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Oceana Magazine Summer 2011: Oceana in the Baltic

By Suzannah Evans

Ringed by some of northern Europe’s greatest cities, the Baltic Sea’s icy waters have provided seafood and livelihoods for centuries. Now it is among the most stressed and polluted seas in the world.

For two months this summer, Oceana’s first Baltic Sea expedition explored the brackish sea’s frigid expanses. The photos and scientific findings from the expeditions will help Oceana make the case for needed protections for the Baltic.

The Baltic Sea, surrounded by nine countries, has provided fish for millions of people for centuries. Now, in addition to being severely overfished, it is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world.

A combination of factors – the icy chill of the water and its polluted state – presented a slew of new challenges for Oceana’s experienced crew of divers, scientists and campaigners. Aboard the Hanse Explorer, a 157-foot certified ice-class vessel built for exploration, the crew worked long days in northern Europe.

And the frigid conditions meant that Oceana’s divers toughed out dives so cold that the sandy seabed was frozen, and their underwater cameras had to be put on automatic settings to take  photos, as the  divers’ fingers turned too numb to operate the buttons.

Despite the conditions, the expedition was a success. The Hanse Explorer covered more than 7,000 nautical miles, from Copenhagen to the Bothnian Bay, the Baltic’s ice-choked northern region.

Using divers, an ROV capable of diving to more than 300 feet and a Van Veen dredge to take seabed samples, the crew of the Hanse Explorer documented the underwater biodiversity in the waters of every country bordering the Baltic – the first time any environmental organization has done so.

When Anne Schroeer accepted the role as the leader of Oceana’s new Copenhagen office, she knew what to expect. Schroeer worked as an economist in Oceana’s Madrid office for years, and brings her deep knowledge of fisheries and European diplomacy to her leadership role. She is fluent in three languages. Located in Copenhagen’s historic district, the office is Oceana’s newest after opening in Belize in 2009.

The expedition came on the heels of the opening of Oceana’s new office in Copenhagen, led by economist Anne Schroeer.

“Our expedition showed that the Baltic Sea is under a lot of stress, but that areas with amazing biodiversity still do exist,” Schroeer said. “We have to protect those places, and help improve the state of the rest of the sea.”

The Baltic’s shores are home to some of northern Europe and Russia’s greatest and oldest cities, including Helsinki, Stockholm, St. Petersburg and Copenhagen.

But the years of pollution and overfishing have taken their toll. Much of the Baltic suffers from eutrophication, which leads to oxygen depletion.

The algae blooms caused by eutrophication give the water a green sheen, limiting visibility in the Baltic to almost zero in many places. Throughout the expedition, the crew took sediment samples and oxygen levels in a process that will help determine the most threatened parts of the sea.

On many of the teams’ dives, they saw little wildlife in the oxygen-depleted areas of the sea. But especially near some marine protected areas, there were signs of hope in thriving marine ecosystems.

Near Fehmarn Island, for example, just off the coast of Denmark, the crew saw a healthy ecosystem with good visibility and an array of marine life, including sea kelp, starfish, mussels and sea snails.

“The Baltic can be a much healthier, more productive sea,” said Xavier Pastor, vice president for Oceana in Europe and the leader of the Hanse Explorer expedition. “We need to establish more marine protected areas, and enforce measures to protect the seafloor in the ones that we already have.”

The Hanse Explorer team will take the data, photographs and videos taken on the expedition and use it to expand the Baltic’s marine protected areas and add new measures to enforce the existing protected areas.