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Newsletter|02 Dec, 2020

WWF Baltic Newsletter – December 2020


In this edition

Editorial: Horizon scanning – where to from here?

Contact: Hannah Griffiths Berggren

The United Nations Decade on Biodiversity 2011-2020 is drawing to a close so it seems a good time to pause and take stock.

Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), warns that “humanity is at a crossroads”. What does she mean by this? The CBD has announced that none of the twenty Aichi biodiversity targets that were set in 2010 with a deadline of 2020 have been achieved, and only six have been partially achieved. Since the Earth Summit in 1992 (which established the CBD and produced the Rio Declaration stating that nations’ actions must not affect the environment outside their own borders and that all governments must preserve the environment for future generations) the world’s leaders have failed to meet their targets for nearly thirty years. 

Multilateral commitments to the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and subsequently the Sustainable Development Goals in 2010 do not seem to have stemmed this downward spiral.

Recent assessments such as the WWF Living Planet Report and the European Environment Agency’s The State of Nature in the EU underline the worsening trends for nature as a result of human activities. Both reports include alarming findings on species loss and confirm the accelerating decline over the past five years, particularly for freshwater species. In the EEA analysis, the Baltic Sea has a particularly high share of ‘bad conservation status’ assessments for habitats (71%) and species (75%), including for iconic keystone species like the Baltic harbour porpoise.

The coming year will be decisive in shifting our current trajectory towards a positive future. Governments are busy negotiating new post-2020 global biodiversity targets to be adopted at the 15th Conference of Parties to the CBD (postponed due to Covid-19 from 2020 to a date to be determined in 2021). These will frame the actions of government and many other actors for decades to come, and act as a stepping stone towards the CBD’s 2050 Vision of “Living in harmony with nature.” 

In the Baltic region, countries are negotiating the revised Baltic Sea Action Plan. The first of its kind when launched in 2007, the Plan is being updated for the next decade with new and revised targets to improve the Baltic Sea environment by 2030.  

The coming year will be decisive in shifting our current trajectory towards a positive future. As 2020 draws to a close, we hope that collectively we can step into the new decade with renewed vigour and optimism to take on the challenges ahead.

Ottilia Thoreson, Director, WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme

One source of optimism is that EU Member States have endorsed the objectives of the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy which is designed to set biodiversity on the path to recovery. This is an important complement to the European Union (EU) Green Deal, aimed at transitioning from a high to low carbon economy.

There is also a lot of good work happening at the local level, which will feed into achieving the national level commitments and plans. In this issue you will read about some exciting sustainable seafood work in Latvia, the restoration of wetlands in Finland, a multi-stakeholder effort in Denmark to revive the Thornback rays, the launch of a new report and story map on bottom trawling as well as a ghost net fishing app, and much more. 

As 2020 draws to a close, we hope that collectively we can step into the new decade with renewed vigour and optimism to take on the challenges ahead. Wishing you and your community peace, health and a happy new year!

One-on-one with Ulf Bergström

In this edition of the newsletter we interview Ulf Bergström, marine ecologist and research at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. He tells us about his work on stickleback regime shifts along the Swedish coast of the Baltic Sea.

Stickleback takeover

Contact: Johan Eklöf or Ulf Bergström

A new scientific study shows that large numbers of three-spined stickleback have gradually taken over greater areas of the Baltic Sea’s coastal ecosystem. Stickleback is a small prey fish common in aquatic food webs across temperate European waters. These changing patterns contribute to local ecosystem ‘regime shifts’, where young-of-the-year pike and perch decline in individual bays. These shifts are gradually spreading like a wave from the outer archipelago to the mainland coast.

The stickleback explosion

“In the Baltic Sea, the number of stickleback has increased dramatically since the 1990s”, says Ulf Bergström, the researcher who first documented the increase. Eutrophication, climate change and fewer predators are at least part of the explanation for the sharp rise in stickleback. However, research is underway to further investigate the causes.

A male stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) during spawning time. Photo: Joakim Hansen/Azote

At the same time, the recruitment of pike and perch – two large predatory fish that eat stickleback – has decreased in the outer archipelagos and open coastal stretches, where the sticklebacks often reside during spring and summer. Previous studies have shown that the stickleback can eat the eggs and larvae of pike and perch, but it has not been known to what extent this has actually affected their reproduction on a larger scale.

The researchers now believe that the scale of the stickleback wave reveals an urgent need for increased monitoring so that we can detect and counteract this type of change in the future.

Better monitoring

“The problem has previously gone under the radar or been judged to be very local, as existing monitoring programs have not focused on small fish and nor made any spatial analyses”, says Ulf Bergström.

A better understanding is needed of the connections between the open sea and the coast, where the stickleback’s yearly migrations connect the two systems.  This knowledge is already building through a new project called “The stickleback wave”, funded by the Swedish Research Council Formas.

