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Newsletter|18 May, 2021

WWF Baltic Newsletter – May 2021

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In this edition

Editorial: Nature underpins our economies and our prosperity

Contact: Ottilia Thoreson

Over a year has passed since the first outbreak of the pandemic which showed the world how interconnected we are, with an event in one location having ripple effects and far-reaching impacts across the globe. It has forced us to acknowledge the fragility of our societies and our dependence on nature. The combined crises of biodiversity loss and climate change have never been as high on the political and corporate agendas as they are today. There is a growing awareness that we cannot continue on the same trajectory of treating the economy and the environment as separate from each other – that the social, economic and environmental pillars need to deliver equally, and not at the expense of one  another. The Dasgupta Review supports this, demonstrating how our economic models and policies are a primary reason for the current environmental crisis. A fundamental shift in how we approach economics is needed.

Photo: WWF Poland/Dariusz Bógdał

The United Nations’ Second World Ocean Assessment is the only integrated global assessment of the world’s ocean, covering environmental, economic and social aspects. It clearly shows that the state of the  ocean has not improved since the first assessment in 2015, with many of the benefits it provides at risk. Multiple human pressures continue to degrade the ocean and its important habitats. These include stresses associated with climate change, unsustainable fishing, the introduction of invasive species, and atmospheric pollution which causes acidification and eutrophication. Excessive nutrients and hazardous substances including plastics, as well as anthropogenic noise, poorly managed coastal development and natural resource extraction are further compromising the capacity of marine ecosystems to function. The Baltic Sea is no exception.

The HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) outlines the mitigation measures required for the recovery of the Baltic Sea to a healthy state. It has failed to meet an overall improvement by the deadline set for this year – 2021. The nine Baltic Sea coastal countries and the European Union are revising and updating the plan with a view to achieving this vision by 2030. In June, the countries will preliminarily agree on the updated BSAP to be adopted by all nine Environment Ministers in October, in Lübeck, Germany. As an observer of HELCOM, along with several partner NGOs, WWF has repeatedly raised  our concerns around the low ambition and political will evidenced in drafting the new plan. We think it falls short of what is needed to become a carbon neutral and nature positive region by 2030.

This decade will be pivotal for bending the curve on biodiversity loss – to ensure our demands on nature do not exceed its ability to supply.

Ottilia Thoreson, Director, WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme
High Hopes for HELCOM.

Tackling large scale degradation of the Baltic Sea can only be achieved through regional cooperation where all countries commit to take adequate and appropriate action to halt further degradation and nature loss.

Some inspiring examples of action on this front can be found in the stories in this edition: new fisheries regulations in protected areas and the new European Oiled Wildlife Assistance project are both promising  initiatives. The incentives underlying economic decision-making across maritime sectors and terrestrial sources of marine pollution must be changed. For this, activities such as nature hikes and sustainable fish games in Estonia, inspiring landowners to participate in wetland restoration in Finland, a new water management grant scheme in Latvia, and a virtual museum of the future Baltic in Poland all play their role.

Enjoy reading about all this and more.

One-on-one with Alf Norkko

Alf Norkko is a Professor in Baltic Sea Research at the University of Helsinki. Years of diving and studying marine sediments have given him a unique, bottom-up perspective of the world’s most widespread habitat, the seafloor. In this edition, Professor Norkko explains how much there is to learn about the Baltic Sea by sifting through its very foundations.

 “There is a whole different world when you put your head under the sea,” says Norkko who has been diving in the Baltic Sea for more than 30 years. He describes himself as an ecologist and systems scientist whose research aims to understand how the Baltic Sea works as an ecosystem. Although it is a shallow sea with a mean depth of only 60 metres, there is huge variability in types of sediment. In the southern Baltic alone, there are sandy coastlines, moraines and bedrocks which create an array of different environments and diverse habitats.

Norkko compares the sediment to compost due to its composition: organic matter, nutrients as well as decades worth of pollution. Eutrophication and low oxygen levels have led to large areas that are devoid of life. In recent years bottom trawling in certain areas, mineral extraction, dredging and building of coastal infrastructure have impacted the seafloor. For the Baltic Sea, this is problematic because there is such limited exchange.

Unless we have a profound understanding of the seafloor, we cannot solve the problem.

“Understanding the seafloor is a good place to start because it is connected to every part of the marine ecosystem. As an almost entirely enclosed sea, the Baltic is special in several ways. The exchange of nutrients between the seafloor and the water column above it becomes very intense because the Baltic is so shallow. Ecosystems are adapted to the low salinity, and the combination of these two factors alone results in a shallow basin where interactions are strong and there are rapid consequences of any changes in temperature, nutrient cycling and disturbances of the seafloor. Algal blooms are a good example of a visible indicator of disruption in the careful balance of nutrient cycling by benthic communities.”

What measures should be prioritized to allow efficient recovery of disturbed marine sediment?
A Decade for Ocean Science

“Sometimes we’re a bit slow to take the lead but there is such a strong and long history of collaboration in the Baltic. We can really take the lead as a region. Science and the communication of science can play an important role too. Every second breath comes from the oceans and expanding society’s knowledge about the sea and the seafloor is crucial in fostering care for an environment that is still so unknown. Now that we’ve entered the UN’s Decade for Ocean Science, the opportunity has come to share knowledge about the seafloor and help people to appreciate these vast sources of life.”

