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HELCOM Monitoring and Assessment Strategy

HELCOM 26/2005 adopted the following HELCOM Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (paragraph 3.17 (LD 16) of the Minutes of the Meeting).

1.       Introduction 

1.1 The Ecosystem Approach to management of human activities, adopted by the Joint HELCOM/OSPAR Ministerial Meeting in 2003, obliges HELCOM to assess the pressures as well as the resulting state and impacts on the marine environment and to use this as the foundation for identifying priority actions.

1.2 The HELCOM assessment products, based on quality assured data, are needed to make sound decisions on how to restore the Baltic Sea ecosystem, to support the implementation of HELCOM objectives and actions and to identify emerging environmental problems. For this reason, a procedure to harmonize the monitoring at the regional Baltic Sea level has been agreed upon.

1.3 The HELCOM Coordinated Monitoring and Assessment Strategy focuses on objectives and strategies for monitoring and assessment of the whole Baltic Sea area in such a way as to bring added value to corresponding national and other international activities.

1.4 This HELCOM Strategy sets out the basis for how the HELCOM Contracting States commit themselves to carry out their national monitoring programmes and work together to produce joint assessments.

1.5 The Strategy should be revised as need be.

2.       Objectives


2.1 HELCOM monitoring and assessment activities aim to reveal how visions, goals and objectives set for the Baltic Sea marine environment are met and to link the quality of the environment to management.

2.2 By assessing trends in pressures, their impacts and the resulting state of the marine environment, and the effectiveness of adopted measures, HELCOM thus forms a basis for discussions, at all levels of HELCOM, on the need for additional or different measures and actions.

2.3 The Ecological Objectives (EcoOs) and associated measurable indicators should be regarded as basic assessment tools linking environmental data to management decisions.

2.4 The overall objectives of the HELCOM Monitoring and Assessment Strategy are:

  •  to facilitate the implementation of the ecosystem approach covering the whole Baltic Sea, including coastal and open waters;

  • to show the inter-linkage and interdependence of activities in land, in coastal areas and at sea;

  • to coordinate monitoring activities for Baltic specific issues of concern;

  • to set out the structure and time frame for the production of regional specific assessment;

  • to produce targeted environmental assessments for regional specific management purposes by also making use of data and information produced by Contracting Parties for other fora (Inter alia EU Directives (Water Framework Directive, Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, Nitrates Directive, Habitat and Species Directive, Dangerous Substances Directive, IPPC Directive, European Marine Strategy), EEA, IAEA, ICES, OECD, UNEP).

3.       Principles for HELCOM’s joint monitoring system

3.1 The HELCOM monitoring system, covering the inputs of pollutants via air and water and their impacts on the marine environment, makes it possible to:

  • identify relevant activities and quantify the anthropogenic emissions, discharges, and losses within the Baltic Sea and its catchment area as well as the inputs into the sea;

  • identify and quantify their effects in the Baltic Sea ecosystem, and to distinguish between changes occurring due to anthropogenic and natural causes;

  • identify and quantify the changes in the environmental state as a result of regulatory actions;

  • act on emerging issues with detrimental effects to the marine environment.

3.2 The HELCOM monitoring system covers the whole Baltic Sea Area and its catchment area within the Contracting States, is targeted to identifying concerns, and is scientifically sound and cost-effective. Monitoring in the catchment area utilizes national and international data collection and makes it comparable at the Baltic scale. In the open Baltic Sea, HELCOM monitoring programmes are the backbone while in coastal areas they will bring added value to activities required by other fora.

3.3 The national monitoring programmes should be well coordinated, especially in the open sea, in order to use resources in an efficient way.

3.4 There should be a strong link between the monitored variables, indicators, quality objectives and assessments.

3.5 HELCOM monitoring should focus on parameters which are indicative of the ecological status and should be carried out in such a way that adequate confidence and precision is achieved.

3.6 The sampling should be designed to take into account the natural spatial and temporal variability in the marine environment in order to produce statistically reliable data.

3.7 Spatial and temporal frequency of sampling as well as the set of parameters to be monitored can differ between sub-regions, and they should be related to the level of compliance to the ecological objectives; most intensive monitoring in cases where ecological objectives have not been reached.

3.8 Monitoring should promote continuation of existing long-term data series and establishment of new ones for the future.

3.9 The HELCOM monitoring system consists of several manageable complementary programmes:

  • PLC-Air and PLC-Water to quantify emissions to the air, discharges and losses to inland surface waters and the resulting air and waterborne inputs to the sea;

  • COMBINE to quantify the state, impacts and changes in the various compartments (water, biota including coastal fish, and sediment) of the marine environment - it also includes the physical forcing;

  • MORS to quantify the sources and inputs of artificial radionuclides as well as the resulting state and changes in the various compartments (water, biota, sediment) of the marine environment;

  • HELCOM is also coordinating surveillance of deliberate illegal oil discharges as well as making an inventory of marine accidents and is annually assessing the number, distribution and amount of the spills.