Regime shifts are large, sudden and long-lasting changes in the structure and function of ecosystems, often triggered by human pressures on the environment.

Link to the original article


Restoring long-lost salt wetlands

Contact: Jochen Lamp

The natural salt marshes along the German coastline of the Baltic Sea act as a physical barrier to waves, and protect the coast from flooding and erosion. The peat soils also act as major carbon sinks. Despite this, over the last few decades Germany’s salt marshes were cut off the sea by dikes, drained, and turned into agricultural grassland. This led to the release of vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and to the degradation of rich natural biodiversity.

In 2014,  with funding support from the German Federal Ministry of the Environment, WWF Germany embarked on a groundbreaking project to restore two 100 ha polders (artificial coastal areas created by means of dikes and draining) to their natural marine state. The main aims were to create a suitable habitat for wetland birds and plant communities, restore the carbon sink and bring back the coastal protection function of the salt marshes. 

High levels of water at the Drammendorf polders in September 2020.
High levels of water at the Drammendorf polders in September 2020.

However, to achieve this, the landowners needed to agree to the restoration works. In one case, the Baltic Sea Foundation had already bought the land from a state agency in order to restore the polder to a salt marsh. The farmer who was using the grassland intensively to harvest grass crops was given permission to rent the land for grazing cattle on the restored salt marshes, as well as to receive the relevant EU subsidies. 

In the second case, the land belongs to private landowners and the Karsten Nendel Foundation. These owners were compensated for the losses in the market value of the land and the loss of reduced crops over the next 25 years. They retained their ownership under an official agreement in the land ownership register, committing that they would never restore the old hydraulic system or rebuild the dikes that would be removed. They also continued to receive EU subsidies and (importantly for them) remained landowners.

Once these agreements were in place, the restoration works began. Planned and managed by WWF, 4.5 km of dikes were removed, allowing sea water into the former meadows. New dikes were built, and one polderwas successfully opened in November 2019 and the second in March 2020. Once flooded, the former polders quickly started to revert back to salt marshes following the sea level of the Baltic Sea.

Both biodiversity and climate have benefited as a result. Five thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide are newly locked in the ground every year and the area is now a hotspot for water birds and migratory birds such as various species of waterfowl.

The restoration of these salt marshes is a perfect example of nature-based solutions in action. The project provides long-term resilience, is cost-effective, and has had a major impact on biodiversity recovery, climate mitigation and flood prevention.

This has been noted by the mayor of Rambin municipality, Andreas Klug, who said “Our municipality has supported the project because we were actively involved from the start and our wishes for our touristic infrastructure were integrated into the project. The project has become an asset for our municipality”.

The Baltic food chain goes circular

Contact: Kristina Atkisson

On 14 September, WWF launched the Baltic Stewardship Initiative. This is an international network of actors in the food value chain who aim to increase circulation of plant nutrients and minimize ‘leakage’ through means that are both sustainable and profitable. The focus is on reducing eutrophication in regional watercourses, lakes and the Baltic Sea. WWF, Lantmännen and Lantbrukarnas Riksförbund are leading on the Initiative, with funding support from the Swedish Board of Agriculture. 

New report maps opportunities to innovate the food value chain in the Baltic sea region.

A new report, Potential for Circularity in the Agri-food system, maps the nutrient flows and the largest sources of emissions in the Baltic Sea region. Released in conjunction with the launch of the Initiative, the report demonstrates how the food value chain in the Baltic Sea region is too linear and “leaky”. Efficiency varies across countries, but overall a large proportion of the plant nutrients that go into the food system is not used optimally and lost at multiple points in the production process.

“Today’s food industry contributes greatly to the eutrophication of the Baltic Sea,” says Håkan Wirtén, General Secretary of WWF. “With the Baltic Stewardship Initiative we are working with farmers, food producers and trade to find solutions that are both environmentally sustainable and economically viable. In this way, the industry can be developed profitably while at the same time contributing to the goal of a living Baltic Sea.”

The engaged companies and organizations will integrate the Initiative’s focal issues in their own operations and take the lead together to establish a more environmentally friendly industry.

“We want to strengthen the sustainability work in the food chain all the way from farm to fork,” says Claes Johansson, Head of Sustainability at Lantmännen. “To achieve this, a more circular and economically competitive model for supplying crops with plant nutrients is key.”

As they take new approaches to their work, Initiative members will invest in spreading successful solutions. With the entire food chain involved, the hope is to create new business opportunities and means of collaborating across the industry. Twenty stakeholders representing different parts of the food chain have thus far joined the Initiative, including Coop and Ågårds Lantbruk.

New water protection sites in Finland

Contact: Viivi Kaasonen

The end of the summer was an intensive period of water protection in the Vesiensuojelu 4K project. Three water protection sites were constructed in the project area located in Western Uusimaa in August and September.

