In addition to eutrophication, the fragile nature of the Baltic Sea is threatened by e.g. increasing marine transportation with its oil and chemicals cargos; microplastics and trash; and various kinds of harmful substances and environmental toxins.
In terms of transportation, the Baltic Sea is one of the busiest seas in the world. The shallow, rocky waters of the Baltic Sea are a challenge to navigate, and increasing marine traffic, coupled with the rising volumes of oil and chemicals transportation, increase the risk of serious accidents. In Finnish marine areas, the Gulf of Finland in particular, the challenges of seafaring are aggravated by busy intersecting traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn, and the difficult ice conditions of winter.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has classified the Baltic Sea as a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area or PSSA. In cold conditions, any oil that ends up in the water will dissolve slowly, and in the maze-like archipelago, oil spill control is a challenge. A major oil accident would have a long-term and irreversibly damaging impact on the organisms and livelihoods of the sea and the seashore.
The target of the John Nurminen Foundation’s Tanker Safety Project (2009 – 2014) was to significantly decrease the likelihood of oil accidents in the Gulf of Finland, and to improve the safety of marine traffic. To be able to reach this target, the Foundation, in cooperation with key seafaring stakeholders, created the ENSI® navigation service, which improves the preconditions of forecasting vessel traffic control by providing an easy way to share route plans electronically between the vessels and marine traffic control centres. Read more on the Tanker Safety project.
Transportation of chemical substances
In addition to oil, tons of chemicals are transported over the waves of the Baltic Sea – some of which are extremely harmful to the environment. Current legislation, however, restricts the disposal of waters used for rinsing the holds of chemicals transportation ships to the sea only in the case of the most dangerous substances, and there is little information available on what happens to the rinsing water of chemical tankers to which this does not apply. Our goal is to find out the volume and types of chemicals that end up in the sea with hold rinsing waters, and to survey any available solutions for curbing these chemical discharges.
More than 44 million tons of fertilizers are also transported via the harbours of the Baltic Sea annually. Fertilizer transportation does lead to spoilage, some of which will directly eutrophicate the Baltic Sea. Nutrient discharges happen in the loading stage, as dust from the cargo and fertilizers end up in the sea either directly, or with the runoff waters from the loading docks. Often, after fertilizer transportation, the ships’ cargo hulls are washed in the open seas, which means that fertilizer residues end up in the sea with the water used for washing.
The first phase of the Fertilizer Shipping project investigates the nutrient discharge risks related to fertilizer loading at harbours and the cleaning of cargo holds, and the best techniques and measures for their prevention. The next phase will promote the deployment of measures that reduce discharges throughout the Baltic Sea area, working together with stakeholders such as harbours, harbour operators, shipping companies, and fertilizer manufacturers. Read more on our Fertilizer Shipping project.
Harmful substances and environmental toxins
Environmental toxins are chemicals that are harmful for humans and other organisms, found in the environment as a result of human activity. The largest volumes of harmful substances ended up in the sea between the 1960s and the 1980s. Environmental toxins, however, remain in nature for long periods of time, accruing in organisms at the top of the food chain.
Even though the use of some substances identified as harmful, such as DDT and PCB, has been banned for decades already, there are also research results indicating that the environmental impact of more recent chemical use is also a cause for concern. Brominated fire retardants and organic tin and fluoride compounds, for example, with various uses from boat paints to dirt-resistant surfaces, have now led to worry. Loads of toxic heavy metals, such as mercury, led, and cadmium, also strain the nature of the Baltic Sea.
Harmful substances and environmental toxins end up in the Sea as a result of our everyday chores. Various pharmaceuticals and chemicals used in everyday consumables end up in the waterways with wastewaters, for example, as our current wastewater treatment plants have not been originally designed to remove harmful chemical substances. There is, in fact, a cocktail featuring a variety of chemicals infused in the sea, and we have no verified information yet on the long-term combined impact they will have on marine nature or on humans.
Litter in the Baltic Sea
Plastic waste is a threat to marine nature both in the Baltic Sea and in other Seas of the world. Animals get stuck in the trash and choke on plastic pieces when they think they are food. Plastic is also almost Eternal in nature. In the sea, plastic debris gradually breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, but does not break down completely. Plastic particles smaller than five millimeters are called microplastics.
In Finland, the majority of beach rubbish is plastic, and the now common rubbish after cigarette butts is various types of packaging waste, plastic bags and bottles, and plastic rubbish from construction sites. Although studies show that Finland’s beaches are the dirtiest in the Baltic Sea, the problem in the Baltic Sea is not as bad in the Oceans, and it is possible to have an influence on it.
World plastics production has grown exponentially over the last half century, and at the same time plastics recycling has slowly begun. Everyone can reduce the amount of plastic waste through their everyday choices and consumption behavior.
By informing, we are raising people’s awareness of the problem of marine litter. In the Plastic-Free Sea campaign, we are also participating in cleaning efforts to remove plastic debris from shores.
Microplastics end up in waterways from traffic and households. The biggest sources of microplastics are emissions from tires and grit used to fill artificial turf fields. In everyday life, micro-plastics are created from various man-made fiber textiles in the home (eg fleece), from which loose plastic travels into the water along with room dust and wash water.
The effects of microplastics on the marine environment, organisms or humans are not yet fully known. However, marine microorganisms have been found to corrode plastic particles, and the accumulation of plastic particles in food chains is possible. Even small amounts of plastic end up in the human body, with house dust and drinking water.
The pathways and effects of the microplastic in the environment are being studied. At the same time, however, everyone can avoid the generation of unnecessary plastic debris and microplastic in their own operations.