 We know more about the moon than our seafloor

As in other parts of the global ocean, the Baltic seafloor is highly varied. Multiple gradients and sediment types influence the web of life in the different environments. ”Each of these environments requires a slightly different approach to management. One size does not fit all so a more localized, tailored management approach is necessary. For that, we need a local and in-depth understanding of each part of the seafloor.

We closed by asking Professor Norkko what first drew him to the depths of the ocean.


Nature brings people together in difficult times

Contact: Kertu Hool

A layer of snow covered the spongy, wet earth in the mires of Estonia’s Natura 2000 sites as hundreds of hikers strapped on their snowshoes and prepared for a day exploring the wetlands. This was the much anticipated opening of 70 nature trips into the Estonian wetlands around World Wetlands Day in February 2021. It was jointly planned by the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF) and the Estonian Nature Tourism Association.

BEP partner ELF has been involved in the LIFE Mires Estonia project since 2015 with the dual aim of stopping habitat degradation caused by drainage and regenerating wetlands and mires. Activities to engage visitors and increase their awareness and knowledge of the role and value of mires for the environment and climate have helped influence the attitudes of local inhabitants towards safeguarding internationally valuable wetlands and improved their understanding of current nature conservation issues.

Hiking with snow in Sirtsi nature conservation area that has wonderful mires. Photo: Bert Rähni.

The hikes took people to Estonian Ramsar and Natura 2000 areas and smaller, locally important sites. As the weather was bright and snowy, the hikes were mainly done by snowshoe or kick-sleds, as well as on skis and even with sled dogs.

Eleven hikes were organized to local communities via the LIFE project Piloting Natura 2000 Communication in Estonia, and two hikes were organized to wetland restoration sites of the project LIFE Mires Estonia. In keeping with pandemic rules, outdoor groups were limited to ten people. In total about 700 people took part in Estonian or Russian-speaking groups to hike in mires, bogs, coastal wetlands, and along lakes and rivers. 

In the run-up a Zoom seminar was held for the nature hike organizers. It covered the Ramsar Convention, the EU Birds and Habitat Directives, and rules to protect nature, and featured a discussion on how to use these designations as quality labels for nature tourism. 

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was launched in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran and went into force in 1975. It is a global environmental treaty aimed at “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local, regional and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.

Wetlands in the media

ELF asked all Estonian environmental organizations and state institutions to team up on wetland-related media work which generated a lot of media attention. Television reporters from TV3 & Kanal2 Reporter visited the hikes and Terevison, Ringvaade, Hommik Anuga interviewed ELF in their studios. Numerous radio shows also invited us to speak, while the Environmental Board wrote articles in local newspapers about wetlands. The Russian media also covered the Russian-language hikes.

Happy wetland day in Muraka mire.
Photo: Alutaguse Matkaklubi
#WorldWetlandsDay #Inseparable#astusohu #märgatudmärgalal #märgaladepäev

Many organizers registered their hikes on the official World Wetlands Day website, as well as posting their own Facebook event. Six organizations posted social media content about World Wetlands Day and shared information, mirroring and amplifying each other’s messages along with the content that was uploaded by hikers themselves such as photo albums and videos from different wetlands and happy people. 

“It was a real thrill to organize this event in the middle of winter and the pandemic, and to see happy faces returning from freezing wetlands.”

Kertu Hool, Estonian Fund for Nature

Mires in Estonia have been severely damaged by drainage for agriculture, forestry and peat extraction. Lower water levels have allowed trees and shrubs to intrude, crowding out the typical Estonian fen mosses. The mires are crucial for protecting biodiversity by creating habitats for important wetlands species such as the western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), the moor frog (Rana arvalis) and dragonflies (Leucorrhinia). Acting as major carbon sinks, the mire habitats also provide significant climate change mitigation services. Mires further contribute to water retention and regulate the water balance, which directly impacts the surrounding land and protects local communities and other habitats further downstream. Yet despite the clear benefits for biodiversity, climate and people alike, mires are becoming rare and degraded across the EU. 

Voluntary measures to protect coastal waters

Contact: Jenny Jyrkänkallio-Mikkola

Climate change is projected to increase the number of mild winters and levels of precipitation in Finland, posing a major threat to water protection. While 87% of Finland’s lakes and 68% of its rivers are in ‘high’ or ‘good’ ecological condition, only 13% of coastal waters qualify as ‘good’. Many of the water bodies in poorer condition are located near the coast and in many cases, eutrophication is the most significant problem (Fig.1). 

February 2020 was a daunting example of what happens during heavy winter rains when vegetation cover is low. The phosphorus load to the Archipelago Sea was ten times higher than in an average winter. The increased nutrient and sediment loads in all rivers flowing to the Baltic Sea can clearly be seen from satellite images.

Together with extensive drainage, the clearing of wetlands and mires for other land use purposes has destroyed the natural capacity of catchment areas to retain water. Hence, there is a need to restore and construct water retention sites in all catchment areas. The third management cycle of the river basin management plans for 2022– 2027 is now under public consultation and the challenge is how to inspire landowners to take a lead on this restoration and construction on a voluntary basis. 

The work requires additional funding, coordination, planning and advocacy with environmental authorities and municipalities – tasks for which few landowners have the time or motivation. Regional water protection projects can address some of these shortcomings by, for example, constructing water retention sites.

WWF Finland has led two  such projects (Project Vesiensuojelu 4K and Project VALUTA) in western Uusimaa on three catchment areas, over time building water retention sites such as wetlands, two-stage-ditches and bottom weirs. These examples have inspired new landowners to participate. 