Location of the three water protection sites were constructed. © WWF Finland

The first consists of a series of submerged weirs in a side stream, Bocksbäcken, which flows into the Siuntio River. Water flow had carved a deep side stream so the banks had become steep – to the point of collapsing into the stream in some parts, eating away the surrounding farming land. 

To slow the water flow and to reduce erosion, 13 submerged weirs were constructed along a 700 meter stretch. Additionally, the steepest and the collapsed parts were supported with round rocks, which help to prevent additional erosion. Submerged weirs and natural rock structures were an ideal solution for this side stream. The Siuntio River is home to a brown trout (Salmo trutta) which is endangered in Finland; the structures slow the water flow but do not block the migration of brown trout or other fish.

The second site is a combination of submerged weirs, a two-stage ditch and a small wetland-like sediment basin. These were built into a side stream of the Ingarskila River called Römossebäcken. The water management structures were built to help reduce the flooding problems experienced by the surrounding farmlands as well as to improve the local water quality. The sediment basin also supports biodiversity since wetland species can use it as a resting and feeding area.

Water management structures on the site begin upstream of the sediment basin where two submerged weirs lie. Water flows over the weirs into the wetland-like structure where the stream meets another side stream. To slow down the water flow, the structure consists of a sediment basin with two islands. From there, the two side streams continue as one into a newly built two-stage ditch, about 200 meters long. Landowners have reported that the structure has already helped to reduce flooding of the fields, which speaks to the importance of water management both for humans and nature. 

This is an exemplary site for communications with ditching companies on the advantages of nature-based solutions over traditional drainage maintenance. Field drainage management is a recurring issue around which it is important to explore alternative solutions.

The final water protection site built is Pällas wetland, which lies in the catchment area of the Ingarskila River. It is the largest wetland constructed in Vesiensuojelu 4K project. It covers about 2.5 hectares of which some 1.9 hectares is water. Unlike at Bocksbäcken and Römossebäcken, the catchment area of the Pällas wetland is dominated by forestry, not agriculture. The size of the wetland makes it a notable environment for wetland species. It also cleans the passing water and stores it in both the rainy and dry seasons. Water level management happens naturally via a submerged weir located at the start point of the out-flowing stream. Additionally, a flashboard riser allows the water level to be altered manually.

Like the Siuntio River, the Ingarskila is home to the endangered brown trout. So both the Römossebäcken and Pällas sites had submerged weirs which help with slowing down the water flow but allow fish to move freely in the streams. However, as Pällas wetland is at the headwaters of a side stream, fish are not likely to migrate so high up the stream. That said, we remain hesitant to build migration barriers, even though fish are less likely to swim so high up. Removing migration barriers is one of the cornerstones of our work at WWF Finland, so it would be contradictory to remove them at one place and build in another. This site is a good example of how sites located at the headwaters of streams can be built by damming, which is more cost effective than digging a similar site.

These three sites were the last ones built in the Vesiensuojelu 4K project. However, the work does not end here. VALUTA project will continue in the footsteps of this project to implement good water protection practices as well as to create an info package for actors on how to implement water protection measures after VALUTA project.


Thornback rays get a royal send-off

Contact: Thomas Kirk Sørensen

Juvenile thornback rays help raise public awareness and restore ray populations. Photo: Peter Verhog / WWF Denmark

Sharks and rays are the most endangered group of fish worldwide, due to overfishing and bycatch. Public awareness of the state of ray species in the Baltic Sea has been improving thanks to WWF’s ongoing collaboration with H&M and the Kattegatcentret. Through this partnership, WWF Denmark continues to release thornback rays into the wild with the goal of restoring shark and ray populations in Danish waters.

A key aim is to restore ray populations through raising public awareness about sharks and rays through disseminating information on their central role in the marine ecosystem. The project has also informed Danish fisheries stakeholders why it is important to release rays back into the sea as soon as possible for species recovery.

On 21 August, six thornback rays were released by the Crown Princess Mary of Denmark. Since the start of the programme in 2019, a total of 31 rays have been released, each with two tags. Thanks to engagement through this project, fishers are reporting any catches to the Danish zoological institute. The first six rays released have shown completely natural behavior in the sea, burying themselves in sand or jetting out into Kattegat. 

The thornback release project work will continue into 2021.

The Commission gets serious about the Baltic Harbour Porpoise

Contact: Stina Nyström

The harbour porpoise is the only whale species that lives in the Baltic Sea region year-round. There are three genetically and morphologically different populations: one in the North Sea, one in the Belt Sea, and one in the Baltic proper. The latter is listed by IUCN and HELCOM as ‘critically endangered’ with only about 500 individuals remaining.

The key threats to the porpoises in the Baltic Sea are incidental catches (bycatch) in fishing gear, environmental contaminants, prey depletion and disturbance by underwater noise.

Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena).
Photo: Buiten Beeld / Alamy

On 25 September, jointly with other environmental NGOs, WWF sent a letter to Virginijus Sinkevičius (EU Commissioner for Environment, Oceans and Fisheries) in support of full implementation of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea advice (May 2020) on emergency and long term measures for the recovery of the Baltic Proper harbour porpoise population. The letter also raised concerns regarding the Baltic governments’ draft proposal on a joint recommendation, which did not meet the legal requirements to protect the porpoise population. Key parts of the ICES advice were missing, including mandatory pinger use on static nets outside of marine protected areas, and minimized acoustic disturbance in Special Areas of Conservation within the population’s range.  

Sinkevičius responded to the letter in November, stating that he takes this matter “very seriously”. He noted that his objective is to ensure that EU legislation is upheld and enforced, and that the possibility for the Commission to introduce emergency measures is being seriously considered. The Commissioner further confirmed his support for long-term solutions at the local and regional level between marine conservationists, fishers and administrators. The Commission has asked stakeholders in the Baltic Sea, who work together in the Baltic Sea Advisory Council and BALTFISH to develop a joint recommendation to better protect harbour porpoises, with concrete measures to be put in place urgently. 

The Commission is actively engaging with BALTFISH and continues to push the group toward a robust joint recommendation in accordance with the ICES advice.

WWF Ghostdiver – New citizen science app for ghost net search in the Baltic

Contact: Freya Duncker

After sonar data analysis, professional divers and a heavy-duty vessel with a lifting crane contributed to the retrieval success. © Andrea Stolte / WWF

In January 2020, WWF Germany’s ghost net team welcomed a new digital member: the “WWF Ghostdiver” app. The team developed this innovative app that allows divers or fishermen to actively participate in the search for ghost nets. It was officially launched at the international water sports trade fair, Boot 2020, in Düsseldorf. 

The idea is inspired by the valuable knowledge of local people in the search for ghost nets. With the app, divers, fishers, sailors and water sports enthusiasts can report nets and other objects on a map, and – unique to WWF Ghostdiver – can verify suspicious sonar points that have already been reported. Information such as coordinates, water depth, a brief description and photos can also be uploaded. Professional divers can then check and retrieve the objects.

WWF Ghostdiver app. Photo: © WWF Germany

 “With the app, recreational divers participate in an important step in the search for ghost nets. In future, fishing nets can be removed faster, more effectively and in greater volumes”, says Gabriele Dederer, WWF Germany’s Manager for the ghost gear project and initiator of the app. 

Since 2014, a total of 18 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets have been detected and retrieved from the Baltic Sea. About half of this was achieved by testing various methodologies such as wreck retrievals and a dragging anchor. The efficiency of the sonar search technology brought success. In September 2020 alone, WWF Germany’s ghost net project team retrieved 9 tonnes of nets off the coast of Rügen Island with professional divers and a heavy-duty working vessel following sonar scans and analysis. This effectively doubled the amount of fishing gear collected from the Baltic seafloor.

With the “WWF Ghostdiver” app, the success rate is now set to rise further. The pilot will start in the Baltic Sea, with an expansion to the North Sea anticipated in 2021.Used exclusively as a reporting and verification tool, WWF Ghostdiver is available free of charge in German and English for Android and iOS in German app stores.

Latvia’s masterclass in sustainable seafood

Contact: Elza Ozolina

To celebrate another successful year of The Swedish Postcode Foundation project in Latvia, at the beginning of October Pasaules Dabas Fonds organized a media event to look back at this year’s achievements. The range of media representatives present heard about Pasaules Dabas Fonds, WWF activities and recent studies. They also enjoyed a mini masterclass from the chef of the restaurant FERMA on ways to minimize food waste when preparing fish and seafood products, as well as how to prepare new recipes with freshwater species. Participants savoured sustainable seafood dishes such as tench tureen, smoked catfish and perch croquette.

Pasaules Dabas Fonds is glad to see an increase in restaurant and food retailer partnerships this year – despite the pandemic – and the continued interest in the initiative. In addition to our early partners (Restaurant 3, 3 pavāru restorāns, Tam labam būs augt, Buržujs and KEST), this year we welcomed restaurants Dome Fish Restaurant, FERMA, Austra, Pavāru māja Līgatnē, Skrunda Manor, Ar putniem, an enthusiastic chefs’ association called Jauno Pavāru Kustība, and the largest food retailer in Latvia: Rimi Latvija as new industry leaders for sustainable and responsible seafood consumption.

More information can be found on the initiative’s website

Restaurants in the partnership:

Taking Finns underwater on social media

Contact: Vanessa Ryan

Campaign highlight species and habitats in the Baltic to raise the awareness of the general public about these unique Baltic treasures. Photo: © WWF Finland

The Finnish Inventory Programme for the Underwater Marine Environment (VELMU), which was recently awarded the Natura 2000 Conservation Award, has greatly increased our knowledge of life beneath the surface of the Baltic Sea. As a result of the inventories conducted over the past 16 years, 87 ecologically significant underwater marine areas have been identified along the Finnish coast. Only roughly a quarter of the most valuable underwater areas in Finland are currently protected, so there is a real need to strengthen the network of protected areas.

