Eutrophication expert on the HELCOM 50-anniversary: “Unique cooperation well worth celebrating”

22 March 2024 marks the 50-year anniversary of the first Helsinki convention that led to the formation of the Helsinki Commission – HELCOM. “Without the successful cooperation in HELCOM, the Baltic Sea would likely be in a much worse shape today”, comments researcher Bo Gustafsson, whose modelling team has made important contributions to the development of Baltic Sea Action Plan.

In the 1970s it became impossible for the coastal countries around the Baltic Sea to ignore that the sea was becoming unrecognizably degraded. The then seven bordering countries agreed to sign an agreement aiming to address the increasing environmental challenges arising from industrialisation and other human activities, which were having a severe impact on the marine environment. The convention became the starting point for the formation of the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission – also known as the “Helsinki Commission” or “HELCOM” – that was established the same year.

In 2007 the HELCOM contracting parties adopted the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) – a strategic programme of measures and actions for achieving good environmental status of the sea, originally by 2021. By the time of the preparation of the BSAP, the Swedish project MARE led by Fredrik Wulff at Stockholm university had the tools required to support a sophisticated evaluation of the maximum inputs of nutrients that could be allowed to the Baltic Sea to achieve the eutrophication goals. The concept and quantification of the maximum allowable inputs (MAI) and the necessary reductions of inputs derived therefrom, was incorporated in the plan, and that success led to the institutionalisation of the independent scientific decision support as the Baltic Nest Institute (BNI). BNI still, after 17 years, serves HELCOM with independent scientific advices from its base at Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre.

“It was really pioneering in BSAP in 2007 to quantify, on a scientific basis, how much nutrients should be reduced and how much each country should contribute with reductions”, says Bo Gustafsson, who has been part of the scientific process from the beginning and is now leader of the BNI. “In order to do that, we had developed new models and collect data from all the countries with the approach to include ‘the whole Baltic Sea and the whole catchment’.” 

However, the process in 2007 was very fast and it was agreed that a comprehensive revision of the reduction requirements should be performed. This process lasted between 2010 and 2013, when new numbers were agreed by the countries at the HELCOM Ministerial Meeting in Copenhagen.

“The revision was very elaborate, including analysis of the historical state of the Baltic Sea and nutrient inputs to quantify goals on, for example, oxygen concentrations and water transparency, that defines good status”, says Bo Gustafsson. “A new model was used to quantify the maximum allowable inputs and the total reductions for the Baltic and a long series of workshops and meetings between scientists, managers and government representatives was required to find an acceptable division of the reduction burden between the countries.”


Updated BSAP required new calculations

By 2018, it became evident that the goals and objectives in the HELCOM BSAP would not be reached by 2021 and a process of an extensive update the plan began, again involving, among others, the researchers at the BNI.

“The eutrophication objectives remained the same and there was no political will to update the maximum allowable inputs of nutrients”, says Bo Gustafsson. “However, the previous nation-wise reductions were exchanged for nutrient input ceilings for each country, ceilings that, when added up, equals the total maximum allowable inputs. These were also calculated using the latest information of nutrient inputs.”

The updated Baltic Sea Action Plan was signed in 2021, but BNI’s contributions to the HELCOM work didn’t end there.

“We also serve HELCOM with continuous support, primarily with follow-up assessments on nutrient inputs and technical support through data base hosting and software development”, says Bo Gustafsson.

Bo Gustafsson, Stockholm University Baltic Sea Centre. Photo: Björn Dalin

How is it like, as a researcher, to work closely to HELCOM and thereby the national decision-makers?

“Building these relations, learning how to talk to decision makers and understanding their perspective takes a long time”, says Bo Gustafsson. “You have to be prepared to repeatedly explain the foundations of your models and make special calculations. But it has been very interesting processes to take part in.”

How important would you say that HELCOM has been for the Baltic Sea, given that the sea still not is in a healthy state?

“It has been very important and I think it’s unique in the world to agree on such an offensive plan as the BSAP across several countries. Although the sea itself has not yet improved significantly, the countries have come a long way in reducing the nutrient inputs, that for some basins/countries now are back at the levels of 1950s.” 

Due to the limited water exchange with the oceans and to internal processes, the Baltic Sea reacts slowly on changes, Bo Gustafsson notes, and there are also large variations depending on weather.

“But it’s important to understand that if the nutrient inputs had not been reduced, the sea would be in a much worse case than today with further higher concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus that would take an ever longer time to get rid of. Currently, we do see some improvements along the coasts, and I think in another couple of decades we will also see improvements in the open sea, with better oxygen conditions and less large algal blooms.”


Inclusion of new perspectives

During the years, both the Baltic Sea research and the work within HELCOM and society as a whole, has moved towards a more ecosystem-based approach, linking different pressures such as fisheries, eutrophication and climate change together.

“The perspectives have been broadened, which creates new challenges also for the decision support models”, says Bo Gustafsson.

In addition to the support for HELCOM, the models developed by BNI have always been used in various research projects. Currently, a large part of the work is focused on finding links between the degree of eutrophication and the emissions of greenhouse gases from the marine environments. Within the scientific collaboration CoastClim, between Stockholm University and University of Helsinki, researchers from different disciplines work together to map carbon storage and greenhouse gas fluxes in the Baltic Sea.

“Using the eutrophication models as a base, we are aiming at developing a framework for carbon accounting in coastal areas”, Bo Gustafsson explains. “This can enable estimations of, not only how the sea is affected by climate which is something we have been studying for quite some time, but also how various disturbances in the marine environment can affect the climate, through reduced carbon storage capacity and increased emissions. These issues are crucial, given the current climate and biodiversity crisis we are facing.“

The official celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Convention and HELCOM is hosted by Latvia, who is currently holding the Chairmanship, on 25 April 2024 in Riga. The event will be preceded by a Ministerial Meeting of the Contracting Parties in the morning of the same day. Read more about the program and how to participate digitally at HELCOM’s webpage.

Text: Lisa Bergqvist