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HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan


Introduction and background

Summary of the four main issues covered by the action plan

The HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan (PDF version)

HELCOM Ministerial Meeting 2007 where the action plan was adopted

Background documents



The HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan is an ambitious programme to restore the good ecological status of the Baltic marine environment by 2021. The new strategy is a crucial stepping stone for wider and more efficient actions to combat the continuing deterioration of the marine environment resulting from human activities. With the adoption of the new environmental strategy, HELCOM will continue its long record of respected leadership in marine environmental protection, incorporating the latest scientific knowledge and innovative management approaches into strategic policy implementation, and stimulating even closer, goal-oriented multilateral co-operation around the Baltic Sea region. As one of the first schemes to implement the ecosystem approach to the management of human activities, which was defined in the 1992 Rio Declaration and reiterated at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the action plan will lead to profound, innovative changes in the ways we manage the environment in the Baltic Sea region.

Main challenges

The Baltic Sea Action Plan addresses all the major environmental problems affecting the Baltic marine environment. The environmental situation in the Baltic Sea has drastically changed over recent decades. Human activities both on the sea and throughout its catchment area are placing rapidly increasing pressure on marine ecosystems. Of the many environmental challenges, the most serious and difficult to tackle with conventional approaches is the continuing eutrophication of the Baltic Sea. Inputs of hazardous substances also affect the biodiversity of the Baltic Sea and the potential for its sustainable use. Clear indicators of this situation include problems with algal blooms, dead sea-beds, and depletion of fish stocks. Such problems call for immediate wide-scale action to put an end to the further destruction of the Baltic Sea environment and to avoid an irreversible disaster. Failure to react now would undermine both the prospects for the future recovery of the sea and its capability to react to the projected stress by the climate change. Furthermore, inaction will affect vital resources for the future economic prosperity of the whole region and would cost tenfold more than the cost of action.

Previous efforts and the need for new approaches

Previous HELCOM efforts to reduce pollution and repair the damage to the marine environment have led to noticeable improvements in many areas, enabling people to bathe on beaches that were once polluted, and helping endangered wildlife populations to recover. But there is still a lot left to do, as many of the Baltic’s environmental problems are proving difficult to solve, and it could take several decades for the marine environment to recover. For example, concerning inputs of nutrients which are responsible for eutrophication, HELCOM has already achieved a 40% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus discharges (from sources in the catchment area) and likewise a 40% decrease as regards emissions of nitrogen to the air, as well as halved the total discharges of about 50 hazardous substances. But in order to achieve “clear water”, which is one of the main objectives of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan, phosphorous and nitrogen inputs to the Baltic Sea must be further cut by about 42% and 18%, respectively.

However, further progress cannot be achieved using only the old administrative measures of equal reductions in pollution loads. A completely different approach and new tailor-made actions are required to reach the goal of good ecological status. Moreover, the remaining challenges are more difficult than earlier obstacles. Reductions in nutrient inputs have so far mainly been achieved through improvements at major point sources, such as sewage treatment plants and industrial wastewater outlets. Achieving further reductions will be a tougher task, requiring actions to address diffuse sources of nutrients such as run-off from over-fertilised agricultural lands.  

A plan based on Ecological Objectives

The new plan, which HELCOM has been drafting since 2005, is radically different from any other plan or programme previously undertaken by HELCOM. The innovative approach is that the plan is based on a clear set of ‘ecological objectives’ defined to reflect a jointly agreed vision of ‘a healthy marine environment, with diverse biological components functioning in balance, resulting in a good ecological status and supporting a wide range of sustainable human activities’. Example objectives include clear water, an end to excessive algal blooms, and viable populations of species. Targets for ‘good ecological status’ are based on the best available scientific knowledge. The timeframe for reaching these targets is a political decision. With the application of the ecosystem approach, the protection of the marine environment is no longer seen as an event-driven pollution reduction approach to be taken sector-by-sector. Instead, the starting point is the ecosystem itself, and a shared concept of a healthy sea with a good ecological status. This vision will determine the need for further reductions in pollution loads, as well as the extents of various human activities.

The cross-sectoral plan identifies the specific actions needed to achieve agreed targets within a given timeframe for the main environmental priorities: combating eutrophication, curbing inputs of hazardous substances, ensuring maritime safety and response capacity to accidents at sea, and halting habitat destruction and the ongoing decline in biodiversity.

The action plan distinguishes between measures that can be implemented at regional or national level, and measures that can only be implemented at EU level (e.g. Common Fisheries Policy, Common Agricultural Policy, controls over the marketing and use of chemicals) or globally (e.g. the shipping controls defined by the International Maritime Organization).