On 8 June, World Oceans Day, WWF Finland started a social media campaign to raise national awareness about the need for better protection of the marine environment.

The campaign lasted all summer. It introduced 13 of the still-unprotected ecologically significant areas to the public on Instagram, highlighting the habitats and species that make the Baltic Sea so beautiful and unique. This is part of a continual push to encourage public understanding and appreciation of marine ecosystems toward our goal of having 30% of the Finnish marine area protected by 2030.

EU fisheries management – still so far to go

Contact: Ottilia Thoreson

The 2020 deadline for achieving sustainable fisheries under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) came and went, yet the legal requirement was not met. The EU Agriculture and Fisheries Council (AGRIFISH) negotiations in October were the first chance for EU Member States to meet their obligations to end overfishing and set an example in the first year of the new decade.

Environmental NGOs welcomed the decision by EU Fisheries Ministers to set Baltic fishing limits for 2021 in accordance with scientific advice for eight of ten fish stocks in the Baltic, thanks in large part to the strong position of the European Commission. However, the result is still far from sufficient to bring the herring and the cod back to healthy levels for the wellbeing of the Baltic Sea ecosystem and the communities that depend on them.

To be effective, fisheries management must prioritize incorporating ecosystem and climate impact assessments.

Ottilia Thoreson, Director, WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme

Ministers made significant cuts in the total allowable catches (TACs) for the herring of the Western and Central Baltic Sea, in line with the latest scientific advice. They also agreed to a moderate increase of the TACs for herring in the Gulf of Riga, and for Western Baltic cod, plaice, sprat and salmon in the main basin area of the Baltic Sea, while the TACs for salmon in the Gulf of Finland will be moderately decreased. The TACs for the Bothnian herring remain the same as 2020.

Even with zero fishing on Eastern Baltic cod, the stock will not recover for years. More efforts must be made to secure the cod’s habitats, feeding and breeding grounds. Fishing quotas play just a small (although crucial) part. To be effective, fisheries management must prioritize incorporating ecosystem and climate impact assessments. Monitoring and control must also be drastically improved to ensure that the rules are being followed.

The decisions taken in Luxembourg in October demonstrate that the EU still has far to go to match its fisheries management decisions with the commitments and ambitions to ecosystem-based management and biodiversity restoration as expressed in the EU Green Deal and its Biodiversity Strategy.

Bottom trawling in the Baltic: too much damage

Contact: Hannah Griffiths Berggren

Fishing has inflicted widespread and significant impacts on marine ecosystems around the world. The Baltic Sea is no exception. Bottom trawling is one of the most damaging fishing methods in practice. It directly impacts marine biodiversity by serially depleting the resource base; causing long-term physical damage to the seafloor; altering the characteristic ecosystem balance and food web; and potentially both enhancing the effects of eutrophication and compounding the impacts of climate change.

What is bottom trawling?
Bottom trawling is a fishing practice that uses mobile bottom contact fishing gear which is manually or mechanically dragged behind a boat. As the gear digs into or scrapes the seafloor, it stirs up sediment, destroys fragile creatures and catches almost everything in its path.

In the report, A sea under pressure: Bottom trawling impacts in the Baltic, WWF’s Baltic Ecoregion Programme investigates the likely impacts of bottom trawling in the southern areas of the Baltic Sea where trawl gear is deployed at the highest intensity. WWF is calling on the European Commission and Baltic governments to take action to apply ecosystem-based fisheries management in order to improve overall biodiversity and allow fish populations to recover. 

A sea under pressure: Bottom trawling impacts in the Baltic
Photo: © WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme

Among other things, the report reveals that bottom trawling is actively practised within the boundaries of marine protected areas (MPAs). Yet at a time when biodiversity is in rapid decline, ecologically important areas must instead be safeguarded and fully protected.

The report recommends nine actions that Baltic Sea governments must take to enable the recovery of marine ecosystems. Key among these is a ban on bottom trawling within the boundaries of all national MPAs and the dramatic reduction of overall fishing effort in key habitats – both of which would enable the management of fisheries as a renewable resource (as opposed to the current ‘ serial depletion’  approach). A regional bottom trawling ban is critical both to the recovery of the Baltic Sea and to the future health of the fishing industry.

Studies show that the environment of the Baltic Sea could be substantially restored if trawling were reduced overall and managed sustainably, through the adoption of a holistic ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management and spatial adaptation.

