Clear waters through cooperation

”You can spoil the ground water within five minutes by handling pesticides incorrectly but it takes 100 years for the water to fully recover", tells Henning Foged, SuMaNu project. With close to half of the EU population living in coastal areas, the seas are the treasure that give Europeans food, raw materials, energy and jobs. Yet, between 75% and 96% of Europe’s regional seas are contaminated (European Environmental Agency, 2015).

By Anna Galyga and Elena Kolosova, Interreg Baltic Sea Region and Giulia Frattini, Interreg ADRION
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We challenge our seas with industry waste, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and nutrients leaking from fields, and expect the seas to remain that treasure for our children and the children of their children. But will they?

What science and scientists can do

The release of chemical substances from land and sea-based activities into our seas represents a serious risk for both nature and human health, but risk assessment is not always easy to carry out. Hazardous substances require reliable and coherent monitoring and assessment programs. In other words, scientific data must be harmonised in order to become comparable across countries, organisations and institutions. It is a prerequisite to better assess marine pollution and design more targeted policies accordingly.

Marina Lipizer, scientist at the Italian National Institute of Oceanography and of Applied Geophysics, Trieste (Italy)
Marina Lipizer, scientist at the Italian National Institute of Oceanography and of Applied Geophysics

Sharing good data is the first step

“Data is key if we want to better measure water pollution, assess the quality of the marine ecosystem, understand impact on biodiversity, and on human health. Countries sharing a marine region should adopt a common approach for marine monitoring and environmental status assessment”, says Marina Lipizer, scientist at the Italian National Institute of Oceanography and of Applied Geophysics (OGS) based in Trieste (Italy).

Data is key if we want to better measure water pollution

She has done research on the status of the marine environment for more than twenty years. “In the Adriatic-Ionian region, the level of consistency regarding the implementation of EU environmental policies and the Barcelona Convention is quite low, particularly for the case of contamination of hazardous substances”, states Lipizer. “This is the reason why we needed to push scientific organisations for a harmonised assessment of contaminants in the marine environment of the Adriatic-Ionian region, and beyond”.

Strengthening ties between scientific organisations and environmental managing authorities across Europe

Lipizer has led the Interreg project HarmoNIA with a transnational team of experts from nine research and monitoring institutions in Albania, Croatia, Greece, Italy, Montenegro and Slovenia. Together, they compiled data, information and best practices on monitoring and assessing marine pollution in the Adriatic-Ionian area. HarmoNIA has paved the way towards harmonising, monitoring and assessing the seas by collecting and synthesising data. The HarmoNIA data portal includes more than 5,900 datasets on contaminants in the Adriatic-Ionian area, most of them publically available. Now, information on legacy pollutants, such as heavy metals, antifoulants, pesticides and biocides, polychlorinated biphenyls and fertilizers is accessible to scientific institutes and public authorities.

In addition, HarmoNIA produced a geoportal with interactive maps to better visualise and compare the concentrations of marine pollutants. The different contaminants arise from a wide range of activities, from shipping to oil, gas and mineral exploration, up to agriculture and industrial activities. In particular, the project has looked at the impact derived from waterborne transport and offshore oil and gas extraction that is considered to be a high potential source of pollution.

From Good Data to Good decision making

Providing harmonised data and more accessible tools for environmental monitoring can strongly contribute to a further broad use, including contributing to improving relevant European policies. The impulse given by Harmonia in improving the collection of data and its public release can support relevant authorities and institutions in their decision-making process at local, regional and national level. “Now it is easier to discover spatial and temporal trends of marine pollution in the Adriatic-Ionian region! Finally, maps on pollution hazards and coastal vulnerability, together with hydrodynamic and oil-spill models are now available to assess risk of pollution dispersion, fundamental to safeguard ecosystem services and help design environmental policy”, says Lipizer.

Sharing data about marine pollution is caring. It’s also a necessary step to make a durable change to protect the sea and reduce hazardous substances in water in various sectors: from urban planning to farming.

