Ecosystem based management in the core of science and environmental diplomacy in the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean

Paula Kankaanpää,
Professor, Director,
Marine Research Centre, Finnish Environment Institute,

The arctic sea ice is melting due to the warming climate. Less attention has been paid to the fact that the winter sea ice cover of the Baltic Sea has also decreased. The marine ecosystems in both regions are expected to dramatically change.

The world nations share the responsibility for the seas and their ecosystems. As virtually all human activities affect the seas, the effective protection of the seas and oceans requires wide-ranging cooperation. There, interdisciplinary research must support cooperation of different sectors of society and the work must be done together from the local, regional, and national levels to international cooperation. At the same time, different sectors of governance need to see the importance of multidisciplinary research and be able to invest in it together.

The seas are distant from everyday lives of many people, and there is less experiential knowledge than on land. The sea can often only be experienced from the surface, although the average depth of the world oceans is almost four kilometers (the Arctic ocean is on average 1.2 km deep, and the Baltic Sea is 54 m). Indeed, the seabed is less known that the surface of the moon. That is why research and monitoring of the seas are so important. Only science can assess the state of the seas and the need for societal action to protect them. Exploration of the seas is expensive because it requires demanding infrastructure. Therefore, research is carried out in cooperation networks and usually funded by states.

Both the Baltic Sea and the Arctic Ocean are examples of successful large-scale and fruitful cooperation between government officers and researchers. The Arctic Council, and especially its Protection of Arctic Marine Environment Working Group (PAME) work for environmental cooperation and sustainable development for the Arctic Ocean. Established in 1996, the Arctic Council is a forum for international cooperation between the eight Arctic states.

The Convention on the Protection of the marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area entered into force as early as 1980. Later, this so-called the Helsinki Agreement that is coordinated by Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) and participated by all nine Baltic Sea states and the EU, has adapted to promote regionally the younger EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive from 2008 and the even newer Maritime Spatial Planning Directive from 2014.

The core of international environmental cooperation in the Baltic Sea is so called ecosystem-based management, which is an advanced cooperative decision-making tool. The method has been implemented it the Baltic Sea for over decade, but not that much is known about it outside expert circles.

In the first phase of this systematic approach, the state of sea is monitored based on internationally agreed scientific methods and indicators. The focus is on functioning of entire ecosystems instead individual species or substances. National monitoring results are stored in the databases of the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). Then, based on this commonly used data, each country complies an assessment report on the ecological state of its seas. The Finnish Environment Institute, together with other government research institutes, has the national responsibility for monitoring and reporting on the state of the sea for Finland.

Finally, based on the results of the assessment reports, national action plans for good state of the sea are prepared in cooperation by several sectoral ministries. The preparation includes wide-ranging participations and societal consultations. In Finland, the Government will approve our latest action plan in December 2021. After that, the measures will be implemented through national and international funding programs.

Implementation of national action plans take also into account the joint Baltic Sea Action Plan prepared by HELCOM. Its update was recently approved at the HELCOM Ministerial in October.

What is essential in ecosystem-based decision-making is that the work does not end with the adoption of the operational action plan. As the cost of the implementation Finland’s action plan, for example, is hundreds of millions of euros, it is absolutely essentials to monitor scientifically whether investments are influential and can be detected as an improvement of marine ecosystems. Then, based on the new monitoring results, the action plans will be updated again.

All the stages of the whole process are carried out in six-year cycles. The national works are reported internationally in accordance with both the EU -directive and the HELCOM -cooperation.

For some years ago, a large group of researchers published an article “The Baltic Sea as a time machine for the future coastal ocean (Reusch et al., 2018). It describes how the Baltic Sea is a pioneer in both bad and good. Over hundreds of years, human pressures have led to unprecedented pollution of our small sea. But the Baltic Sea is also a forerunner in international research and environmental cooperation that includes all different sectors of governance. Successful science-based decision-making has produced significant results for example as reduction in the amount of nutrients and harmful substances discharged into the sea, recovering fish and bird stocks, improving the quality of some coastal waters, and thus shifting societies towards so called sustainability transformation.

Unlike Baltic Sea co-operation, the Arctic Council is not based on an international agreement but is political by nature. Its work is based on a statement issued by the Foreign Ministers at their regular biennial meetings. Like in the case of the Baltic Sea co-operation, the declarations of the Arctic Council ministers are based on scientific assessments and recommendations.

The ministerial of the Arctic Council in last May agreed the strengthen the council further. Among other thigs, the importance of the Arctic Marine Strategic Plan and ecosystem approach to management was highlighted. The Baltic Sea cooperation has potential to serve as an inspiration for the development of the ecosystem based management in the arctic, while the research on ecosystem effects of melting sea ice in the arctic is of interest also in the Baltic Sea.

All in all, although the Arctic Ocean and the Baltic Sea differ greatly in terms of both natural and social conditions, there are many similarities in their international cooperation. It should be noted that, in view of geopolitical tensions in the world, environmental cooperation in these strategic regions has continued to be smooth. This is supported by the diversity and breadth of collaborative networks of both researchers and administrators for decades, which is the idea and the prerequisite for ecosystem-based decision-making. In addition to advanced international cooperation on the marine environment and its interdependent research activities, both areas can be considered examples of successful environmental and scientific diplomacy.

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