Preventing degradation of the marine environment, restoring ecosystems or reducing pollution of the Baltic waters are some of the activities indicated in the program for the protection of marine waters, developed and updated by Polish Waters. Przemysław Gruszecki, Director of the Water Environment Management Department at PGW Polish Waters, talks about the benefits for the sectors dependent on the Baltic Sea and for each of us.
Under the slogan Save the Sea! Polish Waters update the Marine Waters Protection Program. What is its purpose?
The Marine Strategy Framework Directive is an EU legislation that aims to protect our seas and oceans and their resources. The aim of the directive is to restore marine waters to good condition. It is not about literal water and the improvement of their quality, but about the condition of ecosystems functioning in these reservoirs. Poland is committed to improving the condition of the Baltic Sea waters, and the Marine Waters Protection Program is part of this strategy. It is understood as a 6-year process of managing sea waters in a way that will allow us to maintain or improve the good condition of the Baltic Sea.
At what planning stage of the project are we currently?
We are in the process of updating the document, which is a summary of environmental and economic analyzes, presenting a package of measures aimed at meeting the directive objective, i.e. achieving good condition of the Baltic Sea waters.
What are these activities?
In the draft update of the Marine Waters Protection Program (aPOWM) we are talking about two types of measures: on the one hand, measures resulting directly from other programs and directives, and on the other hand, about new tasks that we propose for implementation if the former seem insufficient. In addition to these two groups, which make up the basic actions, we also have the possibility of implementing ad hoc actions, implemented in the event of emergency situations requiring intervention.
Are these activities only carried out at sea?
Some of them are taken on land, some are directly related to sea waters. As examples, I can mention the development of port infrastructure in the part serving to supply electricity to ships, the promotion of the use of natural gas as fuel by ships, and even plans to save animals suffering from oil spills. On land, we will focus, for example, on the conditions of fertilizer storage, agriculture or municipal wastewater treatment, which will contribute to reducing the amount of nutrients flowing into the Baltic Sea, and thus improving the quality of water in our sea.
Who will perform these tasks?
Activities in the Marine Waters Protection Program are divided between various institutions. Polish waters have their share for which they are responsible. Only by acting together can we achieve our goal of a clean, rich in biodiversity Baltic Sea in the long term.
As users of the Baltic sea waters, whether it’s every day or just on holiday, will we feel the impact of the program on our daily life? Can we have a say in the program?
First of all, we must realize that the Baltic Sea is a very specific sea. It is shallow – the average depth is about 53 m, which corresponds to the height of a 20-story building. Compared to, for example, the North Sea, which is several times deeper, it is not much. The deepest point in the Baltic Sea is about 450 m. In the case of the Black Sea, the deepest point is over 2 km. These natural conditions obviously affect the effectiveness of the actions taken and how quickly their effects can be seen. And while we do not have a direct influence on the implementation of the program, we can contribute to the improvement of the condition of the Baltic Sea through our everyday behavior, especially during a holiday by the sea.
And how is the Baltic Sea in terms of salinity compared to other seas?
When we speak of the Baltic Sea, we mean a shallow body of water with a positive water balance. More water flows into it through rivers and drainage basins than it evaporates. Moreover, these are fresh waters. The salinity of the Baltic Sea is relatively low, and here we are also talking about multiple differences compared to other reservoirs.
Certainly, many of Poles who travel around Europe and spent their holidays at a different sea, the first thing they notice is the difference in the salinity of their waters compared to the Baltic Sea; Adriatic, Mediterranean and Black Sea are much saltier. In the Baltic Sea, the average salinity ranges from 7-8 per mille in the vicinity of Denmark, to 3 in the north, between Finland and Sweden. The Mediterranean Sea is salinity 39 per mille. As we can see, the Baltic Sea is not very salty and depends on infusions of definitely saltier waters from the North Sea.
We already know that the Baltic Sea is relatively shallow and not salty. What are the consequences?
The Baltic Sea is much smaller than we might think. In addition, it is intensively ‘supplied’ by fresh waters, rich in nutrients from human activities, including agriculture. This causes algae blooms. The inhabitants of Pomerania and the coast regularly observe algae blooms, which translates into closing beaches and limiting swimming in the sea.
Can you describe the problem of eutrophication of the Baltic Sea in more detail?
As a result of algae bloom, the transmission of sunlight to deeper layers is limited, which in turn causes the loss of other species of sea grasses. Rotting algae, disintegrating, deplete the oxygen from the bottom layers and the parts of the Baltic are formed that are deprived of oxygen in the deeper layers – the dead zones. The infusions from the North Sea can improve the oxygen situation, because these waters are heavier, more salty. As a result of natural processes, they push out the deoxygenated waters of the Baltic Sea. The bad luck of the Baltic Sea is that there are fewer and fewer infusions. In the 1970s and 1980s, this was approximately 5-7 infusions over 10 years. Meanwhile, from 2000 to the present, there were only 2.