Coordination and facilitation must be ongoing and continuous in order to increase the number of voluntary water protection measures. WWF Finland’s projects fund, plan, and construct the sites – activities the landowners were unlikely to undertake themselves. Although it may take some for landowners to decide to take action, when they do the financial and coordination assistance is warmly welcomed. 

New grant programme for Latvian water management

Contact: Magda Jentgen

The average Latvian thinks that the quality of nature is much higher than anywhere else in Europe. In Latvia, only 33% of surface water has good ecological status, below the EU average. The LIFE Goodwater Integrated project, funded by the EU, has launched a small grants programme for individuals, NGOs, and municipalities to improve water quality in Latvia. As one of many activities under the eight year project, the grant scheme  is designed both to promote local innovation and to raise awareness and support small scale solutions to improving water quality.

Spotlight on farmers protecting the sea

Contact: Anu Suono

Sustainable agriculture is key to solving the problem of eutrophication in the Baltic Sea. In 2009, WWF launched the annual Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award to recognize the farmers taking active measures to reduce nutrient runoff and to put a spotlight on their exemplary farms. The learnings, insights and successes of the numerous farms of past and future award winners  across the Baltic Sea coastal countries can be found on a newly launched dedicated website.

Image: Brandline

“The objective is to create something bigger than the competition itself,” says Anu Suono, Coordinator of the Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award. “We hope that, by sharing these stories more widely, we will inspire greater numbers of farmers around the Baltic to transition to more sustainable methods, and encourage policy makers to make reforms that support sustainable agriculture.” 

In addition to serving as a central place to share stories and updates related to the Award, the site provides information on the vital role sustainable agriculture plays in curbing nutrient runoff. Together with farmers and other experts across the region, WWF has identified a number of farming methods that are proven to make a difference. Learn directly from the personal stories and experiences about best practices for water management, soil health and much more.

Why is soil health important?

Contact: Anu Suono

Finnish farmers Tuomas and Iiris Mattila who produce rye, oats, green manure and apples are featured on  Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award website. The Mattilas won the national Award in 2018, in recognition of their holistic management style and application of innovative, researched-based methods. In the interview, they share more details about what actually happens on their research and educational farm and explore the topic of soil health. 

Finnish farmers Tuomas and Iiris Mattila on their winning farm in Finland
Photo: Minna Nyrhinen-Blazquez

To read the full interview and other stories from farmers around the Baltic Sea, visit 


16 May – Baltic harbour porpoise day

Contact: Stina Nyström

Did you know that the harbour porpoise (Phocoena Phocoena) is one of seven species of porpoise in the world?  It is the only whale residing permanently in the Baltic Sea. The unique population is listed by IUCN and HELCOM as ‘critically endangered’, with only a few hundred animals left. On the third Sunday of May each year, we celebrate the International Day of the Baltic harbour porpoise. 

Two harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena), phographed under water

This celebration was introduced in 2002 by the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS). It was intended to build public awareness of the harbour porpoise population in the Baltic proper, which is threatened with extinction.

While threats to the Baltic harbour porpoise include pollution and disturbance from underwater noise, bycatch in fishing gear is the single most acute threat causing direct mortalities. The extent of the bycatch in the Baltic Sea is still largely unknown, but with so few animals left, even a single death (especially of a reproductive female) could have a devastating impact on the ability of the population to recover or even stabilize.

Researchers say that bycatch beyond 0.7 animals per year is unsustainable.

This year, we are asking the public to continue to spread the word on the Baltic harbour porpoise and its need for help. Share this animated film produced by WWF Sweden on Twitter and other social media, using #SaveTheBalticPorpoise!

Fishing on social media?

Contact: Kertu Hool

The Estonian Fund for Nature has launched a social media game called Kalamäng (Fishgame) on Facebook. The idea is simple: click to catch the most sustainable species of fish and let all the other species swim away. The more you catch only one species, the worse the situation gets – like in real life. And be aware of the ghost nets floating around!

The game is aimed at a youth demographic, but everybody with a bit of free time is welcome!

Time is running out to safeguard cetaceans in European waters

Contact: Stina Nyström

In the May 2020 edition of this newsletter, we described the movement to safeguard cetaceans in European waters, thanks to the efforts of a large NGO coalition who filed a joint legal complaint and called for the adoption of emergency measures in July 2019. 

Harbour porpoise (Phocoena Phocoena).
Photo: Alamy Stock Photo / Solvin Zankl 

Despite some progress being made on paper, there has been little action in the sea. Since the update provided in our December 2020 Newsletter, the EU’s Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF) released an evaluation in April 2021 which confirmed the EU countries’ inadequate response to bycatch of protected species, including Baltic Proper harbour porpoises. 

Baltic member states aim to submit a second set of Joint Recommendations by June 2021. NGOs are calling for these to include measures covering the entire Baltic Sea region, in line with scientific advice. We are also calling on the Commission to promptly adopt emergency measures. 

We will continue to follow this matter closely, and hope that harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea will quickly receive the protection they so desperately need. 

Restricting fishing in MPAs 

Contact: Ottilia Thoreson

To date, marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Baltic Sea are poorly protected from human activities. The EU Birds and Habitats Directives are aimed at protecting sensitive species and habitats through a network of special areas of conservation, also known as ‘Natura 2000 sites’. Member states are required to take protective measures to fulfil the Directives in their national waters. However when these measures relate to fishing, member states have no competency – fishing is instead regulated under the EU Common Fisheries Policy.

