Saving the Archipelago Sea calls for legislative actions, the stick and the carrotsThe Archipelago Sea is one of the most spectacular natural environs in Finland – but for how long? Eutrophication caused by phosphorus and the resulting algal blooms in the sea pose a serious threat to the natural and recreational values of the unique marine environment and the various forms of livelihood in the archipelago. Immediate, binding and efficient actions are needed to reverse the current development.
Writer: Leena Hulsi
Pictures: Jaakko Ruola ja Soile Virtanen
Scientists have raised alarm about the state of the Archipelago Sea for years, and the past summer probably made the severity of the situation quite clear to all of us. Now is the time to take rapid action in order to reverse the current development and enable the sea to recover.
“The situation is severe and there is no time to lose. We must take efficient measures now to save our unique Archipelago Sea”, declare Professor Kalervo Väänänen and archipelago nature photographer Jaakko Ruola, who jointly received the first ever Sakari Alhopuro Prize in October.
The prize was awarded by the Sakari Alhopuro Foundation in recognition of the valuable work carried out by these two men for the benefit of the Archipelago Sea. They have differing backgrounds and relationships to the Archipelago Sea, but share a common goal: the Archipelago Sea must be saved.
“I originally come from Lakeland Finland and my relationship to the Archipelago Sea is professional. For me, the Archipelago Sea is a natural area that is under an obvious threat, and its rapid recovery would be of benefit to all of us”, explains Kalervo Väänänen, who served as the Rector of the University of Turku during the years 2012–2019.
Jaakko Ruola, on the other hand, has lived all his life within the sphere of the Archipelago Sea and has thus witnessed the long-term changes with his own eyes. His strong emotional ties with the sea and deep concern about its future were the prime motivator for Operation Archipelago Sea.
“Since 2005, I’ve actively photographed the nature of the Archipelago Sea and pursued, through my photos, to induce general desire to protect it. Finally, I realised that it’s not enough – I had to do more”, explains Ruola, whose beautiful photos from the archipelago have been published in book format as well.
We know the problems, now we need solutions
The collaboration of Ruola and Väänänen started in 2016, when Ruola, as he puts it, asked Rector Väänänen to address the Archipelago Sea issue. Väänänen accepted the challenge.
“The University of Turku possesses a great deal of knowledge and expertise in this field, thanks to its Archipelago Research Institute located on the Island of Seili. Upon investigating the matter, I found that we had plenty of research focusing on the current state and future prognoses of the Archipelago Sea, but very few studies offered any solutions to the problems. I agreed with Ruola that it was time to switch gears towards a more solution-oriented approach”, Väänänen explains.
We have known for long that the sea is burdened by excessive nutrients, especially phosphorus. The Archipelago Sea is in much worse shape than the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea, which have significantly recovered as a result of the construction of proper wastewater processing systems in Saint Petersburg and the harnessing of emissions from the fertilizer plants in Russia and Poland.
“The amount of nutrients running into the Gulf of Finland has reduced by as much as 70 per cent and the burden on the Baltic Sea by approximately 25 per cent. In contrast, the nutrient run-offs from agriculture into the Archipelago Sea have continued at an almost unchanged rate for 50 years – thus causing the state of the sea to be critical. We decided to take action”, Ruola says.
For the purposes of saving the Archipelago Sea, Väänänen set up a collaborative project involving numerous experts in various fields to prepare an action plan that would guarantee a cleaner future for the sea. The proposals and recommendations presented by Väänänen and co-workers were published in The Blue Book of Archipelago Sea of Finland in 2020.
Finland to pioneer the recycling of nutrients
According to Väänänen, it is easy, in theory, to improve the state of the Archipelago Sea: simply reduce the amount of nutrient run-offs into the sea and remove the accumulated load from the sea.
“Phosphorus and nitrogen emissions from industry and maritime traffic have reduced to nearly non-existent levels, but the agricultural run-offs are still problematic. The absolute largest share of nutrient burden comes from agriculture, so that’s where we need to seek solutions”, says Väänänen.
He has no desire to make farmers feel guilty, as they are already facing other challenges.
“It is extremely important for Finland to ensure self-sufficiency in terms of domestic food production, so we need to safeguard the operational conditions for agriculture. However, we have to be able to develop the industry so that it will support the well-being of the environment instead of burdening it.”
Väänänen points out that it is possible to reduce the volume of run-offs by, for example, optimising the use of fertilizers and updating the legislation concerning protection zones.
“Moreover, we could exploit animal manure by processing it to the extent that it would provide easier applications. Recycling of fertilizers would be a highly efficient and recommended method for the purposes of improving the state of the Archipelago Sea. It is possible to develop profitable business activities based on recycled fertilizers, and Finland could be a pioneer in the field. In the best case scenario, it could translate into new export products,” Väänänen shares his vision.
New technologies should also be developed for the removal of nutrients from the sea.
“Last summer, we saw exceptionally rich algal blooms in the Archipelago Sea. If these massive algal blooms could be removed from the sea, plenty of nutrients would be removed with them. We should start developing suitable technologies in Finland. Innovative and capable actors must be provided with sufficient funding to ensure the rapid generation of business.”
Other methods to efficiently reduce the nutrient burden on the sea include biomanipulation, that is, the fishing of specific species, and removal of common reeds, which produce methane. According to Väänänen, the reeds recovered from the sea could be utilised as biofuel.
The State in a key role
The eutrophication of the sea began in the 1940s as a result of urbanisation and intensive agriculture based on mineral fertilizers. The bill for economic growth and increased welfare was paid by, among others, the Archipelago Sea and its natural biodiversity.
“The problems were jointly caused, so we need to find solutions jointly as well,” Väänänen sums up.
Both Ruola and Väänänen call for a comprehensive approach as the sole means to achieve efficient results quickly enough – the sea cannot wait any longer.
“A major problem here is deficient legislation. The Finnish Government has decided that no factory or municipality is allowed to let their wastewater run into the sea or lakes, but the nutrient run-offs from agriculture may still flow into the rivers and further to the sea. This must be changed rapidly, but without putting the blame on farmers”, says Ruola.
In addition, the State should provide both funding for protective measures and support for setting up businesses that will advance the recovery of the sea. The Government’s task is to see to the interest of Finland as a whole – including the Archipelago Sea and farmers alike – and to ensure that development takes the right direction.
“If we make the right decisions, the sea will gradually become clean. A healthy Archipelago Sea would have so much to offer, also in terms of the economy. Sustainable travel in maritime natural environments would open countless opportunities for tourism in Finland and, in particular, local entrepreneurs. We will lose a lot if we allow the Archipelago Sea to be destroyed”, says Väänänen.