Archive for the 'Eutrophication' Category

Ocean state alarming – policy changes are needed

Text and photos (c) 2013 Erkki “Eric” Siirila, copyright & all rights reserved. 

Urgent measures are needed to stop ocean degradation related to climate change. The speed and negative effects are greater and more clearly felt that previously thought. These are the most important conclusions of recent work by an international marine scientist panel.

The results of the latest wide-ranging international review were made public by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) at the beginning of October 2013. Behind the work were the experts of IUCN and International Programme of the State of the Ocean (IPSO). The outcomes have also been published in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Evening in the South Atlantic.

Evening in the South Atlantic.

An IUCN press release highlights the contents by telling us the following preoccupying facts: The ocean is absorbing much of the global warming. Unforeseen levels of carbon dioxide are bound by the ocean. The cumulative impact of this, together with other ocean stressors, is much more threatening than past estimates.

The other contributing stressors include decreasing oxygen levels in the sea and runoff of nitrogen from land. Also chemical pollution and serious overfishing are hampering the ocean’s capacity to act as a balancing factor in what is called “carbon preturbations”.

A comment by Professor Alex Rogers of Somerville College, Oxford (also Scientific Director of IPSO) is cited in the IUCN summary paper: “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated. The situation should be of the gravest concern to everyone since everyone will be affected by changes in the ability of the ocean to support life on Earth.”

Professor Dan Laffoley, from IUCN, commented the new interdisciplinary findings by saying: “What these latest reports make absolutely clear is that deferring action will increase costs in the future and lead to even greater, perhaps irreversible, losses. The UN climate report confirmed that the ocean is bearing the brunt of human-induced changes to our planet. These findings give us more cause for alarm – but also a roadmap for action. We must use it.“

Dead fish on the beach of Bombinhas, Brazil.

Dead fish on the beach of Bombinhas, Brazil.

More in depth, the foreseen challenges and problems include the following:

Oxygen levels in the ocean are expected to decline between 1% and 7% by 2100.  Tropical  oceans and and the North Pacific have had a trend of decreasing oxygen levels during the past 50 years and this will continue because of global warming. In addition, lack of oxygen will be a serious problem in coastal seas commonly affected by eutrophication (sewage and agricultural runoff being the main reasons).

In case CO2 release by us planet Earth inhabitants continues at the current level, acidification of sea water will be a major factor affecting ocean life, marine food production and coastal protection. Acidification would be felt for example on coral reefs, where erosion in the near future could exceed reef formation (calcification). This in turn would degrade the reef habitat and result in the destruction of the natural breakwaters formed by corals – a serious consideration in coastal regions commonly hit by heavy storms.

As to the direct physical and geochemical consequences of global warming in the ocean by 2050, they include: reduced seasonal ice zones, increasing stratification (separation) of ocean layers leading to oxygen depletion, increased venting of methane from the bottom of the Arctic Sea, and more common low oxygen -events in the oceans.

Around the globe, fisheries management is still unable to stop overfishing. The decline of key species and damage to the ecosystems where the fish stock live continue. All this undermines the resilience of the oceans.

Unauthorised fishing in the national economic zone: Argentine coast guard proudly presents the foreign fishing vessels detained by its patrol vessel. Photo from Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

Unauthorised fishing in the national economic zone: Argentine coast guard proudly presents the foreign fishing vessels detained by its patrol vessel. Photo from Puerto Madryn, Argentina.

Urgent measures proposed by IPSO and IUCN include:

Reduction of global CO2 emissions to keep temperature rise in less than 2 degrees C.

Implementation of community- and ecosystem-based management and favouring small-scale fisheries. Harmful fisheries’ subsidies resulting in overcapacity would need to be eliminated. In addition, vulnerable ecosystems would need an increased level of protection. Finally, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing would need to to be combated.

Development of a more relevant global infrastructure for high-seas ocean governance is necessary. Especially a new implementing agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction is needed (within the United Nations Law of the Sea – UNCLOS – framework).