The highest intensity of bottom trawling in the Baltic is concentrated in Kattegat and across the southwest of the Baltic Proper. In these areas, 80-100% of the seafloor has been disturbed. Trawling has heavily impacted the seabed habitats and overall ecosystem, resulting in major changes in the composition of biodiversity in regularly trawled areas. In an effort to reduce the fishing impacts, in four marine Natura 2000 sites – Fladen, Lilla Middelgrund, Stora Middelgrund and Röde Bank, and Morups Bank – Sweden, together with Denmark and Germany, is proposing new fisheries regulations to the European Commission. This includes different types of fishing-free zones and allowing only for certain types of gear to be used within the protected areas. Such gear includes pots, handline and pelagic trawl, which have less impact on the surrounding ecosystem.

As shown in WWF’s report, bottom trawling not only damages seabed structures, it causes reduced biodiversity and changes in species composition and survival, impacting the overall food web. All of this is evident in the Kattegat. Gillnet fishing also has negative ecosystem impacts via bycatch of seabirds and marine mammals. These should also be limited. 

For the measures to be effective, cross-border agreements with Denmark and Germany who fish the same waters as Sweden, are essential. In drafting a joint recommendation by the affected member states, it has proven a challenge to reach agreement on restricting fishing in protected areas and set fishing free zones.

To meet international targets, the Danish Society for Nature Conservation and the Danish Fishermen Producer Organisation have proposed to the Danish government areas covering 10% of the Danish waters in North Sea, Skagerrak and the Baltic Sea around Bornholm for strict protection. Kattegat was not included. Reduction of fishing effort and strict protection is likely to be beneficial regarding the economic and social opportunities for the industry and coastal communities. 

Natura 2000 sites and endangered species in the Kattegat:
  • Real protection of predatory fish, marine mammals and valuable environments is crucial for sustainable marine management, which in turn creates the conditions for viable fisheries in the future.
  • The cod stock in the Kattegat has been overfished and shows little signs of recovery. Any hope of healthy cod populations depends on habitat protection.
  • The Baltic harbour porpoise is protected through the EU Habitats Directive, is classified as ‘critically endangered’ by the IUCN, and has been protected in Swedish waters since 1973. Both porpoises and seabirds get caught in fishing nets as bycatch.
  • The offshore banks, especially Lilla Middelgrund, are important foraging areas for seabirds during autumn and winter.
  • Trawling leads to fewer species in seabed habitats and changes in species composition. Bottom trawls also stir up sediments that can lead to organisms being buried and filter feeding species being suffocated.

Solving conflict between fishers and seals

Contact:  Polina Bakunovich

Any fishing gear is a threat to seabirds and mammals. There is high risk that animals will become entangled in nets, suffocate and be injured. Seals caught in tackle are often killed by fishers, who blame seals for eating their fish and damaging gear. The conflict between Baltic fishers and seals  has been going on for decades.

Photo: Bakunovich

In 2021, the Baltic Fund for Nature launched a project aimed at reducing the risk of interaction of marine animals with fishing gear in the Gulf of Finland by exploring the relative impacts of fishing using standard and modified fishing gear. 

The modified fishing traps have a lattice installed at the entrance to prevent the seal from getting entangled and from consuming the fish inside. The effectiveness of the modified gear, the impact of the lattice on the entry of fish into the trap and the interaction of the seals with the modified gear will be evaluated through the summer. If successful, the results will be presented to commercial fishers, scientists, NGOs and the authorities. The project also involves communication with important stakeholders such as recreation fishers. 

Ice fishing. Photo: Bakunovich

The goals are to build a positive attitude toward nature during fishing; raise awareness around fishing rules and regulations; inform on the problem of ghost nets and the possible consequences of marine pollution; and motivate fishers to join actions to clean unowned nets from the water.

The next step is to promote an amendment of the fishing rules and a ban on the use of unmodified fishing gears. Installing a lattice at the entrance of the fishing tackle is inexpensive and can be used by any fishing enterprise. An effective solution to keeping  dozens of seals alive to play their important role in the Baltic ecosystem.

Listening to the Baltic Sea

Contact: Stina Nyström

It is well established that underwater noise has an impact on individual marine animals but the consequences at a population level are not yet fully understood. Several species such as the Baltic Sea harbour porpoise and  cod are under environmental pressure. Underwater noise adds stress to these already threatened species. To take appropriate measures, managers need information on sound levels over time and at different locations. They also need to understand whether the sources of  the noise are natural or anthropogenic. 

Figure 1. Ship traffic density for year 2018 in the Northern Midsea bank with the hydrophone locations marked out, and also the boundaries of the Natura 2000 area “Hoburgs bank and Midsjöbankarna”.

In 2018, WWF Sweden and research partners launched the Postcode Lottery funded project, A living Baltic Sea. The project contributes to marine protection and effective management of key marine areas and species in the Swedish part of the Baltic Sea. One of the implementing partners, Swedish Defence Research Agency, has been collecting sound recordings for the Swedish national monitoring of underwater noise.

Between 2015 and 2018, the project used commercial hydrophones to analyze the movement of ships in the Northern Midsea bank off the coast of Sweden (approximately five km from a dense shipping lane (NM North)), using the Automatic Identification System (Fig 1). The data was compared with sound recordings made in a quieter location, approximately 15 km from the nearest shipping lane (NM South). 

