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International ocean environment watch: the Baltic - an acutely critical period.

International Ocean Environment Watch: The Baltic - An Acutely Critical Period Major European fishing resource suffers from extensive pollution and over-fishing. Coming to grips with the problem's magnitude, fishermen cast for solutions.

The Baltic may well be on its way to becoming another Mediterranean: highly-polluted and over-fished. Last summer's "killer algae" story, concerning a toxin produced by a relatively common form of vegetation in the Skaggerak/Kattegat link between the North and Baltic Seas, zoomed the plight of Europe's off-shore fishing grounds into focus. Debate arose over whether this was part of a natural cycle of the effects of man-made pollution. The jury is still out, however, as present evidence is at best arbitrary.

Fishing has not been satisfactory in sections of the Baltic over the past few years, and projections for the near future do not give a positive picture. Another debate: is the problem due to the degree of pollution or simply the downside of this particular biosphere? While scientists, conservationists, and industrialists argue over this, fishing vessels sail into port with only partially-filled holds.

In mid-September fishermen reported large catches of dead fish and lobster in the southern Kattegat. Measurements of oxygen in the afflicted areas revealed levels about one-third less than normal seasonal content. Oxygen depletion is not new, but it hit earlier in 1988 than normal. Arne Nielsen of the Danish National Agency of Environmental Protection said: "In view of occurrences during the past few years, this fish mortality is unfortunately not surprising. The situation in the Kattegat will probably worsen until the environmental plan for the seas goes into full effect in the mid-1990's."

Some environmentalists and politicians have been busy pointing fingers at other nations, blaming them for the panoply of pollutants spewing into the Baltic. Substances from West German rivers have been found in waters between Denmark and its Scandinavian neighbors. West blames East. Heavy traffic in shipping lanes accounts for some contamination, including oil spills. Meanwhile, agricultural fertilizers from all countries in the region seep into the Baltic. The only certainty is that a major collective effort is imperative in cleaning up the mess.

One, apparently natural, condition that is not helping the Baltic is its hydrography which was characterized by a period of severe stagnation from 1979-84. Under such circumstances, hydro-chemical conditions are relatively static. Actually, this effect had not reversed as of February 1987, according to the Helsinki-based Baltic Marine Environment Protection's First Periodic Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area. The volume states that a renewal of the bottom waters is feasible, given the low density of the medium. But high concentrations of hydrogen sulphide mean that massive volumes of oxygen-rich saline will be needed to realize notable improvement.

Rapid nutrient increase is a problem of growing severity, regardless of whether or not this phenomenon is due to pollution or natural causes. Oxygen deficits and the formation of hydrogen sulphide are consequences of this, especially in the deeper waters of the central and southwest Baltic. Increasing amounts of dead organic matter must be decomposed microbially, thereby consuming oxygen and limiting the environment's marine life. Phosphates, on the other hand, are only being decreased through sedimentation, so these substances cannot be fully eliminated from the biogeochemical cycle.

Nutrients can stimulate eutrophication. Although unproven, blooms of red-tide algae suggest disturbance in the ecosystem. Microorganisms are not easily monitored, so the effects upon them, and in turn their effects upon other marine life, have not yet even reached the hypothesis stage. Oxygen depletion struck harder and earlier last year in the Kattegat. Danish fishermen alarmed scientists with reports of large nettings of dead fish and lobsters. In addition, huge white blankets of sulphurous bacteria have been spotted for the first time in these waters, which are void of normal sea life.

Katherine Richardson of the Danish Institute of Fisheries and Ocean Research pronounced these waters are "completely dead," adding that "they will probably remain so for a long time, even after the oxygen returns." Without flora and fauna to feed upon, fish move on to friendlier habitats -- the question is, for how long?

Swedish research has uncovered a few startling effects of pollution on marine life in the Baltic. Malformed perch increase in numbers in the brackish waters of the archipelago on the eastern end of the country. Reproductive abilities of Stromning, a herring sort, are reduced from hydrocarbon contamination resulting from oil spills and leakage of ship fuels.

Warm wastewater discharging from nuclear plants attract fish, but this environment diminishes their resistance and survival abilities. Thermal pollution near the coast has helped spread certain parasites that blind cod. Some forestry practices produce toxins that have spread out from offshore circulating currents.

The entire Baltic Coast is dotted with plants and farms which reportedly spew metals, chemicals and organic matter into the sea. In the 1960s the enemy wass DDT. PCBs took the spotlight in the 70s, only to be followed by a host of new substances that have entered the biosphere.

Autumn storms, the first usually striking in late September, help to regenerate some oxygen into afflicted areas. They also spread contaminants more evenly, a dubious benefit at best.

Victor A. Belobraghin, an attache from the Soviet Ministry of Fisheries and a former seaman, who has spent much of his life dealing with the sea, told Quick Frozen Foods International that while the U.S.S.R. has enjoyed increasingly good catches overall, "the Baltic is difficult."

Russian vessels are not getting the tonnage that would be desirable. Belobraghin pointed out that pollution comes from all the countries on the Baltic, but singled out Poland as a major offender as it is allegedly responsible for dumping any number of substances directly into the seas.

