The Baltic Sea Action Group is not a typical NGO. It will accept money, but it is more interested in actions and expertise.
Finns are often justifiably proud of their environmental record, yet right off our coast is one of the most polluted seas in the world.
“The area of the dead sea bottom is now about the size of Denmark,” says Mathias Bergman, Secretary General of the Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG). “If we had such a dead, smelly, poisonous sludge anywhere on land we would have started a revolution long ago.”
BSAG is a Finnish foundation devoted to marshalling the citizens of the fourteen nations in the Baltic Sea’s catchment area to act in saving it. It is not a simple lobby or public relations group; instead it is more of a catalytic or match-making affair, enlisting the help of individuals, companies, organisations and states. Its work has never been more important than now.
“The ecological state of the sea varies from area to area, but all-in-all the state of the sea is critical,” says Bergman. “By letting enormous amounts of nutrients, phosphorus, and nitrogen run into the sea from farmland we have created a marine environment that favours algal blooming.”
He explains that the massive blooms of algae die and sink to the bottom of the sea. There they are consumed by microbes, attracted by the nutrients in the dead algae. The microbes consume all the oxygen in the water and so the sediment becomes dead and hostile to almost all life.
“The other large invisible threat to the sea and to us is the accumulation of hazardous substances in rivers and in sea bottoms,” continues Bergman. “These substances are potent poisons at extremely low concentrations. Most of them accumulate in living organisms, and in many cases we and other creatures eat them and thus they are transported upwards in the food chain.
“These facts mean that we have reached, and in many cases passed, some critical thresholds of the ecological balance of the Sea. The conclusion is that if we do not do anything very soon and very rapidly, the Baltic Sea will become a stinking dead pond. And this is not a negativism – it is a basis for action.”
BSAG has an unusual approach: it asks those with relevant skills to help. Instead of collecting money and buying services, BSAG finds those who can donate their expertise. Some companies may be able to directly impact the Baltic Sea, while others might be able to offer indirect support. Without the involvement of those in power the pace cannot be maintained, so BSAG wants to make sure that these issues are high on political agendas.
“BSAG brings together those who have solutions with the issues to solve,” explains Bergman. “In this work, we are constantly searching for organisations that have the will, means or resources to solve a specific issue.”
The commitments to act are diverse. The advertising group Taivas has agreed to help raise awareness. The Passenger Port at St. Petersburg has agreed to provide waste water reception facilities to ships at a fair price. Gundby Farm is developing a bio energy plant and is retrieving nutrients that would otherwise have been carried to the Baltic in runoff. The University of Helsinki has started a new multidisciplinary program on research and education.
“We want companies to support us by donating their know-how,” explains Anna Kotsalo-Mustonen, one of the founders. “This method profits all parties more than traditional sponsoring. When a company donates know-how for the work for the Baltic Sea, it also becomes a receiving party. From our point of view, it is more efficient to get service, expertise or a product instead of first raising money and then buying the needed item.”
As an example of this process Communications Officer Pieta Jarva cites Halti, a Finnish outdoor clothing company.
“The hazardous chemicals used for waterproofing outdoor clothes came into focus and Halti eventually started looking to replace them with biodegradable ones,” she says. “The effort bore fruit and a new combination of substances for waterproof coating was developed.”
The surface treatment, Sympatex, will be biodegradable and fluorocarbon free. Compared to other problems of the Baltic Sea, relatively little is known about the hazardous substances getting into the sea.
“All problem areas are critical but special awareness-raising is needed with hazardous substances,” states Bergman.
Any group or individual interested in being involved should contact BSAG, Pieta says. She also points out that since November 2011 BSAG can approach the public for fund-raising.
To scale up the work, BSAG organised the first Baltic Sea Action Summit together with the president and prime minister of Finland in Helsinki in February 2010. The participating heads of state as well as some 140 companies and organisations made concrete commitments.
“Right now we are preparing for the next Baltic Sea Action Summit, to be arranged in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2012,” continues Bergman. “At the same time we are spreading our activity to Sweden, in close collaboration with Crown Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel. Crown Princess Victoria has announced that protecting the Baltic Sea is one of the key issues in her work.
“As an independent foundation BSAG is ready to take up the measures needed to help the Baltic Sea. We invite everyone to think out of the box and find fresh ideas and perspectives. For example, the whole concept of transporting oil by tankers can be questioned. The risks are far too great and so are the costs of constant development of oil spill response. The only responsible and business-wise sustainable way to do that is to use pipe lines, preferably on land.”
Bergman concludes with the statement that BSAG is borderless, neutral and always for the benefit of the sea. And its logic for action is that everyone can help the sea best by doing what they are best at. One can make a difference by using one’s expertise, be that in advertising, academics or farming.
“BSAG is working hard so we wouldn’t have to answer to our children and grandchildren what we were thinking when we let human mechanisms destroy such large areas of our habitat!”
Did you know…
Baltic Sea Action Group: www.bsag.fi
BSAG Focus Areas
- Clean and safe maritime activities
- Hazardous substances
- Innovative solutions
What is a Commitment?
- Participants commit to actions that best marry their interests with their abilities. Commitments can be financial, non-financial, ambitious or modest.
- Russia has announced a wastewater plant in Kaliningrad. Previously all waste water went untreated into the Baltic.
- IBM, VTT and SYKE are developing a smart phone application so the public can monitor and report visual algae observations.
- The Finnish Navy is starting a new course for Navy personnel to learn about environmental issues in the Baltic Sea.
- Photographer Janne Gröning has allowed his photos of the archipelago to be used in media devoted to Baltic Sea environmental work.
Text: DAVID J. CORD, Helsinki Times