UN Conference on Sustainable Development: highlights of the Rio+20 final document

At the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (June 2012), binding new international agreements were not agreed upon, which was disappointing. Nevertheless, the final document is worth summarising in order to highlight the most important common views of the world´s governments as regards sustainable development and the marine environment. Luckily, in the management of seas and oceans important progress was achieved. The following is a summary – with special reference to coasts, seas and oceansof  the final document “The Future We Want”:

The document states that for sound development in general, holistic, integrated and sustainable management of natural resources needs to be promoted. At the same time, economic, social and human development should be supported.  Also, the international community is asked to move the sustainable development agenda forward, through the achievement of internationally agreed goals including the existing Millennium Development Goals. Green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication is mentioned as one of the important tools available for achieving sustainable development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. The achievements of the meeting were minor. Only in the “seas and oceans” action area important progress was achieved. Aerial photo of Rio (c) 2012 copyright Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants recognise the key role that improving energy efficiency plays. This includes the increasing share of renewable energy and cleaner, more energy-efficient technologies. Climate change as a persistent crisis is acknowledged: the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective international response. Naturally, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is needed. Also the related urgent needs of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are mentioned in the final document.

The need for effective, transparent, accountable and democratic natural resources´ management institutions is mentioned in the document. So is the need for contributions towards sustainable development by both the public/private sectors and the scientific/technological communities. We are also reminded of the important role of citizens at the grass-root level, e.g. fishers, in the development of production activities which are environmentally more sound. The valuable contributions by  NGOs in promoting sustainable development are acknowledged.

The establishment of UNEP as a permanent UN organisation (instead of being a non-permanent programme) was not achieved, but it was decided that UNEP would be strengthened. In addition, the participants decided to establish an intergovernmental high-level political forum replacing the current UN Commission on Sustainable Development.

In the final document, the participating states recognise the severity of global biodiversity loss and degradation of ecosystems: this underlines the importance of biodiversity conservation, enhancing habitat connectivity and building ecosystem resilience.

In the Oceans and Seas chapter of The Future We Want, important progress can be observed. To begin with, the participating states commit to protect and restore the health, productivity and resilience of oceans and marine ecosystems, and to maintain their biodiversity for the conservation / sustainable use by the present and future generations. Furthermore, the participants agree to apply an ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle in marine management.

The Rio conference delegations recognise the importance of UNCLOS (Law of the Sea) in advancing sustainable development and they emphasise the need for cooperation in marine scientific research. The states also support the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment (established under the UN General Assembly) and look forward to the completion of its first global integrated assessment by 2014.

In Rio de Janeiro, the participating states supported the Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment. The states look forward to the completion of the first global integrated assessment by 2014. The marine image was taken off Callao, Peru, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

In the seas and oceans chapter, the importance of the conservation / sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction is recognised. Building on the work of an international working group (and before the end of the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly) the Rio participants commit to address this issue on an urgent basis.

The states also note with concern that the health of the oceans and marine biodiversity are negatively affected by marine pollution. The final document mentions marine debris, plastic, persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals, and nitrogen-based compounds. The sources mentioned include marine and land-based sources, including shipping and land runoff. The participants commit to take action to reduce the incidence and impacts of such pollution on marine ecosystems. The relevant measures would include implementation of IMO conventions and the follow-up of relevant initiatives such as the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities. With the help of scientific assessments, the states further commit to take action to significantly reduce marine debris by 2025.

In the seas and oceans chapter the participants note the significant threat which alien invasive species pose to marine ecosystems, and commit to implement measures to prevent their introduction. The management of the adverse environmental impacts will be improved including those alien species adopted in the framework of IMO.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion are noted as serious threats for many coastal regions and islands particularly in developing countries. International action to address these challenges is called for in the final document.

The participating states also call for support to initiatives that address ocean acidification and the impacts of climate change on marine and coastal ecosystems and resources. They reiterate the need to work collectively to prevent further ocean acidification, as well as to enhance the resilience of marine ecosystems and of the communities whose livelihoods depend on them. The importance of marine scientific research, monitoring and observation of ocean acidification and of particularly vulnerable ecosystems through international cooperation are mentioned.

