365 days at the John Nurminen Foundation

It was a warm and sunny day in the summer of 2019. We had just arrived on our boat at the idyllic Farmors Café restaurant in Högsåra for our traditional summertime family lunch.  On our way, we had slowed down a few times, distressed over the blue-green algae blooms floating in the sea and wondering when the algae would drift to the shores of our cottage. After lunch, as I went back in for the famous Farmors dessert cakes, I noticed the Annual Report of the John Nurminen Foundation in the restaurant’s bookcase.  I had heard of the Foundation many times, and admired their tireless efforts for the Baltic Sea, but perhaps only on a more general level. I did not really know all that the Foundation was about. I promptly began to read the Annual Report, and was soon positively surprised. It seemed that the Foundation did a great deal of tangible and impactful work for the Baltic Sea, and that the Foundation and its operations were presented very transparently in the Annual Report. These were values that I hold dear. I thought that I should get to know this Foundation and its activities in more detail.

Last autumn, after many twists and turns, I was elected to the Board of Directors of the John Nurminen Foundation.  We had come full circle. Ever since I was a child, even if my childhood summers were spent by a river, the sea has been a source of fascination and inspiration for me. I had also witnessed the deterioration of the status of the seas, the Baltic Sea in particular – the sea was no longer what it had been back in my childhood. I was tremendously excited to begin the work for the good of the Sea. When we look at current megatrends, what we see over and over again is changes in nature, the impacts of climate change, and the decline of biodiversity. We must act now while we still can.

Working in the Board of the John Nurminen Foundation has been extremely satisfying. This was my first deep dive into the world of foundations, as my previous responsibilities have been in companies and associations. Very quickly I have come to realise the immense societal power that foundations hold. Foundations are created so that they can carry on forever, and their purposes and characters vary, from grant-awarding grey eminences to operational foundations that work actively to fulfil their purpose.  At the John Nurminen Foundation, there is plenty of action and active operations. From time to time, I need to remind myself of the Foundation’s vision, i.e. its eternal purpose: a flourishing cultural heritage by a clean sea. The Baltic Sea is at the focus of everything we do, and our operations are independent, striving only for what benefits the Baltic Sea.

I believe that the success of all we do is up to the people. It has been inspiring to see the highly-qualified professionals at work in the Foundation. And how their passion and ambition can be witnessed in the Foundation’s achievements for the Baltic Sea. I would dare to say that together with its network of partners, the Foundation is one of the most efficient stakeholders improving the status of the Baltic Sea in the entire Baltic Sea area. Measures have, in particular, aimed at reducing phosphorus runoff to the Sea, as this is a great culprit in the eutrophication of the Sea, and in the emergence of blue-green algae, for example. Amongst the Foundation’s great achievements are e.g. phosphorus removal at the largest wastewater treatment plants in St. Petersburg in 2005-2011, and the prevention of the phosphorus runoff from the Phosphorit fertilizer factory by the River Luga in Russia in 2012. These measures, which have had a great impact on the status of eastern Baltic Sea in particular, have been cited to be the world record in marine protection. In 2005–2020, the Foundation has launched almost 40 Clean Baltic Sea projects, of which 25 have been completed. In cooperation with other stakeholders, in less than 10 years the eutrophicating phosphorus load of the Gulf of Finland has been cut by approximately 75%.

The questions pertaining to the environment and the status of the sea are so enormous that no one can bring about a change on their own. Now that the major point source phosphorus loads have for the most part been taken care of, preventing the runoff of a single ton of phosphorus to the sea is far more expensive. Currently, approximately 30,000 tons of phosphorus ends up in the sea every year (more than 70,000 tons in the worst years). According to HELCOM’s assessment, in order to be able to restore a good ecological status of the Baltic Sea, this annual phosphorus load should be cut to approximately 22,000 tons.  8,000 tons is an enormous amount, equalling 8 million one litre water bottles. What’s more, increasing rainfall and waters that warm up because of climate change will not make the work any easier.

Another tricky question is the phosphorus already in the Sea. Removing the phosphorus that has ended up in the Sea during the span of centuries, and in particular in the last few decades, is a great challenge for which we have not yet figured out a solution. However, the Foundation is continuously evaluating new projects for removing the phosphorus already in the sea. Every one of us, too, can help in reducing the volumes of phosphorus, and consequently improve the status of the Baltic Sea by e.g. eating fish that is caught sustainably from the Baltic Sea. Eating fish that is caught sustainably from the sea is in fact a jackpot: it helps the sea and the climate, and is also one of the healthiest foods you will find.

In addition to a Clean Baltic Sea, marine culture is high on the Foundation’s agenda. As Annamari Arrakoski-Engardt, CEO of the Foundation, is in the habit of saying, “without the sea there is no marine culture”. If we let the Sea die, marine culture will die as well. When I visit the Foundation’s premises I am always so excited to study the old sea charts and old items from ships. The stories of smugglers, pilots, lighthouse keepers and seafarers have always fascinated me. A part of the Foundation’s collections is now on corona-safe display at the digital museum launched by the Foundation. It is very much worth your while to go and have a look.

The Foundation’s Board includes experts from various fields, with a wide range of experience. The Board works actively, often also in smaller working groups that prepare proposals for the entire Board. Developing the Foundation’s strategy is my responsibility.  This year, we have switched to an agile mode of strategy work, where changes in the world are reflected by fast changes in our operations. It has been inspiring to see the entire Board brought together by their passion for the Baltic Sea, and their strong desire to work for improving its status. The role of Juha Nurminen, founder and Chairman of the Board of the Foundation, is of course crucial. I believe that the Foundation’s focus on people, humaneness, and the importance of doing work that benefits others is all rooted in Juha’s open-mindedness, approachability, and way of thinking. Already in one year I have learned so much from him.

This year, we were again at Farmors Café for lunch. This time, we did not run into blooms of blue-green algae. The algae situation of course varies each summer, but it is still evident that the Foundation, its partners, and other organisations that work for the Baltic Sea have during the past ten years achieved something unique. We can, however, not rest on our laurels: we must continue to work tirelessly for the Baltic Sea. The impact of what we do today will be slow to emerge, and we will only be able to witness it maybe 30 to 50 years from now. Still, we are not too late.

If we all pull together now, and do tangible actions for the Baltic Sea, our grandchildren and their children will again be able to enjoy unforgettable experiences, just as we did in our childhood, by a Baltic Sea that is clean.

Tommi Juusela
Member of the board of the John Nurminen Foundation

Tommi Juusela Photo: Alf Norkko