As ‘dead zones’ grow, can the Baltic Sea be saved?

One of the youngest seas in the world is catching up with ecological consequences caused by the decade-long mismanagement of the fishery, pollution, and accelerating global warming. Will the Baltic Sea survive?

In a recent picture by NASA, the Baltic Sea looks like a mystical nebula with the blue-green algae bloom between two Swedish islands of Öland and Gotland. The spirals and vortexes, of phytoplankton spreading for dozens and even hundreds kilometers, look fascinating from space, but down on the Baltic shores it is causing a growing concern for environmentalists, scientists, and local fishermen.

The “dead zones” are expanding, mainly due to extensive algae blooming, a process that deprive large parts of the sea of oxygen. Meanwhile, the cod population that stands at the centre of the food chain of the Baltic Sea is collapsing.

 Death for Baltic fishing

In Lithuania’s port city of Klaipėda, boats advertising recreational cod fishing sway silently at the docks. For years, fishing trips to catch cod were a source of income for many boat owners. But recently, even the biggest commercial fishing companies in the country fear they may soon be hanging their nets to dry.

Previously, the Eastern Baltic cod stock was the biggest in the Baltic Sea, maintained by healthy fish of different sizes. Only 20 years ago, fish landings in Baltic ports were around 70,000 tonnes a year, and still over 50,000 tonnes in 2010. By 2018, they had decreased more than threefold.

“I was fishing Baltic cod for the last 30 years, and even though the catch was shrinking, fish stocks would always recover. Now it feels like the cod have been completely wiped out,” said Arvydas Žiogas, a fisherman and the president of the association Klaipėda Fisheries Local Action Group.

According to him, cod catches have declined dramatically since 2012 and have recently become too small to provide for a living.

Due to years of overfishing, cod spawns younger and grows smaller, according to Conrad Stralka from the Swedish BalticSea2020 foundation which seeks to raise awareness about the problems faced by the sea.

“This turned the Baltic cod stock into a small, undersized fish, rather than the robust fish of various sizes,” he said.

This might have a long-term impact on any cod fishing future prospects. Due to their high mortality, “the spawning stock biomass is lower than what is required for the fish to reproduce”, he aded.

To make matters worse, the cod population is highly infested by parasites, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) has noted that. The parasites are distributed by the growing population of grey seals, pushing up the cod mortality rate which is already the highest for any fish stock in EU waters.

 Unprecedented decision in Brussels

However, it was only last year that EU lawmakers caught up with the worrying situation in the Baltic Sea. Following “worse than expected” scientific assessments, the European Union decided to take an unprecedented decision.

In an attempt to save the collapsing fish stock, a ban on fishing cod in the Eastern part of the sea was introduced, while the fishing quotas for the Western cod stock, as well as other fish stocks, were decreased massively.

For many fishermen like Žiogas, the decision announced just days before its implementation was devastating. “Imagine building a business your entire life, investing everything you had, having hopes and dreams, and then one day being forced to go home and tell your family that it is all over,” he said.

EU estimates show that only a minority of companies fishing Eastern Baltic cod, representing up to 50 percent of the national fleets in Lithuania, Latvia, and Poland, are resilient enough to survive even temporary fishing limitations.

“The ban will have a substantial impact for the Eastern Baltic cod fleets, with a strong negative impact in certain regions and coastal communities,”  according to the EU regulation.

“In reality, it means people should forget about Baltic cod in local supermarkets and markets. The whole industrial chain is already falling apart, soon there will be nothing left,” said Jurijus Petrovas, the president of Lithuania’s Association of Commercial Fishers.

Moreover, as the current fishing restrictions will expire at the end of year, a new legislation proposal is already making its way through Brussels. The new measures will introduce fishing capacity limits for cod, allowing only the bycatch, and seek to dissolve cod fishing businesses in exchange for financial support.

“An almost collapsed fish stock cannot provide the economic basis for profitable fishing activities,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, Lithuania’s EU commissioner in charge of environment, oceans and fisheries, told LRT English.

According to Taurūnas Araškevičius, a fisherman with decades of working experience in the Baltic Sea, fishers like himself are “left without any other option”.

“It is already very hard to maintain crews, but if quotas for the most profitable fish are reduced to nothing, it will become simply impossible,” he said.