In the Rio final document the participating states stress their concern about the potential environmental impacts of ocean fertilization. They recall the decisions related to ocean fertilization adopted by the relevant intergovernmental bodies, and decide to continue addressing ocean fertilization with utmost caution. The precautionary approach will be applied.

In Rio the participating states promised to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce maximum sustainable yield on an urgent basis. The photo of the fishing vessel is from the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

The Rio participants commit, on an urgent basis, to intensify the efforts to meet the 2015 target as to maintenance or restoring fisheries stocks to levels that can produce the maximum sustainable yield. The foreseen time frame is “the shortest time feasible”. To achieve this, the states commit to urgently develop and implement science-based management plans. Fisheries reduction and suspension are listed as management methods. The importance of by-catch reduction and the control of destructive fishing practices are mentioned as well as the importance of impact assessments.

Relating to UNCLOS, the Rio delegations urge states to fully implement the 1995 Agreement on the Conservation and Management of Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks. Furthermore, all States are called upon to implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the corresponding FAO International Plans of Action and technical guidelines.

The final document acknowledges that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing deprives many countries of a crucial natural resource and remains a persistent threat to their sustainable development. A recommitment to eliminate IUU fishing is presented. Reference is made to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation which aims at preventing and combating these practices in the following ways: a) by implementing national and regional action plans in accordance with FAO’s international IUU combat plan, b) by identifying vessels engaged in IUU fishing, c) by depriving offenders of the benefits accruing from IUU fishing, and d) by cooperating with developing countries to systematically identify needs and build capacity (monitoring, control, surveillance, compliance and enforcement systems).

The Rio delegations recognise the need for transparency and accountability in fisheries management by regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). The efforts already made by those RFMOs that have undertaken independent performance reviews are recognised. A call is presented on all RFMOs to regularly undertake such reviews, publish the results and implement the recommendations.

Furthermore, the Rio final document reaffirms the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation as to elimination of subsidies that contribute to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and overcapacity, mentioning the importance of this sector to developing countries. Reference is made to the WTO Doha Development Agenda and the Hong Kong Ministerial mandates for more vigorous control of fisheries subsidies. Prohibition of subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing is mentioned as a control measure. States are also encouraged to eliminate subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and over-fishing, to refrain from introducing new such subsidies and to refrain from extending or enhancing existing subsidies.

A commitment to ensure access to fisheries and corresponding markets by fishers (subsistence, small-scale, artisanal) and women fish workers and indigenous peoples is also presented, highlighting the needs of these communities in developing countries and small island developing states.

The importance of coral reef conservation and marine protected areas is highlighted in the final document of the Rio conference on sustainable development. Image from a Red Sea coral reef in Egypt, photo copyright (c) 2012 Erkki Siirila.

As to coral reefs and mangroves, the Rio delegations recognise the significant economic, social and environmental contributions of coral reefs, in particular to islands and other coastal states, as well as the significant vulnerability of the reefs and mangroves to impacts including from climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, destructive fishing practices and pollution. Support for international cooperation is expressed in order to conserve coral reef and mangrove ecosystems and to realise their social, economic and environmental benefits. Facilitation of technical collaboration and voluntary information sharing are mentioned as supporting measures. Surprisingly, sea grass beds are not separately mentioned in the Rio final document. (The importance of healthy sea grass beds as carbon sinks in fighting global climate change has recently been acknowledged by the marine science research community).

In the seas and oceans chapter of The Future We Want, the delegations reaffirm the importance of area-based conservation measures, including marine protected areas, consistent with international law and based on best available scientific information. The participants note decision X/2 of the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, that by 2020, 10 percent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are to be conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well-connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures.

Finally, it may be considered surprising that the importance of managing the sea-land interface as a special area was not mentioned in The Future We Want. As the coastal zone is an area of many opportunities, user conflicts, resource degradation and lost opportunities, it would have been natural to say something in the Rio final document about the need for integrated coastal zone management.

Revolutionary method: gypsum controls runoff

An interesting discovery is helping in Baltic Sea conservation efforts in Finland. It involves the use a gypsum, which is a chemical substance known to most of us.