The report and storymap were launched at the European Commission ‘Our Baltic’ conference in September. The event was attended by Ministers for Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries from the region’s eight EU Member States – who convened to sign a Ministerial Declaration committing to greater engagement in protecting the Baltic Sea environment. 

The storymap illustrates the before and after impacts of bottom trawling on the seafloor. Infographic: © WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme

This is an encouraging step forward but only time will tell if signing the Ministerial Declaration will guarantee the real changes needed to save the Baltic. “Despite a plethora of environmental legislation and policy, which is supposed to safeguard biodiversity in the sea, governments around the Baltic have done little to implement and enforce laws against unsustainable fishing practices like bottom trawling.” Ottilia Thoresen, Director of the WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme

For now, a new window of opportunity for dialogue has opened at the national level. A webinar convened by WWF on 27 November brought multiple stakeholders together with Dr. Clare Bradshaw (Stockholm University) and Prof. Jørgen Hansen (Aarhus University). The scientists presented new research on connections between fishing and bottom trawling impacts on the marine ecosystem and how they affect the biodiversity in Danish waters.

Serious flaws in MSC certification of Baltic fish stocks

Contact: Ottilia Thoreson

WWF, anglers and coastal fishermen have questioned the haste with which the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified the commercial fishing of central Baltic herring and sprat.

Certificate of the Marine Stewardship Council- MSC label

MSC is the official global certification for wild-caught fish, intended to provide assurance that the catch is sustainable and well-managed in the long term. In July, the MSC approved the 5-year certification of the Danish, Swedish, German and Estonian pelagic (near-surface open sea) fisheries, specifically for Baltic Sea sprat and herring. WWF and partner organization the Estonian Fund for Nature raised several issues to the certification body during the stakeholder assessment process. These included concerns of high fishing pressure on some of the stocks and that too little consideration was given to the role of these species in the ecosystem as an important food source for other overfished species. These issues are compounded by misreporting which yields inaccurate catch rates and stock availability figures. 

The MSC certification body based its decision on data supplied by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, which considers that the stocks of sprat and central Baltic herring are within biologically sustainable limits. However, this does not ensure that catches are correctly reported. Control of landings and onboard monitoring to put an end to misreporting are additional requirements to ensure sustainable fisheries. Until this occurs, NGOs question the validity of the MSC certification of the fisheries in Denmark, Estonia, Germany and Sweden for Baltic herring and sprat.


New port construction threatens marine environment

Contact: Marina Vilner

Plans are in development to build a deep-water universal port complex focused on coal and mineral fertilizers on the northern coast of the Gulf of Finland. The 750 hectare port complex is planned close to the city of Primorsk and nearby villages, with a projected cargo turnover of up to 70 million metric tonnes per year. 

Bog myrtle grows close to the new port facilities. Photo: © I. Cherepanov

The port facilities will extend deep into the mainland, occupying a significant portion of the coast and the whole of Lake Vysokinskoye. The declared area is 14 times larger than the area of the existing oil terminal in Primorsk. Although the project has not yet passed all the stages of approval, 330 hectares of pine forest have already been cleared.

Within four kilometers of the planned port is the pearl of the Gulf of Finland – the Berezovye Islands Reserve. The islands are a Ramsar site and have HELCOM marine protected area status. They are also an Important Bird Area and a candidate for the Emerald site (Emerald Network of Areas of Special Conservation Interest, Bern Convention). The construction and operation of the port would jeopardize much of the reserve’s special environmental status.

Dortmann lobelia also known as water lobelia grow in the waters surrounding the new Port. Photo: © A.Doronina

Local people and environmental activists from St. Petersburg and the wider Leningrad region are resisting construction by all possible means. The environmental impact assessment (EIA) prepared by the port administration failed to pass the public hearings in the autumn of 2019, when independent experts agreed that it contained utterly false information. However, neither this failure nor the conflict between the public and the owners of the port which has been extensively covered in the media has influenced the government’s decision to authorize construction.

The protesters are now demanding that the construction of the new port be canceled and that the status of the Lake Vysokinskoye area be changed from “intended for industrial use” to “intended for recreational use” or established as a new protected area.

In 2020, the Baltic Fund for Nature conducted a biological survey in the lake area. In numerous localities, four plant species listed in the national Red Book and one listed in the Leningrad region Red Book were identified. The endangered species Dortmann’s lobelia (Lobelia dortmanna) (Red Book of Russia) grows almost everywhere in the shallow waters of the lake. The population of the other endangered species, Shoreweed (Littorella uniflora) (Red Book of Russia), is arguably the most abundant in the Leningrad region. Also found are peat bogs with considerable presence of bog-myrtle (Myrica gale), a rare species listed in the Russian and East Fennoscandian Red Books. Bogs of this type are among the rarest in the region and thus require protection.

The Baltic Fund for Nature intends to disseminate information about the survey in the media and among the regional authorities. It supports the proposal to exempt the lake from industrial use and reserve it for recreation purposes (for example, ecological tourism) or to establish a protected area.

