In a European perspective, the Baltic Sea region is at the forefront with regard to establishing marine protected areas. At present, protected areas comprise 12% of the Baltic Sea. But there is a catch.
In practice, many of the Baltic Sea’s protected areas only exist on paper. Several of the areas completely lack regulations limiting what is allowed there. And in most cases it is permitted to continue exploiting the sea in a way that can threaten the values that are to be protected.
Protected areas in other parts of the world are often established in order to ban or regulate fishing. There are reasons for this. Fishing is in general the human activity that causes the most damage to sensitive marine environments.
Overfishing has led to a severe decline in many species of fish. Reduced fish stocks can affect the entire ecosystem, when species with important functions decline or disappear. Fishing can also have undesirable effects on seabirds and whales that get caught in nets and on species and habitats on the seafloor that are damaged by destructive fishing equipment.
Fishing is permitted in almost all of the protected marine areas in the Baltic Sea. But there are examples of areas where fishing is limited. In Öresund, trawling has been banned ever since the 1930s. This was however not to protect the ecosystem, but for practical reasons on this busy shipping route.
Otherwise, Öresund is an intensively exploited marine area used for commercial fisheiries, wind power, sand extraction and busy and heavy shipping traffic. Nevertheless, the area has the most robust cod stock in the Baltic Sea area. It also has extensive eelgrass meadows and one can find plenty of benthic species that are rare in the rest of the Baltic Sea and Kattegatt.
Fishing is permitted in almost all of the protected marine areas in the Baltic Sea
So far, fishing in the Baltic Sea has been managed without any serious consideration of the effects on the ecosystems. The example of Öresund shows that it is not always necessary to ban all fishing to attain vigorous fish stocks and a rich marine environment in an area.
The key to success is to introduce well thought-out regulations. However, so far fishing in the Baltic Sea has been managed without any serious consideration of the effects on the ecosystems. Nature conservation has limited opportunities to introduce fishing limits in protected areas, which means that the work to protect the marine ecosystem still lacks an important leg to stand on.
If we are to be able to keep exploiting the sea to produce food and for recreation, we need a sustainable marine management that does not harm the Baltic Sea ecosystem. If protected areas are to be a usable tool in this work, the activities that have a significant impact on the ecosystem must be limited.
A step in the right direction would be to seriously review whether fishing should be limited in several of the Baltic Sea’s marine protected areas.