiatives.

Svitojus conveyed the idea that protecting the Baltic Sea, and indeed all Baltic environments, must be approached by a number of different routes, including helping communities, protecting animals and supporting evolution into green agricultural methods. His viewpoint was that if this was achieved, and those involved were educated properly, damage to the sea could assuredly still be reversible.

The Lithuanian Ministry of Environment echoed the idea of the necessity of cleaning up farming processes and techniques to dramatically cut pollution levels. The core of the belief was that by approaching one farm at a time to provide examples of economically viable techniques of farming which cause less waste, the agriculture industry would climb aboard and support the pollution solution.

The Lithuanian government has suggested this could be achieved through “specific legal and voluntary measures supported through an established advice system on a farm-by-farm basis,” said Baltic Sea specialist from the Ministry of Environment, Dalius Krinickas.

Though such methods were now being put in place to remove the nearest threats to the sea, for example the agricultural dirge, authorities have warned individuals must still remain vigilant with their actions in pushing forward with the process.
“I am always optimistic for the health of the sea. But everything is in our hands. We have to improve it for the future, for our children. And so we have to start today, not tomorrow,” implored Svitojus, before acknowledging the process of recovery could be lengthy. “It may not be immediate, but after ten years maybe we will gauge positive results,” he furthered.
Currently, life within the sea continues to dwindle. Harmful nutrients have produced what is basically a no-go zone in multiple sea sections for much marine flora and fauna.

“Some places in the Baltic Sea, there is no life. There is no longer any oxygen in the water. Agriculture has a big responsibility for this,” claimed Svitojus. Indeed, curtailing agricultural waste from entering the Baltic Sea has become one of the biggest priorities for authorities, due to the strangling amounts of nutrients contained within them.
“The main problems which still remain as the most relevant [in the sea] are eutrophication and pollution by hazardous substances. Eutrophication is a natural process in water ecosystems, but for more than three decades it has been acknowledged that very large amounts of nutrients [such as nitrogen and phosphorus] resulted in undesirable effects on ecosystem structure,” explained a recent report compiled by members of the Lithuanian Ministry of Environment and the Marine Research Department.

Assessments by HELCOM have registered that the damage caused by the influx of nutrients over the last years have been significant.
“Eutrophication has resulted in algae bloom and a dead sea bottom. Agriculture and municipal wastewaters were the biggest sources of these nutrients, followed by transportation, including shipping,” explained Stankiewicz.
According to marine experts, sections of the Baltic Sea are already showing signs of partial recovery, with fewer nutrients discovered during studies on the water.

“Lithuanian marine monitoring results have confirmed [...] concentrations of total phosphorus in the Baltic Sea and Curonian Lagoon in 2010 were slightly lower than the average of the last 10 years,” said Remeikaite.
One of the major barriers to fully eradicating the high levels of nutrients is the partially stagnant state of the Baltic Sea waters.
Perhaps the world’s largest inland water body, the brackish sea has had no real chance to cleanse itself by filtering into its neighboring Atlantic Ocean, where the nutrients could potentially spread to reach a containable, or normal, level. Without this ability, the unfortunate reality is: the waters of the Baltic Sea host these huge levels of nutrients, and subsequently feature approximately 100,000 square kilometers of nearly deoxygenated water, turning an area larger than the land mass of Hungary into a dead zone.

Marine life continues to struggle to live within surrounding parts of these waters.
“When the levels of pollution are too high, water plants necessary for producing oxygen just die. There can be no life. No micro-organisms, no fish,” said Svitojus.
Though this situation appears dire, marine authorities remain ready for a battle toward recovery. According to some, the sea was looking better than it had for some time. HELCOM has insisted initiatives over recent years into restoring marine life into their native habitats around the region have been successful. Several species of water creatures living in the Baltic Sea which previously appeared doomed were nowadays returning in rapid numbers.

“The conservation work of HELCOM has contributed to many success stories, including the recovery of the white-tailed eagle around the Baltic Sea, the return of the cormorant to the whole region, early signs of recovery in Baltic wild salmon populations and increasing numbers of seals in northern areas of the Baltic Sea. But for many species there is still cause for concern since nearly all the Baltic’s top predators, such as marine mammals and several bird species, still suffer from pollution, fisheries’  by-catch, habitat destruction and increased shipping activity,” affirmed Stankiewicz.

Despite the problems forced upon it by human industries, the Baltic Sea remains a one-of-a-kind environmental landmark.
“The Baltic Sea is a unique and fragile ecosystem. Due to its hydromorphological peculiarities (low salinity, slow water exchange with the North Sea) species and habitats are vulnerable to changes of any ecological conditions. Despite its low biodiversity, the Baltic Sea remains attractive with the life forms it has,” applauded Remeikaite.

While humans may have damaged major proportions of the Baltic Sea, if, when strolling its sands you happen to spy a Stellar’s Eider (a rare sea duck calling home to the Lithuanian shores) or the silky coat of a Baltic ringed seal (the world’s smallest seal), it can be realized as a counter: many people continue to pull up their sleeves to save it.

For further information into the protection of the Baltic marine environment, visit