Envisioned cuts to fishing quotas for other fish, like sprat and herring, which together with the cod amount to 80 percent of the open-sea fish stock, “makes it impossible and not worthwhile reorienting the business”, added Žiogas.

However, the EU claims that even without restrictions, fishermen in the Baltic Sea were catching next to nothing. “In 2018, the cod quota uptake was only 40 percent and even lower in 2019. Up until mid-July, when the Commission’s emergency measures kicked in, it was only 19 percent,”  according the European Commission’s assessments.

Can measures be effective?

“For the Eastern Baltic cod to recover, the situation is far too complex to be solved by the no-catch [order] alone,” the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission told LRT English in a written statement.

The commission, which was established by the EU and countries around the Baltic Sea and is also known as the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), said additional measures were needed for the cod populations to recover.

“As long as the cod spawning grounds are disappearing and the quality of their habitat is declining, the Eastern Baltic cod stock will have difficulties recovering regardless of fishery regulations,” according to HELCOM written statement.

Data provided by BalticSea2020 estimate that cod spawning areas fell from three to one in recent years.

 The blooming sea

The main reason the cod spawning areas are disappearing is the spreading “dead zones” that leaves vast swaths of the seabed without oxygen.

“Algal blooms reduce the clarity of water and the reach of light underwater, which in turn affects oxygen production by underwater plants. Furthermore, when these algae die off and decay, more oxygen gets consumed in the process,” explained HELCOM.

Currently, more than 97 percent of the Baltic sea suffer from eutrophication, an excess of nutrients, according to HELCOM, as a result of which the Baltic seabed is the largest “dead zone” in the world.

“About one-quarter of the Baltic Sea floor is anoxic – without any oxygen at all – and about one third is in a hypoxic state – with only very little oxygen,” according to HELCOM.

Even though not every Baltic fishing stock if affected by the “dead zones”, the loss of cod might disbalance the whole ecosystem.

“Without large predatory fish, the stocks of Baltic herring and sprat will increase. These then bring about a risk of reduction in the amount of zooplankton, which in turn can lead to an increase in the amount of phytoplankton, meaning that the effects of eutrophication will only increase,” said Stralka.

“Dead zones” are not the only consequence of eutrophication. The tourism sector of the Baltic Sea is also facing growing challenges. Even though most algae blooms are not harmful to people, some cause a high concentration of cyanobacteria Nodularia spumigena and could cause dangerous reactions in the body: from simple rash and reddening on the skin to diarrhea and vomiting, if swallowed with water.

In recent years, algea caused beach closures in Poland when it washed up on the shore. Meanwhile in Sweden, coastal pollution by algea resulted in millions in lost revenues for accommodation providers as well as highly increased costs of shore cleaning.

Obscure future

The EU has also concluded that nutrient loads to most parts of the Baltic sea, which is the main reason of algae growth, is still in excess of the regionally agreed goals.

“Moreover, we have added huge amounts of nutrients in the past from sources such as agriculture, industries and municipal wastewater. These internal nutrient reserves are extremely slow to be digested by the ecosystem. This legacy will haunt us for years if not decades to come,” said HELCOM experts.

Meanwhile, “climate change doesn’t improve the situation either, already having shown to exacerbate algal blooms that particularly thrive in warmer water and weather”, added HELCOM.

Current climate change predictions see Baltic Sea surface warming by 2.5°C to 4.0°C in the years 2050–2099, dampening any hopes for cleaner water and beaches.

The EU is yet to come up with practical solutions on how to address these ecological issues. In September 2020, however, the ministers of environment, agriculture and fisheries from eight EU countries surrounding the Baltic Sea signed a new enviromental declaration. EU Commissioner Sinkevičius called it “historic”.

The document declares the EU’s commitment to reduce pollution in the Baltic Sea, secure sustainable fisheries and improve the general biodiversity in the Baltic Sea.

“For the first time, ministries of agriculture, maritime economy and environment of the Baltic Sea member-states have committed together to boost efforts to bring the Baltic to a good environmental status,” Sinkevičius said.

However, even with the growing environmental efforts on the EU’s part, which will be monitored and publicly reported, “biodiversity in the Baltic Sea remains at risk”, added Sinkevičius.

Rimantė Balsiūnaitė is a MSc in Environmental Sciences, Policy an Management student at Central European University, currently working with the Arctic Economic Council.Augustinas Šulija is a freelance journalist.


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