Researcher Emilia Lalander out at sea, ready to deploy a Sound Velocity Profiler (SVP).
Photo Julia Carlström.

The results show ship noise to be the dominant sound source at this location, one that is always present in lower frequencies. The distance to the shipping lane affects the noise levels. For an animal with a hearing range in the lower frequencies (~100 Hz) such as cod, the ability to communicate is greatly affected in the NM north location. Higher noise levels of 10dB reduce the communication range to one third. Communication among marine mammals is less affected because they can hear higher frequencies (>1000 Hz).  However, at a distance of one kilometre from the shipping lanes, research has shown that the harbour porpoise is likely to react to ship noise. On any given day, ship traffic passes within one kilometre of 39% of the marine protected area, likely creating noise levels that would be expected to impact harbour porpoises.

Partnership with Copenhagen port authorities enhances biodiversity

Contact:  Henrike Semmler

A new multi-year partnership between WWF and By & Havn, the company that develops new areas in the city of Copenhagen and operates the port, aims to improve fish habitats and increase port biodiversity. By & Havn wants Copenhagen harbour to be a laboratory and an inspiration to other ports in Denmark and the wider Baltic.  

The nature-positive cooperation is based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life below water, and aims to enhance the opportunities for nature below the surface of the water. The Port of Copenhagen is world famous for its high water quality and numerous swimming spots. Nevertheless, healthy habitats for fish and other marine biodiversity are also key components of a good port environment. The partnership aims to show that life below the surface is also special, with the goal of creating even more life.

Nature-positive production is characterized by a regenerative, non-depleting and non-destructive use of natural resources. It is based on stewardship of the environment and biodiversity as the foundation of critical ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration and soil, water, and climate regulation.

Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit 2021

The partnership is a good example of how urban development and nature conservation can go hand in hand if nature is taken into account from the start. In the first project, 50 ‘biohuts’ will be installed as habitats for juvenile fish. Biohuts are small cages filled with mussel shells – artificial habitats which offer food and shelter to juvenile fish that naturally enter harbours and other marine facilities. These will help the survival rate of fish larvae, thereby increasing fish stocks. Biodiversity will also increase as the fish will attract other species that prey on fish, in turn creating a better environment for all marine life in the port. 

In the first year of the partnership a baseline report will be written and used to form the basis for future projects and help analyze their impact. Read more about the partnership and the development projects here.


Counting Baltic fish 

Contact:  Yvonne Blombäck

A screenshot of a pike sent in by a member of the public

Between April 20 and May 3, WWF Sweden broadcasted live from under the Baltic Sea – Återskapa Östersjöns livskraft  as part of a citizen science project aimed at creating pathways for pike and perch, two of the Baltic Sea’s important coastal predatory fish. An underwater camera was set up to allow viewers to be on the look out for passing fish and count them in an effort to, help collect important data on fish species. Over the two weeks, there were a total of 11,000 views and almost 2,000 reports about what people saw, including pikes, sticklebacks, perches and shrimps. 


Time to aim high

Contact: Ottilia Thoreson

A white-tailed sea eagle tips its wings and soars upward on a gust of wind above one of the thousands of islands in the Swedish archipelago. It glides silently over the world’s youngest and most environmentally stressed seas, the Baltic. Its story is closely linked to the health of the Baltic Sea.

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the numbers of eagles sharply declined. Their eggs were brittle and the shells broke easily. High levels of hazardous chemicals such as the eggshell-thinning pesticide DDT were to blame. Pesticides like DDT, used in agriculture, and chemicals such as mercury, used in paper mill industries, were entering the Baltic Sea from the land via rivers, waste water and sewage.

White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla). Photo: Wild Wonders of Europe Staffan Widstrand WWF

In 1974, the Heads of State in seven Baltic countries decided to band together as a region to tackle pollution in the Baltic Sea caused by industrialization and other human activities. Under the new formed Helsinki Commission, they committed “to take measures on conserving habitats and biological diversity and for the sustainable use of marine resources.” DDT and other hazardous chemicals were banned.

In March, there were high hopes for the HELCOM Commission to  set an  ambitious path forward for updating of the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP), with the aim to achieve good environmental status by 2030.  The original BSAP was set out to restore the Baltic marine environment by 2021 which has not been met, and proves further need for rigorous action and bolder commitments by the Baltic Sea countries. 

The updated plan is due to be approved in June and finally adopted by the Environmental Ministers and the European Commission in October. However, some countries are unwilling to raise the bar on ambition of future actions and are even watering down current actions already agreed in the original BSAP that still need implementing in the coming years. In the meantime, Baltic marine life has to navigate increasingly acidic waters, and dodge trawl nets and abandoned fishing gear, seabed disturbances and extractive activities, anoxic zones, and contaminants. On top of this, Baltic ecosystems are facing new challenges linked to human-induced climate change and extreme weather.

“Fulfilling the 2030 target of changing the current environmental state of the Baltic Sea is one of the hardest things we must collectively achieve. But the consequences of inaction will be even harder to shoulder. Given the interconnected nature of climate change, loss of biodiversity, eutrophication, land, air and water pollution, it is essential that these problems are tackled together.”

