Busier Baltic Sea struggles with pollution, safety

Russia plans to expand the port of Primorsk, further straining the waterway.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A massive British luxury liner squeezes between a Portuguese passenger vessel and an enormous Estonian car ferry, with no more than 100 feet to spare. Near the harbor entrance, cargo ships pass to and fro, while out in the Gulf of Finland, tankers, ferries, and container ships clutter the horizon.

At peak hours, traffic at this Baltic port looks like a Jurassic-scale traffic jam.

The eastern Baltic Sea is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, where the oil and cargo traffic of St. Petersburg and western Russia cross paths with dozens of ferries linking Estonia's capital with Helsinki, Finland. Ships make nearly 40,000 port calls each year in the Gulf of Finland alone, an average of more than 100 dockings every day, despite harsh winters that cover the gulf in dangerous pack ice.

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But as bad as it is, traffic in the Baltic is about to get far worse, prompting calls for stricter safety standards and environmental monitoring.

Russia is expanding its port in the Gulf of Finland, including a giant new oil terminal at Primorsk, north of St. Petersburg. As a result, ship traffic in the area will jump 25 percent by 2050, while tanker traffic will triple, according to Finland's VTT Technical Research Center. Meanwhile, more passengers are likely to ply the sea next year when Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania join the European Union.

"We are facing far too big risks from the increased oil transport in this area," says Pekka Korpinen, deputy mayor of Helsinki. He was in Tallinn earlier this month attending a conference on the Baltic's problems hosted by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the senior figure in the Orthodox Christian church, who is gaining a reputation as the "green patriarch."

Mr. Korpinen called on the EU to pressure Russia to address his country's concerns about the increased risks of a serious accident.

Spill tops concerns

What environmental experts fear most is a major oil spill, which would be particularly devastating to the Baltic, a shallow, nearly enclosed sea whose ecological integrity has already been seriously undermined by pollution and overfishing.

Concerns were heightened at the end of May, when a Chinese ship, the Fu Shan Hai, sank after colliding with a freighter at the mouth of the Baltic. The ship was carrying fertilizer, not petroleum, and the resulting oil spill was small. But a collision involving one of the Primorsk-bound tankers - which carry in excess of 100,000 tons of oil - would be a different matter.

"The Baltic is a very fragile system with very serious environmental problems," says marine scientist Andris Andrusaitis of the University of Latvia in Riga. "If a major spill were to happen, the recovery time for this system would be tremendously long."

Life in the Baltic has been compromised in many ways by the 85 million people living around it. There's been overfishing and dumping of toxins. Ships have introduced destructive creatures from other parts of the world, including a parasitic worm with a taste for the swim bladders of native eels. There are hundreds of minor oil spills here every year, many of them intentional releases of contaminated bilge water.

But by far the most serious problems are sewage, animal wastes, and fertilizer-laden runoff carried to the sea by streams and rivers. The quantity of the two basic nutrients in these effluents - nitrogen and phosphorus - have increased by eight- and four-fold respectively over the past century, according to Mr. Andrusaitis.

As in other bays and seas around the world, the excess nutrients have triggered enormous algae blooms in the Baltic. Some become so large that they outpace the ability of fish and other marine creatures to graze them down. As a result, layer upon layer of dead algae pile up on the ocean bottom where they decompose, using up much or all of the dissolved oxygen in the surrounding sea water and creating "dead zones" where no animal life can live.

Along the western shore of Tallinn harbor, thick mats of rotting algae cover rocks and beaches, filling the air with a vile odor. Out at sea the problem is hidden, but has more serious ecological implications.

The dead zones are making it more difficult for cod to recover from serious overfishing. Over the past two decades, the Baltic cod catch has fallen by three-quarters, while the adult population has fallen by seven-eighths. That means far fewer cod eggs are being laid each year, and many of those that are wind up suffocating in the dead zones, which are most prevalent in the deep basins the cod use for nurseries here.

"In some years there is a total failure of cod reproduction," Andrusaitis says. WWF International estimates that cod fishermen in the Baltic are losing at least $186 million a year compared to what the group says could have been earned if sustainable fishing policies had been in place since 1977.

Lost chemical weapons

But Vadim Paka, director of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanography in the Russian port of Kaliningrad, was in Tallinn to warn of another danger hidden on the floor of the Baltic: a large trove of chemical weapons lost at the end of World War II when an allied convoy hit rough seas.

Mr. Paka says some 60,000 tons of chemical weapons including mustard gas and arsenic lie at three locations in the Baltic, with the largest off western Sweden. While the weapons don't appear to have caused any damage to date, Paka is concerned that may change as the munitions they are contained in corrode away. He's been traveling around Europe, trying to gather support for a $1 million monitoring program that would assess the threat.

"The most dangerous thing is that nobody knows what is going on there," he says.

Those concerned about increased oil-tanker traffic are also looking for money to start a monitoring program, this one to detect spills and determine their ship of origin. "Every year we have more and more [minor] spills," says Eugeniusz Andrulewicz of the Sea Fisheries Institute in Gdynia, Poland. "We need a very good system so we can catch the violators and protect the Baltic."

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