Just how sick is the Baltic Sea?

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Algal blooming in the Baltic Sea near Sweden. (iStock)
Algal blooming in the Baltic Sea near Sweden. (iStock)
Scientists and experts from around the Baltic Sea are meeting in Stockholm to try to work out the best way to measure the sea’s health – and how track improvement.

Overfishing, toxic algal blooming, fish containing carcinogenic substances and large parts of the sea bed where there is lo life at all. Over the past decades there has been one disaster report after another, about the state of the Baltic Sea.

For the Swedish public, it is probably the bubbling blue-green slush of algal blooming threatening the beaches on the east and south coast of the country that has been the most alarming. But reports about the popular dinner-table fish cod being threatened in our waters have also made headlines, and increased pressure on policy makers to do something about it.

But while some experts can tell us a lot about the status of different species, and other experts can show exactly how bad pesticides used in agriculture are for the Baltic, the overall health of the sea is harder to establish.

“We have a lot of knowledge about the Baltic sea in terms of nutrients, algae blooming or overfishing. What is needed now is a new state of the art health measuring index. The advantage of such an index is that it integrates different goals,” said assistant professor Thorsten Blenckner, who is a researcher at Stockholm Resilience Centre and one of those organising the two day workshop that starts in Stockholm on Wednesday.

Measuring health

The idea of a Baltic Health Index comes from researchers at the University of California, who a few years ago launched a comprehensive Ocean Health Index. Professor Ben Halpern from the team is in Stockholm this week.

“We are trying to shift the focus from single issues: management of fisheries or water quality or climate change issues – which are important – but if you look at the one at a time you don’t have the whole picture of how all the parts are fitting together. The index is designed to create that single comprehensive assessment of how all these different pieces of ocean health fit together and give us a tool to track progress,” said Halpern.

The index has ten different goals and does not only measure how clean the water is and the variety of fish in it, but also whether the fishing is sustainable, and the proportion of the total labour force is engaged in coastal tourism, and the unemployment in this sector – and whether there are any iconic species and protected places that “symbolise the cultural, spiritual and aesthetic benefits that people value” in that region.

The data collected span over a range of areas, concerning biology, climate change, economy or social factors.

“It is not just about how humans are negatively affecting the oceans but how we can sustainably use and benefit and enjoy the ocean and the marine resources in the oceans. So a healthy ocean is not a pristine ocean where people don’t get to use it at all, but a healthy ocean is one where people and nature are in sustainable interaction so we can continue benefit from the ocean long into the future,” said Ben Halpern.

Rankings

According to these measurements and the data available, the global ocean health index is currently 65 on a scale from 1-100. Sweden’s index is currently deemed to be 66, ranking number 84 in the world among the 221 countries that have been ranked. Poland’s on the other hand, has an index of 59 – and is ranked much further down on the list, at 149.

After developing the index, Ben Halpern and his team have made more detailed studies in Fiji, Brazil and the West Coast of the US to further refine the tool, and see how it can work in areas where there is a lot of data, and where there is less. Measuring ocean health in the United States or Brazil, where there are huge coastlines in a single country, all the data can be retrieved from one place and there is a lot of coordination. When it comes to the Baltic, the situation is quite different.

“In the Baltic, many countries that have different standards for collecting information, so that will create challenges. But also really interesting opportunities to learn, that can then be taken to other places, like the Mediterranean or the Caribbean or the South East Pacific, where you have many nations sharing a coastal and ocean area that need to start work together to improve ocean health,” said Ben Halpern.

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