Baltic Sea environmental work continues despite Russian difficulties

Russia is one of 10 signatories to Helcom, the organisation that has been working for nearly 50 years to improve the health of the Baltic Sea and how shipping impacts it

Experts hope that the geopolitical situation with Russa and Ukraine will not overflow into the Baltic Sea work to clean up the region’s sensitive environment.


While relations with Russia are largely glacial on a diplomatic level, it does not mean that the country’s diplomats are not participating in some activities. At the London headquartered International Maritime Organization the country’s representatives are still able to attend committee meetings like MEPC, and will still make interventions, and they still sit in the canteen within the IMO Headquarters, but largely sitting alone or with representatives from countries not part of the sanctions regime. While in the IMO recently one representative from a western member state told Fathom World that it’s just not diplomatically right to even be seen having a coffee with them.


Russia is a signatory of a number of international maritime conventions, another being the Baltic Marine Environment Commission, which manages the Helsinki Commission, or Helcom for short.


The signatories of the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area (the full name of the Helsinki Convention), are all nine littoral countries of the Baltic Sea, plus the European Union.


Asa result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Helcom made the decision to cancel its diplomatic meetings said Rüdiger Strempel, Helcom Executive Secretary from its headquarters on the waterfront of Helsinki’s city centre.


Helcom was originally signed in the middle of the Cold War, in 1974, and included USSR and two Germanies (GDR & FRG)

“If you’re looking to protect an international body of water, you need to do so with all the countries bordering on that body of water on board, otherwise, it’s going to be insufficient and inadequate. And this is something that the contracting parties to help them acknowledged in 1974, when they reached across the ideological divide at the time to join efforts and something they acknowledged again in 1992 – and it’s something they still acknowledge“, he said.


He said Helcom’s work has not ground to halt with the inability to work with Russia, which continues to be a contracting party to the Convention, and has neither withdrawn, been expelled or suspended.

But there are some difficulties he admitted.


 “Having said all this, of course, at the moment, the geopolitical background makes cooperation a bit more difficult than we would like it to be. Helcom is delivering its deliverables, in line with its timetable”.


Work with Russia is subject to what he called  “a strategic pause” and does not mean that Helcom ceases to operate, and nether does it preclude having informal meetings and gatherings, and the work of Helcom continues under its written procedures. 


Action plan

This also includes the work it has been developing under the recently agreed Baltic Sea Action plan which consists of 199 actions to clean up the Baltic Sea environment.


Eutrophication of the Baltic’s brackish waters leads to dead zones and summer algae blooms that blanket many areas making the beaches unpopular. Ships and agriculture are two culprits.

The action plan includes work on eutrophication of the Sea, including the sediment and dead zones, projects that look t how the levels of pollution can be reduced, including from ships, including potential bans on grey water discharges and food waste.


Another potential project in the Baltic Sea looks at the issues related to tank washing board merchant vessels despite best guidance to avoid it.


The high levels of munitions is also a growing concern and included on the Baltic Sea Action Plan. With chemical munitions, mines and other dumped ordnance being up to 7o years old, some of it is now surrounding and increasing the risk of explosions or even chemicals being washed ashore.


Known munitions dumping sites are not the only locations of unexploded ordnance in the Baltic Sea posing an increasing threat to fishing, vessels and beachgoers
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