Ottilia Thoreson, Director, WWF Baltic Ecoregion Programme
Photo: WWF Abraham

We are in the midst of a combined biodiversity and climate crisis. The coming decade will be decisive – either we take action to safeguard biodiversity or we jeopardize our collective future. This year, HELCOM has a unique opportunity to sign a new BSAP that goes beyond “business as usual”. The frameworks and policies that could transform an ailing Baltic into a thriving sea do exist. Brave and sufficient political commitment can deliver that change – they have in the past – only a decade after the ban in the 1970s of hazardous chemicals, white-tailed sea eagles were thriving once more. 

Ambitious commitments needed to secure ocean health

Contact: Vanessa Ryan

In April, WWF Finland arranged a webinar about the state of the oceans to highlight the ambition needed to secure the health of our seas. The seminar focused on two crucial and interlinked issues that need to be solved: sustainable management of fish stocks and the need to substantially expand marine protected areas to secure the resilience of marine ecosystems. 

The outcome of the seminar was clear: humankind depends upon a diverse and productive ocean, and climate change mitigation and adaptation must be integrated into the management and protection of marine ecosystems. 


Tipping the scales towards sustainable fishing in the EU

Contact: Stella Nemecky

In the coming months, the EU will revise its rules on fisheries control, a cornerstone legislation for the sustainable use of EU seas. The Fisheries Control Regulation is the EU’s system for monitoring, inspection and enforcement of fishing in EU waters and the EU’s fishing fleet’s global operations. The Control Regulation is key to enabling fishers, decision-makers and civil society to count the fish taken out of our seas, and to monitor the impact of fishing activities on the marine ecosystems. The revised Control Regulation offers the opportunity to contribute to a post-pandemic recovery that is more aligned with the balance of nature and can empower citizens to make better informed and more responsible seafood purchases.

This is a welcome and timely revision of the EU control rules, as it is clear that the current system does not work properly. Today, 89% of the EU fleet is not monitored, there are severe problems with fish being discarded at sea, and there is little transparency about how member states are controlling their fisheries. 

Photo: V.A.Buzun and BFN of SPNS

The European Commission has proposed an overhaul to the Control Regulation, aiming to digitize fisheries control and get rid of loopholes and exemptions. This includes introducing electronic logbooks for all EU vessels, an approach that has already been tried and tested for small scale vessels in Croatia and helps provide crucial data about fish stocks and inform sustainable fisheries management. The Commission also proposes using remote electronic monitoring (REM), a system comprising net sensors and cameras to better monitor fishing operations to avoid the wasteful practice of discarding unwanted catches. This has been tried and tested in many EU countries, including in Denmark. The Commission has also proposed streamlining and digitizing supply chains to ensure that seafood products can be traced from net to plate. Not only will this help bring clear information to consumers, it is also crucial in the fight against illegal fishing.

The European Parliament agreed on their position in March. While members of the Parliament agreed to several of the advances mentioned above, they fell notably short on two key issues.

Firstly, they decided that REM should only be used for controlling the landing obligation, and not for monitoring ecosystem issues, such as bycatch of marine mammals and seabirds. This is a missed opportunity. In the Baltic Sea, where the population of Baltic proper harbour porpoise has plummeted to extremely low levels, equipping fishing vessels with REM technology could be instrumental to mitigating bycatch and returning the population to healthy levels. 

Secondly, the Parliament decided to significantly backtrack on accurate reporting of seafood. They proposed allowing fishing operators to omit up to 40% of catches (and up to 50% in the case of tuna) from the EU fleet’s fishing records. This would legalize underreporting of catches, undermine scientific data to evaluate the status of fish stocks, and could render fisheries control efforts ineffective.

All eyes are now on the EU member states currently negotiating their joint position and aiming to finalize negotiations in June. WWF calls on member states to embrace these new technologies which have the potential to make accountable and sustainable fishing in EU seas possible, providing both a comprehensive record of the fish caught and of the impact of fishing activities on sensitive and protected species like marine mammals and seabirds. Any changes to this key regulation should improve the sustainability and long-term prospects for our ocean and for fishers. 

Europe’s food system – striking the right chord

Brussels, March 2021 – Every spring, the Forum for the Future of Agriculture gathers EU Commissioners, industry leaders, academics and ministers to discuss how European and global agriculture can develop to simultaneously feed a growing population and safeguard the natural environment. This year, WWF led an online webinar about striking the right chord to support nature-friendly farming.

Six key points highlighted at the Forum are practised by the farmers who win the Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award:

  1. Learning-by-doing – collaboration across sectors like business, farming, climate research and policy is essential to promote learning and innovative farming practices.
  2. Seeing is believing – nature positive farming is possible and it is working.
  3. Farmers’ welfare matters – economic security and wellbeing are key drivers for increasing the production of plant protein within the boundaries of sustainable land use in Europe.
  4. Better informed consumers can help accelerate scaling up calls for healthier diets and more transparency in the food system.
  5. Farm-to-fork strategies cannot be achieved without an integrated approach which in turn requires active engagement from every sector in the food system.
  6. “Soil is nature’s magic carpet”, as one delegate put it. “We walk on it, build on it and yet it feeds us and is home to a quarter of all biodiversity on the planet.”

Missing the mark

Contact: Valerie de Liedekerke

Like many of the world’s seas, the Baltic Sea is multi-functional and extremely busy. Sectors such as fisheries, shipping and renewable energy compete for the 404,354 km² of sea space with nature and communities. Maritime spatial planning (MSP) is a tool that can help mediate challenges by allocating space and resources in the most appropriate way to minimize conflicts and find synergies between different uses of the sea, including nature conservation. However, only one-third of the Baltic Sea countries submitted their MSP in line with the EU Directive March 31 deadline – and those three plans are extremely patchy.  