New ministerial declaration signed at Baltic conference

On 28 September, a high-level conference “Our Baltic” took place online. Organized by the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries, Virginijus Sinkevičius, the conference convened ministers, decision makers, scientists, and stakeholders from NGOs. Its aim was to discuss the challenges faced by the Baltic Sea and to focus on how to reduce the pressure from fisheries as well as pollutants, litter, and contaminants. 

Sylwia Migdał represented WWF Poland “Our Baltic” conference

Sylwia Migdał from WWF Poland joined the panel discussion on tackling pollution from marine litter. She presented best practices and recommendations from the MARELITT Baltic project, designed to find a systemic solution to the problem of derelict fishing gear in the Baltic Sea. Ottilia Thoreson from the WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme was a panelist in the session on fisheries, presenting on the impacts of bottom trawling.

The conference resulted in a Declaration signed by the Ministers for Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries from EU Member States in the region, with the exception of Germany. The Declaration expresses serious concerns around the health of the Baltic Sea due to pressures from human activities and climate change and commits Member States to protect and improve its environment.

Read – WWF Poland take on the ministerial declaration.


Warning bells ring for the future of CAP

Contact: Edel Shanahan

On October 21, the European Parliament and Council shut their eyes to the converging crises of biodiversity and climate and ploughed on with updates to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that had little environmental credibility. Their position results in a CAP that falls short of what was needed for a more effective, fairer, greener EU farm policy.

The co-legislators have diminished the basic environmental conditions attached to EU farm subsidies, negating the European Commission and its Green Deal. The greening of Europe’s farm policy will now largely depend on eco-schemes, a novel and untested system of incentives for farmers.

It is terribly disheartening. Behind their glossy words, MEPs and agriculture ministers are largely perpetuating a farm policy which will throw taxpayers’ money at polluting, industrialized agriculture until at least 2027.

Jabier Ruiz, WWF EPO Senior Policy Officer, Agriculture & Food.

Receiving around one third of the EU budget, the CAP has been a driving force behind the intensification of agriculture in the EU. It is now undergoing trialogue negotiations between the Commission, Council and Parliament. It will be crucial for the Commission to uphold the Green Deal and give clear guidance and recommendations to prevent eco-schemes from being poorly implemented or failing, as the CAP greening did in the previous CAP reform in 2013.

The Council’s position is even worse than that of the Parliament. Aside from ring-fencing 20% of CAP direct payments for eco-schemes, the Council position weakens every single environmental component of the draft CAP regulation proposed by the Commission in 2018. Most notably, Agriculture Ministers have watered down the ‘do-no-harm’ criteria – known as ‘CAP conditionality’ – to simply maintain existing weaker standards. Some of these, such as “ecological focus areas” and “crop diversification”, have a track record of failing to avoid the impacts of agriculture on nature and climate. 

The CAP has the potential to change the fate of biodiversity and climate in the EU but so far it has failed to do so. Photo: WWF EPO

Ministers have similarly rejected the proposed increase in environmental expenditure under the CAP’s Rural Development Fund, in particular by continuing to consider Areas of Natural Constraints payments (i.e. subsidies for farmers in mountainous areas and other types of land which are more difficult to farm) as 100% green. This will reduce the funds available to support farmers through agri-environmental schemes and investments to support the transition to agro-ecological farming.

“It is terribly disheartening. Behind their glossy words, MEPs and agriculture ministers are largely perpetuating a farm policy which will throw taxpayers’ money at polluting, industrialized agriculture until at least 2027. This flies in the face of scientific warnings about loss of nature and increasing greenhouse gas emissions from destructive farming. It fails farmers and nature alike,” concluded Jabier Ruiz, WWF EPO Senior Policy Officer, Agriculture & Food.

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Latvia’s biggest ‘conversation festival’ goes digital

Contact: Magda Jentgena

For five years the Lampa festival has brought together people from all parts of Latvia for two days of dialogue and self reflection. Until this year the festival took place outdoors in the historic city of Cēsis, attracting thousands of people. However, as with many events in 2020, plans changed due to Covid-19. 

This September, the four day festival was held mostly digitally. Pasaules Dabas Fonds took part, organizing four separate discussions on the environment and economic recovery; migration; food; and wine. Prominent speakers such as Edvards Kušners (Adviser to the Council of the Bank of Latvia), Mārtiņš Sirmais (restaurateur and one of the top 5 chefs in Latvia), and Karolis Žibas (Regional Integration Officer for UNHCR) participated. 

As three out of four discussions were held in English, in total, over 50,000 people from all over the world tuned in. This reflects a huge advantage of the virtual format. 