The environmental challenge we are talking about is that phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, is transported from the farming fields through runoff into the rivers and sea. In the sea water, elevated levels of phosphorus cause eutrophication.

Yara, a chemical company, has together with a few Finnish partners developed a gypsum-based technique to stabilize soil particles in the farming fields. The method reduces soil (and nutrient) erosion caused by surface runoff.

The results achieved indicate that a high percentage of the phosphorus stays in the soil when the new technique is used. Consequently, harmful nutrient inputs into the waterways and sea are highly reduced. The new method also helps the farmer as more phosphorus is available for the agricultural plants. Furthermore, there is less need for costly, additional phosphorus fertilizers.

In spite of not being visible in this image, eutrophication caused by excessive nutrients is a problem on the Baltic coast of Finland. Photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

The method involves spreading of a gypsum-based product on the farming field after harvest or before planting. The product, which is basically gypsum (calcium sulphate), infiltrates with water into soil. According Yara, this well-known chemical compound in its slightly developed form improves “particle aggregation and dissolved phosphorus retention”. In addition, “better soil structure means that the earth resists rain and melting snow better and therefore prevents erosion and phosphorus leakage”.

Gypsum is useful to the farmer also because it improves the plants’ ability to utilise the phosphorus reserves of the soil. In addition, farmers can continue their agricultural activities as before. For the gypsum treatment to be effective, it would need to be repeated once in three to four years.

Gypsum treatment of the soil could be important news for many countries. Soil,sediment and nutrient runoff is degrading forestry and agricultural areas around the world. This runoff is also killing shallow marine ecosystems. Could gypsum help save the world’s endangered coral reefs?

A brochure on the gypsum-based method to control agricultural runoff into the sea can be found here:

The Baltic Sea in need of integrated management

Based on brainstorming opinions by Finnish conservation specialists, eleven topics would need to be taken into consideration in the management of the Baltic Sea. The list is a product of the Baltic Sea Argumenta project, the results of which were published as a book in Finland in May 2010.
The project was implemented during the years 2007 to 2009.  Some basic questions the project tried to answer were these:
  • The Baltic Sea is changing – can we change?
  • What kind of research results are needed in decision making?
  • Does the environment respond to the cure given?
Among the conclusions, there are some interesting findings related to integrated coastal management. The list below is a slightly edited version of the results of specialist discussions as presented by professor Markku Ollikainen from the University of Helsinki in June 2009.  Here are the eleven conclusions:
  1. The Baltic Sea is valuable
  2. The pollution of the Baltic is a social problem
  3. A binding agreement for the protection of the sea is needed; the current Helcom agreement is lacking enforcement power
  4. Due to a lack of political will national protection policies have been ineffective
  5. As a legacy of lacking investments in wastewater treatment during socialism, the Baltic Sea still receives nearly 5,000 tons of phosphorus per year
  6. Publicity, democracy and citizen-level initiatives are important ingredients in the protection of the sea
  7. Well-functioning means to control the nutrient runoff from agriculture are necessary
  8. Creative solutions for biodiversity protection are needed in the Baltic Sea
  9. The risks and environmental pressures caused by the maritime traffic have to be controlled
  10. Global climate change is changing the Baltic Sea ecosystem; these challenges need to be addressed
  11. A well-functioning and integrated management framework is necessary for Baltic Sea conservation (as the action programmes cover several sectors, the sectoral policies would need to be integrated – this is a multilevel, transnational task)
The good news in the management of the Baltic is that the PCB and dioxin pollution is much less of a problem than in the past.  Both in fish and humans, the PCB and dioxin contents have decreased to levels which are only a fraction of the past values.  Currently the biggest challenge in the Baltic Sea management is the control of eutrophication.

Eutrophication has led to decreased visibility in the coastal waters of the Baltic. The underwater image is from the southern coast of Finland, photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

Innovative cooperation helps the Baltic

Coastal and marine conservation can be implemented in innovative ways which benefit everybody. This was proved at the Baltic Sea Action Summit (BSAS) in Finland on 10 February, 2010.  The Summit united eleven governments and many more NGOs and private businesses behind the common goal to save the Baltic.

