The Baltic Sea – is a wonderful future a thing of the past?

There are no clear solutions to improve the state of the Baltic Sea. Environmental, economic and political considerations contribute to the problem. Thus, even if the direction seems to be improving, it is difficult to accurately predict the future of the Baltic Sea. We place our hopes on an increased environmental awareness, as well as a change in our values.

4x5 aspect ratio

Mika Raateoja

Development Manager Mika Raateoja is currently working at SYKE's Marine Research Centre, in the development of governance regarding Baltic Sea's eutrophication.

Human activity first changed the inland waters

Water and waterways have always been important to us Finns. We have always lived close to the water, and in our free time, we happily gravitate towards it too. We have always taken seriously all cases where the purity of our precious waters has come under threat.

Human activity, however, began to transform our inland waters as early as the 19th century, through the construction of dams, drainage, and channels for floating timber. We found it easy to change our inland waters to support our lifestyle.

In the 20th century, the characteristics of industrialisation and intensive farming came into play: eutrophication, direct contamination, and the effects of environmental toxins. 

 A conch sitting on a rock amongst wildly overgrown algae.
Eutrophication is affected by both internal and external nutrient loading.

The sea also began to suffer from human activities

And what about the sea? Over the centuries, we have learned that, unlike our inland waters, we cannot harness the vast and unrestricted Baltic Sea. Instead, humans have always had to adapt to the rhythm of the sea.

For too long, we had the idea in our minds that our actions could not alter the Baltic Sea. This notion did not correspond to reality.

For example, in the early 20th century, the bays located off our coastal cities were already found to be heavily eutrophicated.

Over a larger scale, we have been able to degrade the state of the Baltic Sea over the past 50 years. However, we have not fully grasped this realisation until the last quarter of a century.

Thus, the Baltic Sea ecosystem has been damaged to the point that reversing the direction of its state towards a better future is no longer fully under human control.

The sea was not protected early enough

Now, as Joe Bloggs looks suspiciously at the sludge of blue-green algae near the shore of his summer cabin, he wonders how things were allowed to get to this point.

The economic growth of society was once the highest priority. At that time, there was still a lack of understanding of how the sea functioned, so that it could be protected.

In the social situation of post-war Finland, there was a clear and understandable priority towards economic growth, as well as the improvement of social conditions, and that was that!

If Joe Bloggs also wants to know over what timeframe the condition of our sea could begin to improve and at what cost, no-one can give him a direct answer. Instead, there are only indirect answers. There are suggestions for a better marine condition in the future and the current level of environmental awareness no longer allows for any severe ecological slumps.

It is impossible to predict the future of the Baltic Sea with certainty

Currently, the development of eutrophication in the Baltic Sea has taken on a life of its own, independent of human activities. We do not know at what point in time the internal nutrient loading of the Baltic Sea will diminish.

However, it is certain that all the external nutrient loads that continue to enter the Baltic Sea will slow down any negative development. An essential part of the protection of the Baltic Sea is to reduce its burden by all means available, the cost-effectiveness of which can be justified at some reasonable level.

This sounds expensive and it certainly is that. However, the question arises of how much the Baltic Sea States, or in other words their citizens, are ready to invest in the future of the Baltic Sea in the form of taxes. The desire to find the value of the Baltic Sea environment is finally being explored.

The major adverse events have appeared after a decades-long delay

When thinking about the potential costs involved, it is worth considering the ability of the Baltic Sea to slow down the effects of the changes affecting it. For example, it took decades to spew nutrients and harmful substances into the Baltic Sea before detrimental changes began to be detected.

When the changes finally began to occur, they were significant. A good example is the proliferation of cyanobacterial blooms in the second half of the 1990s, which were not reflected in any unusual changes in the external nutrient load to the Baltic Sea immediately prior to that period.

Sometimes, it comes down to the proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. Once the path begins to go in a poorer direction like this, there is no reason to assume that the opposite direction would be any different.

Thus, simply reducing the nutrient load to pre-1990 levels would not be enough to reduce the scale of cyanobacterial blooms to where they were before this period. Indeed, it is more likely that the nutrient load would need to be reduced to the level it was before the 1950s instead.

There are no “quick-fix” solutions to the problems in the Baltic Sea

Although we are now more aware of the problems of the Baltic Sea and the desire to improve the state of the Baltic Sea is sincere among both the people and decision-makers in Finland, it is futile to try to paint a hopeful picture for a speedy recovery of the Baltic Sea.

Part of the reason is the Baltic Sea itself. Even if all the external nutrient loads entering the Baltic Sea completely ceased as you read this text, the vicious circle of internal nutrient loading would still be able to continue for years to come.

Of course, since nutrient loading will not just stop as if by magic, we can only expect a clear improvement in the eutrophication level of the Baltic Sea within the coming decades.

Moreover, the individual policy decisions of the Finnish Government have only a limited impact on the state of the Baltic Sea. When it comes to the state of the Baltic Sea as a whole, only environmental agreements concluded jointly by the Baltic coastal states can be sufficiently effective. Such comprehensive international agreements take time to implement.

The future of the Baltic Sea requires political will and courage

It is said that political will and research play a crucial role in improving the state of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea is one of the most studied seas in the world, so its improvement is no longer dependent on research. So now the question concerns the will and courage of decision-makers to promote the Baltic Sea issue, regardless of party affiliation.

Citizens will certainly play their part, as has become clear in the media. However, decision-makers may find it frustrating to earmark investments for the good of the Baltic Sea, the effects of which would not even begin to emerge until after several terms of government had passed.

The investments now being made could be thought of as the advance instalments of a repayable loan, which will then be raised by future generations.