Shipwrecks: the ticking bombs at the bottom of the Baltic Sea

Olga Sarna,
The MARE Foundation,

There are numerous environmental pressures caused by human activity that can negatively affect the marine environment. Shipwrecks containing various types of fuels and other hazardous substances are one of them. In case of a spillage they may contaminate both the water column and the seabed, having a negative impact on the entire ecosystem. It is a global problem that is particularly acute in the case of enclosed sea basins, such as the Baltic Sea.

HELCOM estimates that there are between 8 to 10 thousand shipwrecks in the Baltic. The location of most of them has not yet been identified or confirmed, and at least 100 are considered to be high priority wrecks posing a potential threat to the marine environment. To be classified as “dangerous to the environment” a wreck must contain in its tanks (or any other enclosed space) fuel and/or other hazardous substances in quantities greater than 10 m3 and be located less than 10 nautical miles from the coast that is a sand beach, a rocky beach or a cliff.

There are two reasons why the greatest potential threat is posed by wrecks sunk during the two World Wars. Firstly, due to the progressing corrosion, 75 years after the end of the WWII, it can be assumed that the “expiration date” of these wrecks is quickly approaching. Secondly, in most countries, there are no legal provisions explicitly defining legal responsibility for monitoring and examining these wrecks, as well as for carrying out preventative oil retrieval operations.

We speak of “a potential threat” only because it is deferred in time. It does not mean that it is not real. There is a high risk that leakages will take place in the near future. Once it happens, a significant area surrounding the wreck will be contaminated and all living organisms will be affected. As a result of such event, people and economies of coastal regions will also be impacted. Primarily because of the costs associated with cleaning of the affected areas and measures to minimize environmental losses. Also, in case of a significant oil spill, the tourism sector may be hit especially hard – since some of the potentially dangerous wrecks contain also light fuel that will float to the water surface and consequently may contaminate not only the seabed but also the coastal areas, including beaches, nature reserves, and coastal infrastructure.

There are multiple examples confirming the growing urgency to take measures to minimize this threat. In 2018, the US Navy had pumped out nearly a million liters of heavy oil (mazut) from the Prinz Eugen shipwreck located near the Marshall Islands at the Pacific. A year later, in August 2019, one hundred years after sinking of the shipwreck of “SS Mopang”, about 100 tons of fuel leaked from its tanks into the Black Sea. The contaminated are at the Bulgarian waters was 2 km wide and 400 meters long.

There is also an important example in the Polish waters of the Baltic Sea, where over 41 hectares of seabed are contaminated by the fuel from the passenger ship “Stuttgart” sunk in 1943. The wreck is located in the Puck Bay in the Natura 2000 site, two nautical miles from the port of Gdynia. The leakage was first confirmed in 2009 and despite numerous reports and toxicological data presented to the marine and environmental administration in Poland, no steps have been taken to stop the oil spread or to remediate the contaminated area.

The growing awareness of environmental risks and potential damages caused by oil spills has mobilized many countries to undertake institutional measures aimed at studying and removing oil from old wrecks. Multiple countries around the world have a separate, fixed budget to carry out systemic activities aimed at reducing the potential threat posed by shipwrecks. Those countries include: United States of America, United Kingdom, Australia, Norway, and in the Baltic Sea region – Finland and Sweden.

In Sweden, the Chalmers University in Goteborg developed the VRAKA risk assessment methodology to classify the wrecks, manage the risk and collect data. As a result, the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management carries out between 2 and 3 oil removal operations each year. In Finland, the Environmental Institute (SYKE) conducts a comprehensive programme for studying and cleaning the wrecks, which also leads to cleaning of 2-3 wrecks per year. In Poland, between 1999 and 2016, the Maritime Institute in Gdańsk carried out research on the threats posed by wrecks as part of the Finnish Review of Wrecks (on behalf of HELCOM). The project did not lead to cleaning of a single wreck, despite the fact that risks posed by at least 4 wrecks in the Polish EEZ have been documented.

It is of great importance that this issue is addressed as quickly as possible and that dedicated Wreck Management Programmes are introduced in all Baltic countries. At the MARE Foundation, we have been conducting activities aimed at highlighting the issue of oil remaining in the WWII wrecks in the Baltic since 2018 and we strive to implement measures to manage wrecks in Poland as soon as possible.

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