Segelskar in the Gulf of Finland is an island where the beauty of the Baltic Sea can be observed first hand. Luckily, new initiatives to conserve the Baltic nature to future generations have been started. Photo (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.

Heads of state, prime ministers and other government ministers were among the participants invited to Helsinki by Mrs. Tarja Halonen, President of Finland, Mr. Matti Vanhanen, Prime Minister of Finland, and Mr. Ilkka Herlin, Chairman of the Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG).  The best known of the guests were perhaps Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia and King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
The event resulted in 140 voluntary commitments, which contribute in one way or the other to better conservation practices and improved ecosystem health of the shared marine and coastal area of the Baltic. The implementation of the foreseen activities will be monitored by BSAG.  This group is part of the Foundation for a Living Baltic Sea with origin in the Finnish private enterprise. The Foundation is devoted to rescuing the Baltic Sea with carefully chosen projects.
The Baltic Sea eutrophication problems are widely known and affect most of the coastal citizens in the form of excessive growth of filamentous algae.  The waters are also more turbid.  Even the open sea areas areas are visibly affected: blooms of toxic bluegreen plankton algae are common. Other threats and problems are many.  These include the wide areas of oxygen-depleted dead sea bottoms.  Another concern is the possibility of a megasize oil spill from a supertanker.
The Baltic is more threatened by human-induced effects than another enclosed sea, the Mediterranean. This is partly explained by the fact that the Baltic water body is just hundreds of metres deep while that of the Mediterranean is several kilometres deep.  The Baltic is vulnerable also because its catchment covers large agricultural and industrial areas and big cities.  There is a lot of environmentally problematic runoff, but only little water exchange with the relatively clean Atlantic waters.  As the salinity of the sea is low and the waters brackish, the life forms are fewer and more sensitive than in the Atlantic.
Of course the Baltic Sea conservation has been promoted internationally for years by the European Union (EU) and for decades by the inter-governmental Helsinki Commission (Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission HELCOM).  Nevertheless, the idea to unite all kinds of players through their own voluntary initiatives is new: “The participation of NGOs and businesses on such a broad front also made this an entirely new type of summit. All actors are needed in this cooperation”, summarised Mrs. Tarja Halonen, the President of Finland.
The 140 commitments published at the summit include, among others, a new route transfer system for safer oil transport by the navigation equipment producer Furuno, a project to safeguard the northern Baltic Sea sea trout stocks by the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute, and a waste reception facility venture to serve cruise ships at the Copenhagen Malmo Port Company.  The VSA Vilnius corporation will implement an underground storage facility project in the central beach area of Vilnius to decrease pollution of the river Neris, while WWF together with nature photographers promotes environmental awareness through photography and environmental education in the whole Baltic area.
The Finnish-based John Nurminen Foundation continues ground-breaking Clean Baltic Sea projects in two key areas of operation: reduction of eutrophication by improving phosphorus removal in wastewater treatment plants and by enhancing tanker safety. After the encouraging and important first experiences in St. Petersburg (the biggest Baltic Sea eutrophication hot spot), the Foundation now improves phosphorus removal together with partner organisations in several other cities, e.g. Warsaw.  The second activity area, tanker safety, has its focus on making the work at tanker bridge easier and on developing traffic guidance for the oil ships.
The BSAS showed that innovation and constant learning are important elements in coastal and marine management. In that way we can bring the message to new audiencies and improve the efficiency and coverage of our operations.  Small is beautiful in the projects of this coordinated, transboundary bottom-up approach, which has grown quite big and gotten a wide range of actors among its ranks.
The BSAG/BSAS initiative teaches important lessons  in enthusiasm, efficiency and conversion of lip service to real service to the traditional, well-established players. That learning started already a few years ago when private actors especially in Sweden and Finland got tired of the slow advances demonstrated by the big institutions in the Baltic conservation.  A few important private initiatives were started and that trend seems to continue.
More on the new Baltic Sea conservation initiatives can be read by visiting the web site

Fresh ideas are resulting in a new kind of coastal management in the Baltic Sea. Photo from Segelskar in the Gulf of Finland, (c) 2010 Erkki Siirila.