The Challenges of the Baltic Sea

Fifteen per cent of the world’s transports take place on the Baltic Sea. The lively and vital marine traffic puts pressure on this already vulnerable inland sea.

When the oil tanker Prestige sank off the coast of Spain in 2002, some 25,000–40,000 tonnes of oil spilled into the sea and along the Galician coast. The Baltic Sea countries sprang to action to protect the Baltic Sea from similar accidents. In 2005 the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO) classified the Baltic Sea as a Particulary Sensitive Sea area, PSSA

“What makes the Baltic Sea special are its shoals and islets,” says professor Sakari Kuikka.

“Unlike in, say, England or France where the coastline is quite clear-cut and the sea quickly becomes deeper, the Baltic Sea is shallow and its narrow routes pass by rocks and islets,” Kuikka points out.

300 million tonnes of oil

Concerns about a major accident in the beautiful but difficult-to-navigate archipelago are real. Some 300 million tonnes of oil are transported annually on the Baltic Sea.

“The Baltic Sea is home to unique flora and fauna. Many species have adapted specifically to its conditions. A major oil spill could eradicate not just one, but several populations.”

Oil spills are serious incidents wherever they occur, but the risk of eradicating several species at the same time does not affect, for example, the Australian coast in the same way. According to Sakari Kuikka, however, Finland is well-prepared for oil spills.

“Of all the Baltic Sea countries, we have the highest number of oil spill response vessels.”

“Because our current response capability is satisfactory, we should focus our resources on preventive measures.”

Sea you home safe

One example of preventive efforts is the work done by the Finnish Transport Agency’s Vessel Traffic Services.

"We have to be extra careful when monitoring shipping routes that cross each other in the Gulf of Finland. Freighters, which mostly navigate in a West-East direction, and passenger ships, which move from North to South, cross routes, for example, in the traffic between Helsinki and Tallinn,” says Thomas Erlund from the Finnish Transport Agency’s Vessel Traffic Services.

His unit keeps tabs on the 7,600 oil tankers, 11,000 passenger ships and 23,000 other vessels that move in the Gulf of Finland each year. The unit has to intervene in vessels’ movements some 5,000 times a year.

Another example of measures that can reduce risks in the Baltic Sea are maritime pilotage services.

“In 2014 we prevented 41 accidents in the Gulf of Finland,” says Kari Kosonen of Finnpilot Pilotage.

Know-how on the bridge

Government-owned Finnpilot Pilotage Ltd operates under the Ministry of Transport and Communications and handles 25,000 pilotage cases each year. The Finnish Pilotage Act requires that all vessels over 70 metres in length must use a pilot to arrive safely in port.

Kosonen is most worried about the deficient skills of some crew members.

“Almost one in two vessels arrives in port with a maritime pilot at the helm because the ship’s captain, who should have excellent knowledge of his or her vessel, does not feel confident enough to steer the vessel into port.”

Finnpilot’s Kari Kosonen and the Finnish Transport Agency’s Thomas Erlund described their organisations’ work for the promotion of maritime safety at the annual seminar of the Baltic Sea Challenge in Helsinki on 30 November 2015. The Baltic Sea Challenge is a protection campaign launched on the initiative of the cities of Helsinki and Turku in 2007 to improve the health of the Baltic Sea. The University of Helsinki was one of the first to take up the cities’ challenge.

Sulphur acidifies, nitrogen eutrophies

The increased risk of oil spills is not the only negative environmental effect of lively traffic on the Baltic Sea.

“The nitrogen and sulphur emissions of vessels are a problem for the health of both the Baltic Sea and the region’s residents,” says professor Kari Hyytiäinen.

Hyytiäinen is the holder of the donated professorship in the economics of Baltic Sea protection, which was established within the framework of the Baltic Sea Challenge.

“Sulphur oxides (SOx) contribute to the acidification of the Baltic, whereas nitrogen oxide (NOx) increases eutrophication in an already highly eutrophic sea.”

Deadly particles

Hyytiäinen says that the biggest problem is posed by the particles released into the air through the emissions of vessels. A recent study carried out by Lund University showed that half of the particles that residents on the Baltic coast breathe in come from Baltic Sea and North Sea traffic. The particles contribute to the premature deaths of thousands of people.

“The new Sulphur Directive that took effect in January 2015 is a big step in the right direction.The new Directive stipulates that the fuel used by ships cannot contain more than 0.1% sulphur. The previous limit was 0.5%.”

Now vessels must choose whether to use a more expensive diesel fuel or acquire a filter system known as a scrubber.

“Another option is to use liquefied natural gas (LNG) as fuel, which would considerably reduce the amount of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and particles. This is a big opportunity for marine traffic,” Hyytiäinen believes.

“LNG vessels are still few and far between on the Baltic Sea,” notes Kirsti Tarnanen-Sariola of the Finnish Port Association, who also attended the Baltic Sea Challenge’s annual seminar.

Of the ships in regular use on the Baltic Sea, Viking Line’s M/S Grace is the only one running on LNG.

Says Tarnanen-Sariola: “Natural gas is already much used in land transport, but it is fairly new in maritime traffic. The Finnish Port Association will ensure that future LNG vessels have an effective network of natural gas at their disposal.”

The Baltic Sea Challenge