Text: Henrik Hamrén
Nine areas designated for protecting biodiversity in the Baltic Sea
Researchers have identified nine marine areas in the Baltic Sea that are particularly important for the protection of biodiversity. As of today, they are included in the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
The decision was taken at the UN Conference on Biological Diversity, COP14, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on Thursday, and means that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) from now on also includes nine so-called EBSAs (Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas) in the Baltic Sea.
– These are not the only areas in the Baltic Sea that are biologically important. But here we have managed to identify nine of the most important ones. If we effectively protect them, we capture a large proportion of biodiversity in the Baltic Sea, says Sofia Wikström, researcher and marine ecologist at the Baltic Sea Center.
One of the areas is located in the Gulf of Finland. According to Sofia Wikström, this is a biodiversity hotspot in the Baltic Sea.
– It's a very unique environment, even globally, with a high diversity of freshwater species living side by side with marine species. In the inner Gulf of Finland and in the Bothnian Bay we find species that are unique for the Baltic Sea region and can’t be found anywhere else in the world, such as the Baltic water-plantain, Wikström says.
Another of the nine EBSAs cover three of the four major offshore banks in the Baltic Sea. The banks form shallow areas far from the coast and are vital to certain species.
– A significant part of the world's population of long-tailed duck winter on the banks. And the Baltic Sea porpoise give birth to their calves there. If we exploit these areas in a way that prevents the long-tailed duck from wintering, and the porpoises from breeding, there is a risk that these populations will disappear, says Sofia Wikström.
The Convention on Biological Diversity has been signed by most countries in the world, and takes a global approach to the protection of biodiversity at genetic, species and ecosystem levels. But designating an area as an EBSA does not mean that it gets a formal protection.
– EBSAs are areas that are extra important for maintaining biodiversity. But how, or even if the areas are to be protected, is up to the respective countries, says Sofia Wikström.
It was at the UN Global Sea Conference in 2017 that Helcom presented an undertaking to map ecologically or biologically important areas in the Baltic Sea. In February this year, experts from most of the Baltic Sea countries met at a week-long workshop in Helsinki to jointly identify the EBSAs.
– Through the EBSAs we take an overall view on the entire Baltic Sea. Much of this work is normally done at national level. But the scale that is most relevant for protecting biodiversity is the Baltic Sea scale. The species living and swimming around in the sea do not know any national borders. If you want to protect species and habitats in the long term, you need the broader perspective, says Sofia Wikström, which was one of Sweden's two representatives at the Helsinki workshop.
At the same time, the EBSAs also places the biological values of the Baltic Sea in a global perspective.
– With today's decision, these important areas in the Baltic Sea are now equated with the ecologically and biologically most important areas around the world. They are part of the areas that we, as a humanity, must care for, says Sofia Wikström.
Helcom hope that EBSA will be used as a collective input to the maritime spatial planning that is currently under way in all Baltic Sea countries, within the framework of the EU Maritime Spatial Planning Directive.
– Another hope is that EBSA also can be used to raise awareness of the great and internationally unique riches that actually exist in the Baltic Sea, says Sofia Wikström.
She regrets that Poland and Denmark chose not to participate in the EBSA workshop.
– As a result of their absence, we couldn’t designate any EBSAs in neither Danish nor Polish waters, meaning that important areas in the Baltic Sea were not considered, Wikström says.
One example is the Bornholm basin, which is the only remaining spawning area for the eastern Baltic cod.
– Most of the Bornholm basin is in Danish and Polish waters, and was therefore not included in the assessment, says Sofia Wikström.
For the same reason, much of the biological values in the Sound, Kattegatt and the southern Baltic was not included in the EBSA mapping. According to Sofia Wikström, this is a good example of what regional cooperation is and how it works.
– A great momentum is created when several countries join forces like this and adopt a common helicopter perspective – which is so important when working with protection of biodiversity. At the same time, the collaboration rarely gets stronger than its weakest link, she says.
FACTS: Seven criteria for EBSAs in the Baltic Sea
The selection of EBSAs is based on seven criteria *:
- Uniqueness or rarity (contains unique, rare or endemic species, populations or communities)
- Importance for life-history stages (eg wintering and reproduction, important for wide-ranging species)
- High biodiversity (many species in the same place)
- Area for threatened species (eg for harbour porpoises, areas that are required for a population to survive and thrive)
- Vulnerable (sensitive habitats, biotopes or species that are functionally fragile)
- High biological productivity (eg of plankton and fish)
- Naturalness (lack of or low level of influence by human activities)