The VELMU programme puts a spotlight on the treasures of the seas

For many Finns, encountering different species becomes a more tangible experience during a trip to the forest. There are trees, birds, shrubs, and other plants. These species are easy to observe because we also live in the same element, on the surface of the earth.

Lasse Kurvinen – Suvi Kiviluoto

Kurvinen works as a special planner at Metsähallitus and Kiviluoto as a researcher at the Finnish Environment Institute

Boating is also a popular pastime. However, while on a boat, one rarely gets to admire the underwater scenery. Just like the woods, there is also a buzz of activity under the surface, and fish and seals are not the only inhabitants of the sea.

VELMU brings together previously fragmented information about marine nature in the Baltic Sea

Although underwater research has a fairly long tradition in Finland, the data collected from our shore has been rather scattered over time. In the early 2000s, it was decided to tackle this challenge with the aid of the VELMU programme. This programme gathered together scattered data, and directed a series of research projects, before finally heading out to sea to investigate the occurrence of the various species and habits on our coast. 

The Underwater Marine Biodiversity Inventory Programme (VELMU), has been operating since 2004 in the marine areas of Finland, gathering information on the occurrence of underwater habitats, species, and their communities. Between 2004 and 2015, the aim of the first phase of the so-called “VELMU 1” programme was to get an overview of their distribution.

Since 2016, work has continued under the framework of the VELMU 2 programme. The focus here has been more on targeted mapping, as well as the conversion of the collected material into useful map products.

The first phase of VELMU produced a comprehensive map service

The extensive surveys of the first phase of VELMU showed the regional distribution of species and habitats along our coast. This primary phase also directed follow-up surveys to those sites with the greatest species abundance.

The information produced by VELMU has already been implemented in environmental permit processes, planning for maritime use, as well as in zoning.

One of the crowning achievements of the first phase of  this ambitious programme is the VELMU map service, through which the data collected and produced is comprehensively presented. The map service has been used for, inter alia, educational purposes and design support.

Another major achievement of VELMU is the publication of the information collected during the programme in the form of a reference book entitled, “The Treasures of the Sea” (Fin. Meren Aarteet). The purpose of this book was to bring the underwater world of our Baltic Sea closer to the average citizen. It introduces the marine nature and research of the Finnish coast with beautiful pictures and entertaining texts. In 2017, this book was also selected as the WWF's Nature Book of the Year in Finland.

 A diver collects a sample of underwater algae.
Scuba diving can yield accurate information about underwater species.

The second phase is collecting more in-depth information

During the second phase of VELMU, field surveys have been increasingly focused on gathering more accurate information. 

The extensive existing data has been used for, inter alia, the statistical prediction modelling of endangered species. In modelling, mapping can be targeted to species-specific areas, based on environmental conditions. Many endangered species require a particular habitat. If we are aware of the factors affecting the occurrence of a species, we will be able to search for specimens of that species more precisely using the modelled information. This saves a lot of time and money in mapping because searching for a species is no longer simply random.

VELMU helps to identify important nature sites

From the outset, one of the objectives of VELMU has been to identify areas of high natural value in marine areas. The aim has also been to bring these areas under protection. The VELMU material has been used as a basis for the establishment of new nature reserves, such as in Porkkala, in the Gulf of Finland.

The modelling results from the data collected in the VELMU programme were also used to assess the location of existing offshore protected areas. This analysis shows that the Finnish network of marine protected areas is still under development.

More diverse research is needed in the future

Although great achievements have already been accumulated along the way, the work to protect underwater nature is still only halfway complete. Although the data collected in the VELMU programme gives a snapshot of the situation while mapping a particular place, it does not tell anything about its trends.

Moreover, the VELMU surveys have also been largely concentrated in the period after midsummer, which may have left an incomplete picture of spring species. Thus, complementary marine surveys at different times of the year with repeated measurements are needed to better understand any underwater changes.

The underwater nature data is still new and its integration into administrative processes is still in its infancy. However, there is already a wealth of information available to every decision-maker and citizen alike, through both online material and printed literature.

Have a look at a video about the VELMU programme: