Environmental News Service
March 10, 2006

HELSINKI–The nine countries bordering the Baltic Sea and the European Union have agreed on a common vision of a healthy Baltic and a set of strategic goals and ecological objectives that lead to achieving that vision. The plan is based on a proactive ecosystem approach instead of being driven by reactions to pollution events.

At the 27th annual meeting of the Helsinki Commission, or HELCOM, held March 8 and 9 in Helsinki, member states and the Commission officially approved the first core elements of what they termed an “ambitious but realistic action plan” to restore the Baltic Sea marine environment.

“With this ecosystem approach, protection of the marine environment is no longer seen as an event-driven pollution reduction approach to be taken sector-by-sector,” said HELCOM Executive Secretary Anne Christine Brusendorff. HELCOM Executive Secretary Anne Christine Brusendorff views the organization as the environmental focal point for the entire Baltic region, and a reliable source of information on the state of the Baltic Sea.

“Instead, the starting point is a common understanding and definition of a sea with a good ecological balance, which is deciding the further needs for reductions of pollution loads as well as the level and extent of human activities,” she said. “This approach paves the best way to ensure a holistic and integrated policy approach.”

HELCOM works to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution through intergovernmental cooperation between the countries bordering the sea – Denmark, Estonia, the European Community, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Sweden.

Last year, the Helsinki Commission decided to develop a Baltic Sea Action Plan to ensure that all possible measures are taken to reduce pollution in the Baltic Sea and to repair the damage done to the marine environment. HELCOM expects to finalize and adopt the Plan late in 2007. In developing the Baltic Sea Action Plan, the Commission and member states will identify and detail the kind of actions needed to curb eutrophication, prevent pollution involving hazardous substances, and improve safety of navigation and accident response capacity, as well as halting habitat destruction and the decline in biodiversity. The shallow Baltic Sea is nearly enclosed and the same water, with any accumulated pollutants, can remain in the sea for up to 30 years.

HELCOM approved the establishment of an ad hoc Task Force for the development of the Baltic Sea Action Plan. The Task Force will consist of representatives nominated by the HELCOM member states, representatives of NGOs and from the private sector.

One of the main objectives of the ad hoc Task Force will be to ensure political commitment to the development of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan, linking the scientific work and the political processes.

At a stakeholders conference held on Tuesday in Helsinki, the concept of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan (BASP) received overwhelming support from the environmental scientists, government officials, business leaders and representatives of major regional organizations in attendance.

The EU representative expressed full support for the HELCOM plan. Peter Gammeltoft, who heads the Water and Marine Unit in the Environment Directorate at the European Commission, said the plan under preparation “is the cornerstone for further action” in the Baltic Sea region.

“It is also fully in line with the EU Marine Strategy,” Gammeltoft said, adding that the the European Commission “strongly backs the BSAP [Baltic Sea Action Plan] and intends to take an active part in its development over the coming months.” Recognizing the new ecosystem-based approach to the management of the Baltic Sea, Gammeltoft said that in setting a definition of good ecological status for the Baltic Sea as well as specific environmental targets and necessary measures, the BSAP will be instrumental to the successful implementation of the EU Marine Strategy in the region.

The Baltic Sea Action Plan makes HELCOM “a front-runner and a model to follow among regional seas conventions in Europe,” Gammeltoft said.

Commenting on the plan, Stefan Wallin, the state secretary from the Finnish Environment Ministry stressed that that the preparation of the HELCOM action plan must be open-ended and transparent.

“We must use this opportunity of preparing this new Baltic Sea Action Plan to make it as comprehensive and, at the same time, as realistic and action-oriented as possible,” Wallin said.

Delegates to the HELCOM meeting adopted assessment reports on maritime transport, eutrophication, hazardous substances, biodiversity and climate change in the Baltic Sea, as well as an updated recommendation which requires HELCOM countries to limit emissions into the atmosphere and discharges into water from incineration of waste.

The Baltic Sea is a small sea on a global scale, but as one of the world’s largest bodies of brackish water, it is ecologically unique and is highly sensitive to the environmental impacts of human activities in its catchment area, which is home to some 85 million people. Oil spills and polluted runoff from agriculture and manufacturing on land have contributed to pollution of the sea.