No time to waste nutrients

Agriculture remains a significant source of marine pollution. Farmers use fertilisers which contain nutrients, in particular nitrogen and phosphorus, to grow crops. Nutrients leaking out from fields due to inefficient agricultural practices and/or over fertilisation pollute the seas. With roughly 40% of the EU’s total land area used for agricultural production, the risk is real.

The excessive input of nutrients from agriculture is currently damaging almost the whole Baltic Sea. They cause a phenomenon called eutrophication that leads to a cascade of negative effects in the marine ecosystem, including lack of oxygen. Although the EU Green Deal calls for reducing nutrient losses, the systemic change requires commitments all the way from farmers up to governments. Farmers need to learn how to sustainably use nutrients to reduce leakages, and governments should offer financial incentives to make that happen.

Minna Sarvi is a researcher at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke). Photo by Eliisa Malin (BSAG)
Minna Sarvi is a researcher at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke). Photo: Eliisa Malin (BSAG)

From litter to asset

Minna Sarvi is a researcher at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) in Jokioinen. Being sustainable means more than just a statement to her. It’s a life philosophy to reduce, reuse and recycle in all private choices she makes. “We need to think how and what we consume; we need circularity in everything we do. That’s how we can save our environment and how we can save our planet. And big changes do start with small steps. So I am taking mine”.

We need circularity in everything we do

This very philosophy of sustainability is what has been guiding her in her scientific work, too. Minna has worked across borders to connect experts from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Latvia and Poland, and help make agricultural practices more sustainable. Her work shows that animal manure can be a valuable resource for farmers. Yet, although it is the most natural and cheapest fertiliser, manure should not be spread on fields without control. “If farmers would use animal manure precisely according to the crop needs and recycle potential surplus to other farms, we could instantly reduce the nutrient inflow from manure into the Baltic Sea”, she explains.

But how to bring together the different farming practices across the regions and countries? How to test environmentally-friendly use of organic fertilisers? It is the Interreg cooperation that has enabled to synthesise the existing expertise, best practices and recommendations on nutrient management from four EU-funded projects: combining over thirteen years of cooperation in ten countries in just one initiative, the project SuMaNu.

SuMaNu offered national and regional authorities, policy makers, advisors and farmers in the Baltic Sea region a pool of scientific knowledge and practical solutions. For example, tools to collect precise manure data in order to define the correct amount of manure as a fertiliser. Such tools can be found in Manure Standards, one of the projects covered by the platform, helped farmers and advisors on almost 100 farms in nine countries around the Baltic Sea to cut costs on buying mineral fertilisers and to reduce emissions. This knowledge is spreading further.

How Interreg triggers policy change

Interreg cooperation has built solid grounds to preserving nutrient value of manure and decreasing losses. SuMaNu recommendations, for example, on manure spreading when crops are growing to maximise the nutrient uptake, have fed into the latest joint strategy for nutrient recycling in the Baltic Sea region by the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission – also known as the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM). HELCOM has also used other recommendations, for example on phosphorus fertilisation planning and regional nutrient reallocation to update the Baltic Sea Action Plan, which is all about improving the water quality in the Baltic Sea. Being proud of how cooperation in Interreg can affect policies, Minna admits that more is better in this case: “For example, if we managed to influence measures to reduce phosphorus emissions on the EU level, like it is done for nitrogen, this could be a driving force to improve the water quality in the sea”.

Towards clear waters and calm seas

There is still a lot to do in order to ensure that Europe’s seawaters are clear. But if environmental enthusiasts, scientists, practitioners, decision makers and ordinary citizens act together as if there were no borders, the chances to make that happen are rising. Marina and Minna, each of them in their own way, have proven that while cooperating under the blue flag with yellow stars.

The authors

Anna Gałyga works as a Communication Officer at the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme 

Elena Kolosova works as an Advisor for External Cooperation at the Interreg Baltic Sea Region Programme 

Giulia Frattini works as a Communication Officer at the Interreg ADRION Programme

This article is part of a series on how transnational cooperation contributes to the EU Green Deal. Click here to see all stories.