The total international catch of Baltic cod has declined steadily since 1984 when landings weighed 443,530 tons. The 1987 harvest fell to 246,553 tons, and forecasts for 1988 predict a total catch of just 159,000 tons. Figures from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) show that catches of demersal cod stocks remained fairly stable in the years preceeding the 1980s, and increased in some sectors during the first half of this decade. However, over the past two years substantial decreases were evident. Recruitment levels (fish capable of reproduction) were high from 1975-84 in most of the Baltic, but have been on the decline since 1982. The 1987 year class was low, especially in western regions.

The western section of the Baltic is heavily fished and generally shallower than the basins to the east. ICES, suggesting that current resource exploitation levels will lead to a stock depletion, recommends a 60% reduction of the mortality rate, with catches totalling no more than 14,000 tons in 1989. A 20% reduction of the 1987 mortality level has been targeted for the Baltic proper in 1989, which will bring the bio-mass up to the previously estimated threshhold level of around 400,000 tons by 1990. Fishing at present levels of mortality will lead to slight increases in the stock.

Salinity levels of the water play a key role in the replenishment of cod stocks. Low salinity means poor hatches and levels were low a couple of years ago--and are still--so fry and recruitment numbers have been reduced, a factor that will be felt for some time to come.

Statistics may be valuable, but fishermen look at other numbers--namely those that appear in their bank accounts. And many are seeing red. QFFI visited fishing ports on Bornholm, the Danish island at the crossroads of the Baltic, where fishing has always been a main industry. Arne Jacobsen, who runs a stable business in one of the few remaining smokehouses on the island said:

"Before too long there won't be very many large fishing boats left doesn't pay. Banks have been generous with their loans, but one by one, fishermen are giving up their trade. There aren't enough fish to make it profitable to run a ship with a crew. What you will be seeing in the future is two-man vessels that don't need great tonnage to turn a profit."

Since cod has always been the mainstay, this stock is what is needed to keep the fleet asail.

J. Espersen A/S, headquartered on the island, has enjoyed a thriving business providing frozen fish to such high-volume customers as McDonald's, General Mills and Unilever. Skin-on fillets go to the U.K. for fish and chips suppliers. Lately they have had to import frozen blocks of fish from Norway to supplement supplies from domestic, German and Polish vessels. Roughly one-third of their raw materials are imported while over 95% of sales are exports.

Decreasing stocks are a serious problem, but even if the fish were there, local sea-harvesters must observe territorial waters and, what has become almost an obscenity in the trade, EEC quotas. Many fishermen feel they have been thrown to the sharks by the politicians. When inspectors from the Danish Ministry of Fisheries arrive, they are certainly not given a warm welcome.

In areas such as the White Zone the relevant countries have negotiated and allotted quotas. Meanwhile, Poland and Denmark will try to reach agreement about another disputed area: the Bornholm Economic Zone. In spite of an international agreement Commander-Senior-Grade Ole Bretting told QFFI that the Danish Navy has had to intercede in episodes involving Polish ships. There are 1,524 ships from Warsaw Pact nations that fish the Baltic, according to NATO sources.

Fishermen also related incidents of Danish vessels being escorted by Soviet ships back into Danish waters. Malfunctioning navigational equipment is generally the alleged cause.

Negotiations in Warsaw last September resulted in agreement among the nations that fish the Baltic. Some EEC members may be able to harvest from East bloc territories for the first time. The nations agreed to 200,000 tons of cod as the 1989 limit, as opposed to the 193,000 tons biologists had proposed.

Herring stocks appear to remain relatively constant, although the catch from 1984-87 was substantially lower than the suggested level TAC set by the International Baltic Sea Fishery Commission. In 1987 the total allowable catch was set at 489,700 tons, while the actual harvest for the year was 402,339 tons. For pelagic stocks of herring and sprat, ICES recommends slightly lower rates of mortality for many sections of the Baltic.

Salmon catches have increased fairly steadily since the 1960s. This is mainly due to improved efficiency of drift net methods. There are 20 rivers where salmon still spawn naturally.

Fishing nations want to take 4,000 tons next year, but the suggested catch was set at 3,000. Biologists seek to improve escapement by increasing the meshes of nets, a suggestion that has been met with some degree of approval. Since farming techniques for salmon have been raised to such a high level, this fish can be replenished fairly handily, although biologists remain watchful.

If rhetoric could clean water, the Baltic would be immaculate. Biologists say that Swedish and Danish steps to curb pollution came at a critical time, although only a few of these measures have been implemented thus far. The Nordic nations were scheduled to meet in November to lay out a masterplan for cleaning the environment. Denmark and East Germany recently signed a pact which ought to aid the situation. The EEC seems too preoccupied with "1992" to make any decisive agreements, although environmental problems are definitely a topic of discussion in Brussels. Greenpeace International held a London conference in August attended by North and Baltic Sea countries. The main focus was on last summer's seal deaths, but the overall effects of pollution were addressed. Scientists there found it plausible that the large amounts of PCBs, dioxin and fertilizers could be breaking down the mammals' immunity systems.

Mincing No Words

Graham Hansen of Norstral Seafood summed up the state of the environment without mincing words: "The Baltic is turning into a cesspool. It's over-fished and not enough, if anything, is being done to save it."

One positive aspect, which could become a determinant factor for the future, is aquaculture. Advances in this field could make it possible to have a satisfactory balance between catches and biomasses.
COPYRIGHT 1989 E.W. Williams Publications, Inc.
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Author:Ferro, Charles
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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