The discussions are now available on Lampas website or down below:

Environment and economic recovery (ENG)

Environment and migration (ENG)

Environment and food (ENG)

Environment and wine (LV)

Meet the team – Vanessa Ryan

Contact: Vanessa Ryan

Photo: WWF Finland

What is your job title?
Marine Conservation Officer at WWF Finland

What is a typical day’s work for you?
Thankfully, there are many kinds of typical days! My day could consist of attending HELCOM working group meetings, writing statements on the implementation of marine policy and legislation, planning events and seminars, or training volunteers for oil spill response.

What do your kids think you do?
They think that I sit at the computer and “do research on animals”. The 6-year-old also concludes that I make sure that “those crabs” don’t come to our cottage beach (refers to mud crabs), and the 3-year-old enthusiastically agrees and claims that I “rake them out” (not entirely true).

What most inspires you about your work?
The people I get to meet and work with! In this job you sometimes get dragged down by slow progress, and it is important that you surround yourself with people who help charge your batteries. Especially working with volunteers, as I sometimes do when I train people for voluntary oil spill response, is very rewarding. I’m incredibly lucky to be working on something I believe is important and makes a difference. 

How do you see the situation of the Baltic in 50 years?
Despite all the challenges that lie ahead of us, I remain optimistic. We humans are incredibly resourceful and innovative when we really want to solve a problem, and I see a lot of good things happening, like the increasing interest in and implementation of nature-based solutions to tackle eutrophication. Having said that, we still need a major shift of mindsets when it comes to de-coupling blue growth from an ever-increasing use of marine and coastal resources and space in order to reach good environmental status of the Baltic Sea.

– Partner: WWF Finland
– Country: Finland
– Active in the Baltic since 1990
– BEP focused staff members: 8 staff
– Main thematic focus: Eutrophication, marine policy (MSFD, BSAP, MPAs), river basin management and nature-based solutions, sustainable fisheries, restoration of migration routes and spawning sites of migratory fishes, oil spill response and oiled wildlife response


A ray of hope for nature, gloomy on climate: Ministers endorse EU Biodiversity Strategy

Contact: Larissa Milo-Dale or Edel Shanahan

In a positive move for biodiversity, EU Member States endorsed the objectives of the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy in the Environment Council’s meeting of 23 October.

Published in May of this year, the EU 2030 Biodiversity Strategy commits to legally protecting at least 30% of the EU’s land and sea area by 2030. At least one-third of this (so at least 10% of the EU’s land and sea) must be under strict protection. Such protection would leave natural processes essentially undisturbed to respect the areas’ ecological requirements although the area may still be accessible to humans.

WWF welcomed the Environment Council’s endorsement as a much-needed beacon of hope after the Council and Parliament shut their eyes to the converging biodiversity and climate crises and agreed an outdated position on the future of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) earlier that month. 

Sunshine in the San Rafael reserve, southeastern Paraguay © Helen Beynon

The decision came hot on the heels of the European Environmental Agency’s State of Nature report, which made it painfully clear that the EU is not on track to curb biodiversity loss. Ambitious action – as outlined in the Biodiversity Strategy – is urgently needed to reverse these downwards trends. 

Less positively, however, Ministers failed to make real progress on the EU climate law, ignoring the European Parliament’s recent support for a 60% emissions reduction target for 2030. 

The Biodiversity Strategy has the potential to trigger the transformative change desperately needed to halt biodiversity loss. With the Strategy endorsed by Member States, WWF calls for focus to be directed to its implementation. Until now, the implementation of targets for nature conservation, restoration and recovery has been weak or non-existent. Among other things, this has left many protected areas as little more than lines drawn on a map. The following must now be key priorities for Member States: 

  • Make nature restoration a priority for both climate and biodiversity over the coming ten years, by supporting and implementing legally binding targets to restore at least 15% of the EU’s land and sea area;
  • Fully endorse and implement the target to protect at least 30% of land and sea and to strictly protect at least 10% of land and sea, including the protection of the remaining old-growth and primary forests;
  • Improve the management effectiveness and actual protection of all existing and new protected areas;
  • Ensure that the Biodiversity Strategy and its targets are mainstreamed across all policy areas in the national context. 

Among our recommendations on the climate law, WWF is calling for a target of at least 65% emissions reductions; the scrapping of policies inconsistent with climate targets; an independent scientific body to scrutinize proposals; and a roadmap to climate neutrality by 2040.


7-8 December 2020 – HELCOM HODs – 59th Meeting of the Heads of Delegation

11 March 2021 – HELCOM Stakeholder Conference, online.

17-18 March 2021 – HELCOM – 42nd Meeting of the Helsinki Commission

23-24 March 2021 – XXI International Environmental Forum “Baltic Sea Day”

17-30 May 2021 – The 50th meeting of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-15), Kunming, China.

17 May 2021 – Harbour Porpoise Day

22 May 2021 – International Day for Biological Diversity

Editorial support: Sian Owen (Sustainability Options Consulting)

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Last modified 29/11/21

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