The Baltic Sea faces incredible challenges due to the growth of maritime economic sectors and agriculture, increased climate change and the degradation of ecosystems as a result of unsustainable human activities. WWF advocates for ecosystem-based MSP across the region to deliver a more sustainable relationship with our seas and marine resources.  

Image: Photostock

The new plans must meet the MSP Directive’s key requirements. These include being consistent and cross-border; founded on an ecosystem-based approach; promoting coexistence of activities and uses; contributing to the preservation, protection and improvement of the environment; and supporting the sustainable development of maritime sectors. All coastal EU member states must give due consideration to how their plans will help meet key policy targets, such as achieving Good Environmental Status in all EU waters (a target whose deadline has already passed). They must also strive to protect at least 30% of EU seas by 2030, including 10% strictly protected, as set out in the EU Biodiversity Strategy

Unless the EU embraces a sustainable, strategic and forward-looking vision for our relationship with the ocean, and commits to implementing it, we will lose the vital ecosystem services humans rely on. The European Commission and member states must urgently deliver on their commitments to healthier seas. 


Monitoring bats migrating at sea

Contact Kertu Hool

Veiserahu lõunapoi

Bats are our allies in maintaining a healthy environment. Not only do they pollinate crops, and help reforestation by spreading seeds in their droppings, they also contribute to insect regulation: each individual can eat dozens or even hundreds of insects per night, making a substantial difference in controlling pests such as mosquitoes or invasive moths. The more bats in a region, the healthier the habitat.

Automaatne salvesti Kerjurahul

Many species of bats, including Nathusius’ pipistrelle (Pipistrellus nathusii), are long-distance migrants. Some species breed in the Baltic region in the summer and migrate south to Central Europe for the winter. For several years, the Estonian Fund for Nature has monitored migrating bats in the Baltic Sea on the coast of Estonia.

Oiled wildlife response gets a new boost

Contact Vanessa Ryan

Oil spills are rare events but they can lead to significant environmental damage. If the oil contaminates sensitive areas, hundreds or even thousands of seabirds may be affected. A solid system is then required to effectively deal with these oiled birds. Per the HELCOM regional action plan, Baltic Sea countries must develop wildlife response plans that are integrated into oil pollution contingency plans. However, several countries in the region lack adequate resources or capacity to deal with a large-scale wildlife incident.

 Oiled bird found after an oil spill in Raahe, Finland in 2014.
Photo: Markus Dernjatin/WWF

WWF Finland is a partner in the European Oiled Wildlife Assistance (EUROWA-2) project which kicked off in January 2021. The two-year project focuses on developing oiled wildlife response preparedness in Europe and is co-funded by the European Commission’s Civil Protection Financial Instrument. 

For many years, WWF Finland has been actively involved in oiled wildlife response and shoreline clean-up activities.  Since 2003, we have coordinated and trained members of our voluntary oil spill response troops for these purposes. Being members of the EUROWA network pursuing a system where European resources and expertise can easily be incorporated into our national response system is an essential and integral part of developing our national oiled wildlife response capability.

EUROWA-2 will deliver training events for volunteers and specialists, and enhance cooperation with authorities responsible for oil spill response by organizing workshops and consultations. It will also develop training and exercise packages and guidelines, strengthen collaboration within the EUROWA network and promote the work being done, both at events and via social media. The lead partner is Sea Alarm (Belgium), who will collaborate with Submon (Spain) and Royal NIOZ (the Netherlands).

Let’s save the Baltic Sea, before we lose it #GodzinaDlaBaltyku

Contact: Magdalena Melaniuk

Earth Hour 2021

“What if the Baltic Sea we know can only be seen in a museum?” says the host of Poland’s Who wants to be a Millionaire?, Hubert Urbański. For Earth Hour 2021, WWF Poland took a trip into the future, guided by Urbański,  via a virtual museum of the Baltic Sea. The campaign was to raise awareness about the threats to the Baltic Sea and to collect signatures for a petition setting out specific actions to tackle overfishing and bycatch, eutrophication and the implementation of marine protected areas.

The audience moves through the virtual space of an imaginary museum set in the future, filled with exhibits related to the sea. In the background we hear the chorus of the unforgettable hit of the great Polish diva, Irena Santor, There are no wild beaches anymore. Projected onto sculptures of a seashell, a porpoise, a cod, a fishing boat and a sand castle, that were created in 3D technology, we see footage filmed decades ago at the Polish seaside.  Together, we reminisce about the things we associate with the Baltic Sea –  sunsets, jumping in the waves, playing in the sand, collecting shells, and the picturesque sight of fishing boats at sea. 

Save the Baltic Sea, before we lose it is a campaign that reminds us about the personal experiences and emotions that are universal for people who spend their holidays at the Polish seaside. At the same time, we present the perspective of losing what we all know and love. There is hope for a better future if we act in solidarity,” says Magdalena Melaniuk, WWF Poland. One such action is to sign the petition. Over 50,200 signatures have been collected on, with more continuing to roll in which will be given to the Polish government to show public support for the Baltic Sea.

Fellow Pandas participating in Poland’s Earth Hour 2021.

Insta ready

Since 2007, Earth Hour has drawn its power from the people. This year was no exception. Throughout March, #GodzinaDlaBałtyku (Polish for Baltic Hour) went viral on Instagram. Everyone could share a sentimental photo from the Baltic Sea, tag it, and encourage others to both do the same and sign the petition. The action was a huge hit with celebrities, influencers, companies and regular users of Instagram joining in. There were over 1,000 posts with our hashtag on the feed and ten times as many in Instastories. See the highlights here.