What is the cause of this?
Climate change. The occurrence of this North Sea infusion process is conditioned by the specific circumstances that must occur; wind directions, layering, Baltic waters inclination, pressure, temperature difference. If not for the Danish straits, the Baltic Sea would be a lake, as it would quickly turn into a reservoir of fresh water.
The Baltic Sea is also specific due to its geopolitical location, right?
Yes, we can say that the Baltic Sea is almost an internal sea of the European Union. Almost, but it’s not a EU country. Here it is worth emphasizing the role of cooperation between the EU countries and the Russian Federation on the basis of the Helsinki Convention on the protection of the marine environment of the Baltic Sea. The EU countries are additionally connected with the so-called the maritime directive, pursuant to which they are developing a joint project for the Baltic Sea – the already mentioned Marine Waters Protection Program.
What would fulfill the assumptions of the Protect the Sea! in 100%?
If the Marine Waters Protection Program and its update could be fully implemented, meeting the directive’s objective of achieving good status for marine waters in 2027, then we would have a sea that would be a healthy ecosystem.
A healthy ecosystem means full of fish and other marine life. How is it now?
We have problems with the overfishing of the Baltic Sea, i.e. the availability of fish. Each of us loves to eat fish during the holidays, but there are less and less of these fish. Here we are dealing with both the tourist aspect and the economy, because we are talking about our fishermen and the economy sector, therefore ensuring the biological balance and good condition of the Baltic waters is also an action that is going to help restore the resources of species that have been overfished.
Is there a chance that the Baltic Sea will regain its ecological balance?
Yes. We want our sea to be rich in biodiversity and safe for tourists to swim. A sea that we can use in a sustainable way, which does not become a reservoir in need of rescue. As a result of this: cleaner water in the Baltic Sea, better functioning aquatic ecosystems, and the restoration of biological life. For us, it means the safety of using its benefits during the holidays, including the lack of restrictions related to, for example, algae and closing beaches. For fishermen – greater job opportunities and thus everyone enjoys eating good, healthy fish. These are both social and economic benefits of the program implementation, the draft of which we are preparing. It must be an action taken by all the Baltic states. The actions of one country, be it Poland, Lithuania or Sweden, will not be enough.
Are pollution the main threats to the Baltic Sea?
Not completely. By pollution, we most often mean water quality, i.e. a set of chemical indicators, temperature, color, salinity, chemicals, nutrients. We have a fairly traditional approach. On the other hand, the condition assessment is much more extensive. It concerns not only the quality, such as nutrient concentration, but also the functioning of the ecosystem. We are talking about underwater noise, seabed integrity, eutrophication. We distinguish as many as 11 phenomena described by these features.
Is it true that Polish waters are the dirtiest?
No. Poland is the most populous country in the Baltic Sea, apart from Russia, of course, which is a downfall. 38 million inhabitants is the dominant number on the Baltic scale. In addition, we have two largest rivers in the catchment area of this sea: the Vistula and the Oder, and the area from which waters flow into them also includes part of Germany, Ukraine and Belarus. Therefore, the load of pollutants that we introduce into the Baltic Sea is necessarily the greatest. On the one hand, this makes it easier to show that Poland is the biggest polluter of the Baltic Sea, but it is not a fair statement. It is enough to convert it into the number of inhabitants or the catchment area and then our role is drawn in a slightly different light. However, it is difficult to overestimate the scale of Poland.
Will it be possible for the public to refer to the propositions of the project by the society as part of the update of the Marine Waters Protection Program?
Yes, at the beginning of July, we plan to submit the draft update of the document to public consultations, which will last 3 months. As part of consultations in Baltic cities, we will organize 3 regional conferences. At the same time, a 21-day consultation on the environmental impact assessment of this document will be conducted.
Will the consultation and legislative path be straightforward after the consultations are over?
The very procedure of creating and approving aPOWM update is quite complicated. We are talking about sectors of the economy, departments of government administration, which is why as many as 10 ministers who agree on this document and to whom these activities in some way relate, or the sectors of administration they control, play their role in the process. After being approved by the Council of Ministers, the draft is sent to the European Commission for an opinion, which is why the process is quite complicated.
Nevertheless, its essential element is actually social consultations. Anyone who is interested, regardless of whether they live by the Baltic Sea or not, but is characterized by concern for the Baltic Sea, can comment and suggest something, pay attention to certain aspects that may have been omitted, or, in the opinion of the person submitting the comment, are not properly treated or nor is the problem given the proper weight. We are waiting for all the voices and we hope that the response will be significant and that not only offices and authorities, or environmental organizations, which we can certainly count on, will express their opinion. Let us remember that the Baltic Sea is our common business!
Thank you for the conversation.
Interview was conducted by Joanna Sasal
PGW Polish Waters