3.10 HELCOM monitoring programmes cover eutrophication, hazardous substances and elements of biodiversity. Baltic Sea Protected Areas (BSPAs) provide building blocks for nature conservation assessments.

4.       Principles for HELCOM’s assessment products

4.1 The production of assessments has been central to HELCOM’s work since the beginning of 1980’s. This Strategy aims to promote an operational assessment system which produces annual Indicator Fact Sheets and regular thematic assessments leading to regional holistic assessments covering the whole Baltic Sea area.


4.2 The main objective of the HELCOM assessment products is to provide policy relevant information for targeted users at national and Baltic-wide level as well as to provide input to pan-European and global fora (EU, UNEP, IMO). This is necessary in order to make sound decisions to restore the Baltic Sea ecosystem, to reach good ecological status, and to support the implementation of the HELCOM objectives and actions. An essential objective is to raise general public awareness of the Baltic Sea and HELCOM actions.

4.3 HELCOM’s overall objectives for assessment products are:

  • Where objectives, targets and benchmarks set for the protection and conservation of the marine environment are comparable, assessments should address them in a comparable way;Different assessments covering (parts of) a sea region should be consistent for that region;

  • Assessments should be scientifically sound and aimed at the broadest level of acceptability possible, so that they can be used by other organizations;

  • Information on the marine environment should, to the fullest extent possible, be shared to facilitate the production of assessments.

Main themes

4.4 HELCOM assessments, as well as the supporting monitoring, should be targeted at identified threats in the policy areas where HELCOM continues to act, i.e. eutrophication, hazardous substances (including artificial radionuclides), change of biodiversity and habitat degradation, and problems arising from shipping. In addition, HELCOM will continue to act on newly emerging issues with detrimental effects to the marine environment.


4.5 HELCOM assessments should be timely, scientifically sound, reliable, and approved in consensus. The assessments should make use of the guidance provided by the Driving force, Pressure, State, Impact, Response (DPSIR) scheme as well as use Quality Objectives and linked performance indicators as central tools.

4.6 In addition to pressure, state and impact assessments, HELCOM compliance reporting is adding Response to the DPSIR cycle. HELCOM should seek to gain synergy between reporting on the status of implementation of strategies and HELCOM Recommendations and other international reporting requirements and link their results to HELCOM’s environmental assessments.

4.7 While HELCOM assessments should be Baltic specific, the information content as well as their timing should be harmonized with other corresponding products e.g. at the European level.

Sources of information

4.8 HELCOM’s coordinated national monitoring programmes linking sources and loads of nutrients and harmful substances to their effects in coastal and open sea areas are fundamental sources of information for the assessments.

4.9 In order to gain synergy, HELCOM should as much as possible make use of data and information that Contracting Parties are collecting and reporting to other organizations such as EU, IMO, OECD and UNEP.

4.10 Scientific research outside HELCOM should be used as the primary source for defining newly emerging concerns.

Assessment products

4.11 HELCOM’s assessment products consist of:

  • Indicator Fact Sheets which are updated annually to provide timely information on how the HELCOM objectives are met;
  • Thematic reports which cover various topical themes. Thematic reports covering inputs, eutrophication, hazardous substances (including radioactive substances) and biodiversity are to be produced periodically. The reports should consist of a technical/scientific (science for management) section and a policy implication section. Thematic reports may also be produced on other specific topics;
  • Holistic assessments which cover the DPSIR frame and link science and management as well as provide a basis for formulation of supplementary regional policies and measures.

4.12 Data from joint monitoring programmes as well as indicator and thematic reports form a continuous chain towards holistic assessments where modelling and scientific reports play an important role in explaining and linking pressures, state and impacts and providing guidance for future responses.

4.13 The assessment cycle is presented in Attachment 1.

5.       National commitments, added-value and synergy

5.1 Preparation of the various HELCOM assessment products requires that Contracting Parties continue to allocate adequate resources and commit to agreed schedules of activities.

5.2 Contracting Parties agree to attempt that appropriate resources are available nationally (e.g., ships, laboratories, personnel) and make national commitments to implement this Strategy as well as to achieve the QA objectives.

5.3 The aim is to use limited resources as efficiently as possible and to seek the added-value from HELCOM coordination and collaboration as a return to Contracting Parties for their contributions. Another aim is to seek synergy with other programmes and organizations, both inter-governmental and non-governmental.

6.       Relations between HELCOM and marine research activities

6.1 There should be continuous communication between research and the HELCOM monitoring and assessment work. HELCOM acknowledges the role of agencies and institutes of the Contracting Parties and the observer organizations. In general, HELCOM emphasizes the need for marine research to study further inter alia:

  • the basic processes and functional relationships of the marine environment, taking into account differences in temporal and spatial scales;
  • the causes of long-term changes identified by monitoring programmes;
  • linking activities within the catchment area to impacts in the marine environment;
  • socio-economic analysis in order to improve the cost effectiveness of policies and measures;
  • development of methods and assessment tools.

