Sept 2020, credit NASA
One of the youngest seas in the world is catching up with ecological consequences caused by the decade-long mismanagement of the fishery, pollution, and accelerating global warming. Will the Baltic Sea survive? In a recent picture by NASA, the Baltic Sea looks like a mystical nebula with the blue-green algae blooms between two Swedish islands of Oland and Gotland. The spirals and vortexes, of phytoplankton spreading for dozens and even hundreds of kilometres, look fascinating from space, but down on the Baltic shores, it is causing a growing concern for environmentalists, scientists, and local fishermen.
The "dead zones" are expanding, mainly due to extensive algae blooming, a process that deprives large parts of the sea of oxygen. Meanwhile, the cod population that stands at the centre of the food chain of the Baltic Sea is collapsing.Death for Baltic fishing?
In Lithuania's port city of Klaipeda, boats advertising recreational cod fishing sway silently at the docks. For years, fishing trips to catch cod were a source of income for many boat owners. But recently, even the biggest commercial fishing companies in the country fear they may soon be hanging their nets to dry. Previously, the Eastern Baltic cod stock was the biggest in the Baltic Sea, maintained by healthy fish of different sizes.
An unprecedented decision in Brussels
However, it was only last year that EU lawmakers caught up with the worrying situation in the Baltic Sea. Following "worse than expected" scientific assessments, the European Union decided to take an unprecedented decision. In an attempt to save the collapsing fish stock, a ban on fishing cod in the Eastern part of the sea was introduced, while the fishing quotas for the Western cod stock, as well as other fish stocks, were decreased massively.
Can measures be effective?
"For the Eastern Baltic cod to recover, the situation is far too complex to be solved by the no-catch [order] alone," the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission told LRT English in a written statement. The commission, which was established by the EU and countries around the Baltic Sea and is also known as the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), said additional measures were needed for the cod populations to recover.
The blooming sea
The main reason the cod spawning areas are disappearing is the spreading "dead zones" that leaves vast swaths of the seabed without oxygen. "Algal blooms reduce the clarity of water and the reach of light underwater, which in turn affects oxygen production by underwater plants. Furthermore, when these algae die off and decay, more oxygen gets consumed in the process," explained HELCOM.
The EU has also concluded that nutrient loads to most parts of the Baltic sea, which is the main reason for algae growth, is still in excess of the regionally agreed goals. "Moreover, we have added huge amounts of nutrients in the past from sources such as agriculture, industries and municipal wastewater. These internal nutrient reserves are extremely slow to be digested by the ecosystem. This legacy will haunt us for years if not decades to come," said HELCOM experts.