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July 16, 2014

Finnish archipelago Åland could be a big winner in the future – or loser

BY: Hanna Paulomäki


Mariehamn, South of Åland Island. © OCEANA Carlos Minguell


This piece was first published in the Finnish newspaper Ålandstidningen 11/7, it has been translated for this blog.

Imagine this view on a sunny day: blue skies, the sun shining and glimmering on the surface of the sea. But zoom in a bit closer, and you’ll see an entirely different picture: murky waters, and algae blooms suffocating kelp forests, and small fish in shallow waters gasping for air. This is the current reality we are facing: wide-spread human activities have led to the decline of the Baltic Sea and other oceans globally.

One of the biggest threats to the Baltic Sea is eutrophication, which is caused by excess amounts of nutrients from agriculture running off into the water. The ecosystem reacts the same way that children who get fed too much sugar do: it gets overly excited, then exhausted and eventually crashes. Kids are fine after some time, but the sea doesn’t recover as fast.

The other big threat is industrial fisheries, sucking up the resources of the Baltic without consideration for the damaged marine environment they leave behind. In the past, cod was a common catch in Finland’s Ålands islands, but not anymore. But even though Ålands fisheries have declined, and only have a modest financial return these days, the industry remains important in the archipelago. If the fish stocks recovered, the relative importance of this sector could grow. Recreational fishing provides an even bigger growth potential. In fact, a study conducted on the Danish island of Bornholm showed that anglers spent an average of 68 euros per caught kilo of salmon, while a kilo caught by commercial fishermen only generated 4 euros in economic gain for the community. Furthermore, the fact that angling has a lot less environmental impact compared to commercial fishing adds even more value.

So is a future with clean waters and thriving fish stocks just a naïve dream for the Åland islands? Certainly not… if we act now.

One effective way to help the environment recover is to single out areas where marine life can recover and flourish, and protect them by enforcing restrictions on activities that could be harmful. The life in these areas, baby fish for example, could then flourish in peace, and when they’re grown, they can safely set off into the rest of the Baltic. The governments around the Baltic Sea have acknowledged this conservation need and agreed to create more protected areas. Today, 12 percent of the Baltic Sea is covered by protected areas, but this globally impressive figure doesn’t actually guarantee adequate protection. Around half of these protected areas lack any management plans, and destructive activities, like fishing with bottom trawls, are hardly ever restricted. Finland scores even worse than average: less than 8% of its waters are protected; a figure which includes the Åland Islands.

Protecting our marine environment is not just about protecting a single species. It’s also about securing our economic interests and food security. Who wouldn’t like to support their local industry by eating fresh fish, caught close-by? How about swimming in clean waters, or going for a dive and seeing something further away than your own hand? Tourism is one out of many marine activities that shows the greatest growth potential. But this can be undermined if the marine environment is degraded and water quality continues to deteriorate. Naturally beautiful areas, like the Åland Islands could be the biggest winners, or losers, in this game. Restoring the Baltic Sea is possible, but it requires bold action and strong political commitments in every single area of the sea right now. We can’t afford to wait.