For the finale, an unusual illumination appeared on the most important building in Warsaw. The projection of the surging sea occupied the facade of the Palace of Culture and Science. Images remind us that we can lose places dear to our hearts.

A cod is projected onto one of Warsaw’s iconic buildings.
Photo: Jasiek Zoll

Meet the team – Henrike Semmler

Contact: Henrike Semmler

Photo: WWF Denmark

What is your job title?
Senior Advisor for Ocean & Fisheries

What is a typical day’s work for you?
A lot of meetings (currently even more Zoom meetings) – with panda-colleagues within our European network, but also with respective agencies for environment and fisheries, government spokesmen for fisheries and environment at the Parliament, and relevant stakeholders. And in between all that I am working together with my colleagues on policy papers, marine rewilding projects and the WWF seafood guide.

What path did you take to get here?
I have a Masters in Biology and did a PhD in Marine biology. Then I had a postdoc at the university, looking at small marine critters (invertebrates). I worked at the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES), that gives among other things advice on fisheries quotas to the European Commission. Followed by 3 years as a policy advisor of the Environmental NGO Oceana. Since 2.5 yrs I am working at WWF.

What do your kids think you do?
My son Wito, 9  years old:  “You are a marine biologist, who works on all kinds of problems the oceans face. Currently you work on a project that is about 3D reefs, which is cool but also strange, because  it is artificial but helps the fish. WWF has a beautiful panda logo. I think it’s a cool job and you have cool colleagues. And well, cool but sometimes strange projects.”

What is the most important thing you are trying to achieve right now?
On a very basic level, that people in Denmark are aware of the bad state of the sea, its need for protection and their impact on the ocean. On a political level, that politicians are willing to introduce some critical change on how we manage our seas. 

What is the most challenging thing about your work?
Science documents that the status of our ocean is devastating, progress in marine conservation feels slow, so  time is of the essence. Which makes me wonder if my effort is sufficient.

– Partner: WWF Denmark
– Country: Denmark
– Active in the Baltic since 2015
– Main thematic focus: Fisheries and Marine Protection Areas in the North Sea and Baltic Sea ecoregions


Deep seabed mining – an environmental disaster we must avoid

Contact: Jessica Battle

Despite uncertainties and risks to the health of our ocean and to those who depend upon it for food and jobs, there is increasing pressure from a few companies to begin mining the international deep seabed. With much of the deep sea yet to be explored and understood, this would be recklessly short-sighted.

Now, four leading companies have announced their support for a global moratorium on deep seabed mining. BMW Group, Samsung SDI, Google and Volvo Group join the increasing chorus of concern about the significant risks to economies and to ocean health that would arise from opening up the deep seabed to the extraction of minerals.

Calls for a global moratorium on deep seabed mining are coming from diverse actors, including scientists, communities, the fishing industry, political leaders, NGOs including WWF, and now also from companies.

WWF and others calling for a moratorium welcome this important step, and call on other companies who care about the ocean to join by signing on to the statement. It is a clear message to those who are swayed by the false promise that deep seabed mining is a ‘green’ and attractive investment proposition.

Mining in water thousands of meters deep is expected to have destructive effects on vulnerable deep-sea ecosystems and lead to loss of biodiversity and species extinction. WWF’s recent report, In Too Deep, shows that the projected large-scale destruction of the seabed could affect global fisheries and threaten carbon and nutrient cycles in the ocean. Given the slow pace of deep-sea processes, destroyed habitats are unlikely to recover within human timescales. What has been created over millions of years would be wiped out in a day.

Marine ecosystems are connected, and many species are migratory. Therefore, deep seabed mining cannot occur in isolation, and disturbances can easily cross jurisdictional boundaries. Negative effects on global fisheries would threaten the main protein source of around one billion people and the livelihoods of around 200 million people, many in poor coastal communities.

WWF and others calling for the moratorium are asking that all deep seabed mining activities be put on hold until the environmental, social and economic risks are comprehensively understood; all alternatives to adding more minerals into the resource economy are exhausted; and it is clearly demonstrated that deep seabed mining can be managed in a way that ensures the effective protection of the marine environment and prevents loss of biodiversity.

Fiji has already established a national moratorium for ten years, and Vanuatu and Papua New Guinean leaders have called for a moratorium in their own waters. In international waters, a moratorium must be agreed at the UN level, including by the countries around the Baltic. Exploratory plans exist to dig up minerals from the seafloor in the Gulf of Bothnia, so a moratorium might be pertinent also for the Baltic Sea.

WWF urges companies, governments and investors to focus their attention on smart, resource-efficient and circular economy solutions, as well as ensuring responsible mining practices on land, that reduce environmental and social impacts. 


3-4 June ​2021 – HELCOM  approves final Baltic Sea Action Plan formulation 

5 June 2021 – World Environment Day

8 June 2021 – World Oceans Day​

July 2021 – Plastic Free July

11-24 October 2021 – UN Biodiversity Conference (Kunming, China)

20 October 2021 – HELCOM Ministerial Meeting (Lubeck, Germany)

1-12 November 2021 – UN Climate Change Conference (Glasgow, UK)

Editorial Support: Sian Owen (Sustainability Options Consulting)

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Last modified 01/07/21

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