7.       Quality Assurance

7.1 Environmental information is the product of a chain of activities which constitutes programme design, execution, evaluation, reporting and assessment, which have to meet certain quality requirements. Thus, quality assurance requirements have to be set for each of these activities.

7.2 The acquisition of relevant and reliable data is an essential component of any monitoring system. To obtain such data, the whole process (sampling, analysis methods and database) must proceed under a well-established Quality Assurance (QA) programme since only reliable information can provide the basis for effective and economic environmental policy and management.

7.3 HELCOM’s monitoring is based on commonly agreed and updated methodologies and procedures described in Guidelines where quality assurance constitutes an elementary part. The Contracting States fully commit themselves to follow these commonly adopted guidelines, protocols, etc.

7.4 All institutes/laboratories submitting data to HELCOM databases should participate in regular intercomparison exercises and proficiency testing schemes arranged e.g. under QUASIMEME, ICES, and HELCOM. As new certified reference materials become available, these should be used by all participating institutes or laboratories.

8.       Data handling and sharing

8.1 HELCOM databases are handled by independent data centres, mainly thematic data centres, working in contractual agreement with HELCOM.

8.2 In order to gain synergy and efficiency, the HELCOM data activities should be harmonized with other international organizations and the European Union systems to the fullest extent possible.

8.3 All HELCOM monitoring data may be released by the data consultant after necessary quality-control procedure. However, this shall not apply to meteorological or hydrographic data, if the release of that data is restricted by national legislation or national agreement.

8.4 All HELCOM assessment products are freely accessible.


For further information, please refer to the data and information strategy of the Helsinki Commission.


Attachment 1 


Data from the joint monitoring programmes as well as the indicator and thematic reports form a continuous chain towards holistic assessments where modelling and scientific reports should play an important role in explaining and linking pressures, state and impacts and providing guidance for future responses (Figure). Scientific research outside HELCOM should be used as and additional source for defining newly emerging concerns.


In the lower parts of the information pyramid seen in the Figure, the reports are data oriented while involvement of broad expertise increases towards the tip of the pyramid.The HELCOM assessment system operates with about six-year cycles where Indicator Fact Sheets are produced/ updated annually, thematic reports comprise varying annual themes and holistic assessments are produced periodically.


Environmental indicators provide information that is needed to mitigate environmental problems. Decision-makers (ranging from individual consumers to high level policy makers) should decide whether to take action based on this information. Indicators simplify a complex reality by condensing information of analysed data collected in monitoring programmes. The indicators should preferably be linked to the Ecological Objectives (EcoOs) – i.e. the indicator should show how the EcoOs are met.

HELCOM indicators should be primarily based on variables in the HELCOM monitoring programmes. Each indicator by itself tells something about the one issue it represents but virtually nothing about larger features or the system as a whole. When the indicators are combined they can show the conditions and trends of the system (human pressures and impacts on major components of the ecosystem).

Descriptive indicators describe the development of a variable related to an environmental issue.

Performance indicators measure the achievement of stated objectives with a specific set of reference conditions.

Annual Indicator Fact Sheets

Indicator Fact Sheets serve as documentation of the indicators used and will be published on the HELCOM website. Other HELCOM assessment products will make use of the information presented in these fact sheets.

The structure of the HELCOM Indicator Fact Sheets follows the fact sheet structure of EEA in principle.

The Indicator Fact Sheets are produced and updated annually by the responsible institutions.

The content of the fact sheets are reviewed and adopted by HELCOM MONAS.

A list of responsible institutes and data centres providing Indicator Fact Sheets shall be kept up to date by the HELCOM Secretariat and scrutinised by HELCOM MONAS on a regular basis.

Thematic reports

Thematic reports assessing how HELCOM quality objectives are met are produced periodically with annual themes. The thematic reports are scheduled taking into account corresponding reporting under other international fora, such as reporting under EC/EU directives.

The thematic reports consist of two main sections: “Science for management” and “Policy implications”.

The thematic reports assess information provided by relevant Indicator Fact Sheets and use necessary information and data collected and reported under other fora as well as provided by the scientific community.

Production of thematic reports requires close cooperation between different HELCOM bodies.

In addition to pressure, state and impact assessments, HELCOM compliance reporting is adding Response to the DPSIR cycle. HELCOM should seek to gain synergy between reporting on the status of implementation of strategies and HELCOM Recommendations and other international reporting requirements and link their results in HELCOM environmental assessments.

Holistic assessments

Holistic assessments are produced periodically with about 6-year intervals. They make used of the DPSIR scheme (Driving forces – Pressures – State – Impact – Response), assess how HELCOM strategies and environmental objectives have been met, link environmental changes to pressures and provide advice for subsequent decision making.

Production of a holistic assessment requires close cooperation with all HELCOM bodies, observer organizations as well as the scientific community.