Stakeholder participation

Another highlight of the elaboration of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan has been the active participation of all major stakeholder groups in the region. Such participation ensures that the plan is truly relevant and can be effectively implemented in practice. The choices that we make reflect the choices of society as a whole. For this reason, the common vision of the healthy Baltic Sea has been defined together with all participating stakeholders – from governments, through industry and NGOs, right down to individual citizens, including older and younger generations, and organisations in both the private and the public sectors. In this way the plan promotes employment and other aspects of sustainable socio-economic development, as well as ecological sustainability and a healthy environment.

A pilot area for other European seas

The concept of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan has already been widely supported by politicians at various forums, and heralded as a pilot project for European seas in the context of the proposed EU Marine Strategy Directive. The European Community has described HELCOM’s plan as a cornerstone for further action in the Baltic Sea region, emphasising that the plan is instrumental to the successful implementation of the proposed EU Marine Strategy Directive in the region.

The proposed EU Marine Strategy Directive foresees such an action plan for each eco-region, including the Baltic. HELCOM is in a unique position to deliver this already, given its embracing of all the countries in the Baltic Sea catchment area. HELCOM is also in a unique position to ensure that the special characteristics of the Baltic Sea are fully accounted for in European policies.

As a pioneer in the application of the ecosystem approach, the innovative HELCOM action plan will also serve as a model example to be followed by the Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme Regional Seas Programme.  

In developing the action plan, HELCOM has taken into account the environmental provisions of the Maritime Doctrine of the Russian Federation. Close co-operation with Russia, which is the only HELCOM country outside the EU in the Baltic Sea region, is crucial for any further progress to be made in rescuing the troubled Baltic marine environment. HELCOM’s innovative strategy is also instrumental to the implementation of the renewed Northern Dimension policy, the Baltic Sea regional aspects of the EU-Russian Environmental Dialogue, the Nordic Environmental Action Plan, and the European Maritime Policy.

But first and foremost, the HELCOM action plan is considered a joint regional policy, with common objectives, actions, and obligations. The future success of the plan largely depends on how all the coastal countries can co-operate to achieve the goal of a healthy Baltic marine environment.


Following the successful launch of the Baltic Sea Action Plan concept back in 2005, and building on the outcome of the initial preparatory period, the elaboration of the plan was officially kick-started at the Stakeholder Conference on 7 March 2006 in Helsinki. At its annual meeting on 8-9 March 2006 HELCOM approved the first core elements of a new environmental strategy to restore the Baltic Sea - a common vision of a healthy sea, and a set of Ecological Objectives to work towards so as to fulfill this vision. HELCOM has subsequently been defining a comprehensive set of actions to achieve the agreed goal of a Baltic Sea unaffected by eutrophication, undisturbed by hazardous substances, with favourable biodiversity and environmentally friendly maritime activities.

Following a series of meetings and consultations, the first draft of a set of actions to be included in the Baltic Sea Action Plan was unveiled in March 2007, at the 2nd Stakeholder Conference on the development of the new HELCOM environmental strategy, where the proposals received overwhelming support and the backing of major international organisations. The annual Helsinki Commision meeting held on 8-9 March 2007 conducted an extensive review of the actions proposed for the plan.

After a final series of negotiations held from April to October 2007 to work out the details of the proposed actions the final version of the Baltic Sea Action Plan was complete in the beginning of November 2007. It was adopted at the HELCOM Ministerial Meeting which was held on 15 November 2007 in Krakow, Poland.


Background documents for the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan

The following documents were presented as background information supporting the Baltic Sea Action Plan at the HELCOM Ministerial Meeting in Krakow, Poland on 15 November 2007:

Towards a Baltic Sea unaffected by Eutrophication (prepared by HELCOM Secretariat)

Towards a Baltic Sea unaffected by Hazardous Substances (prepared by HELCOM Secretariat)

Towards a Baltic Sea with environmentally friendly maritime activities (prepared by HELCOM Secretariat)

Towards Favourable Conservation Status of Baltic Sea Biodiversity (prepared by HELCOM Secretariat)

Financing and cost efficiency - Case: Eutrophication (prepared by Nordic Environment Finance Corporation - NEFCO)

Proposals for measures and actions for the reduction of pollution from hazardous substances for the Baltic Sea Action Plan (prepared by Baltic Environment Forum - BEF)

Amendment to the HELCOM AIS Agreement (prepared by HELCOM AIS Expert Working Group)


Other documents used during the preparation of the Baltic Sea Action Plan

An approach to set country-wise nutrient reduction allocations to reach good ecological status of the Baltic Sea (prepared by Baltic Nest Institute)

Management options, nutrient loads and ecosystem responses for the Baltic Sea; Policy Scenarios (BNI/NEST)

Economic analysis of the BSAP with focus on eutrophication (prepared by COWI for NEFCO and HELCOM)

Development of tools for assessment of eutrophication in the Baltic Sea (HELCOM BSEP 104)


Implementation of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan

Information about the status of implementation of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan can be viewed by country and by sector.



Last updated: 2 November 2009