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Feature article – Hazard awareness: managing oil spill risk in the Baltic Sea

In the first of our new feature article series, we explore a new frontier for ICES: maritime risk management in the field of oil spills in the Gulf of Finland and Baltic Sea, and the expert group to provide the science behind risk assessments.
Published: 13 February 2015

Written in collaboration with Sakari Kuikka and Päivi Haapasaari, University of Helsinki, Finland.

The Gulf of Finland, an eastern arm of the Baltic Sea bordered by Estonia and its title country as well as Russia at its furthest tip, is one of the most heavily trafficked stretches of seawater in the world as well as one of the most accident-prone areas of the Baltic Sea. Vessels pass through in their thousands each year, with one third of all Russia’s oil exports, an estimated annual 160 million tonnes, shipped via this passage. Navigation conditions are unfavourable. Many boats traverse intercrossing routes in the centre of the Gulf, which is occasionally very shallow and has a consistently rocky seabed. These factors, coupled with ice covering and poor daylight during the winter, conspire to leave the risk of both accidents and potential ensuing oil spillages high.

Ecologically too, this narrow sea region is strikingly vulnerable to damage inflicted by spills. Finnish coastal waters, for example, are home to around 70 species (designated by the IUCN) which are classified as either vulnerable or at high risk and live closer to shore, meaning they could be eradicated at the hands of a larger oil discharge. Such biota make up fragile marine ecosystems and occupy simple foodwebs.

Moving towards safety

This environmental uniqueness and the upsurge in shipping have brought about a sharp focus on improved maritime safety in the Gulf of Finland and wider Baltic Sea through the need for a proactive approach to identifying and analyzing risks, and taking cost-effective measures to reduce them. The resulting adjustment of policies and best practices would be used to anticipate and prevent spills, as well as other harmful events such as crashes and different forms of pollution.

In the Baltic Sea area, there has already been a lot of scientific activity in both evaluating oil spill risks and developing methods for doing so. However, whilst these research-driven analyses have produced valuable scientific results, they may not have been visible enough or had a real impact on policy.

Aiming for regional governance

Haapasaari et al. (2014) have proposed the establishment of a regional maritime risk governance framework for the Gulf of Finland similar to the policy processes related to defining Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for fisheries in the EU. The idea is to regionalize safety management and to complement the current, more prescriptive – and reactive – international safety regulations governed by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Such a regional approach is key, especially given the fact that an oil spill in an enclosed section of sea like the Gulf of Finland would immediately impact local residents, environment and wildlife.

The proposal is for a regular management cycle which starts with identifying and defining risks and carrying out a systematic risk assessment, then proceeds towards evaluating the risks, and finally takes decisions aiming at reducing them. The whole process would be based on an active communication between a permanent stakeholder committee (which could take into account the work of various HELCOM groups, which already have a role in maritime safety in the Baltic) and a scientific body conducting the assessments.

Strong stakeholder engagement that encompasses shipping companies, seafarers, authorities, oil industry, environmental NGOs and local citizens amongst others would ensure that risks will be examined from a local, grassroots perspective and that relevant information is available. 

Grouping together for advice

ICES has established a new expert group to act as the scientific body for conducting the risk assessment based on this new model: the Working Group on Risks of Maritime Activities in the Baltic Sea (WGMABS). In what is new territory for the organization, WGMABS, which will comprise member country modellers and those involved in the practical preparedness in the case of oil spills, intends to form an advisory group for the area, if their regional management proposals are given the green light by the stakeholder groups and in particular the IMO.

With a first meeting in spring 2015, the initial aim will be scoping: first finding out what current methods are available and what kind of data will fit each model and then asking the stakeholders where they see the need for advice. Promoting the advantages of an advisory system could help bring society round to investing in risk management activity, something it may be skeptical about due to no catastrophic oil spills having taken place in the Baltic.

A measure of the situation

One issue for WGMABS to deal with is the creation of indicators and whether data for normal situations are needed in addition to those on unusual situations. This begs the question of what can be considered such a situation.

Although accidents in the Gulf of Finland typically happen in abnormal conditions – ice movement or unseasonal autumnal weather – periods generally considered lower-risk like spring can be far more sensitive to spills. Lighter wind may mean more time to react to a spill, but the reproduction season means nature is more vulnerable. Gauging these settings and their variations is important.

WGMABS will also consider the notion of tolerable and acceptable levels of risk, a factor which causes varying attitudes depending on which country is asked. Because Finland has a far longer shoreline than Estonia, for instance, and because south-west autumn winds tend to drive any spilt oil north-east, it means the former has a higher probability of getting oil than the latter. In addition, the fact that the Finnish shore is composed of harder matter due to an Ice Age split makes cleaning it laborious and involves the scrubbing of individual stones.

Factoring risk

As the spatial planning of sea areas is becoming more and more integrated, there is a need to take into account several stress factors at the same time. Most of these, like fisheries, eutrophication and climate change, have a continuous impact on the ecosystem. Their future impacts are partly unknown; but in the case of oil spills, the future frequency is also unknown. However, the potential impact of oil spill is high, which increases the risk. 

It is a demanding methodological challenge to take such risk factors into account simultaneously. In the Gulf of Finland, probabilistic Bayesian models – beneficial for bringing together different types of information such as raw data, published papers, existing models, and expert knowledge – have been developed. In the case of large- scale oil spills, the eventual aim of modelling and advice is to try to prevent accidents. 

WGMABS is holding its first meeting in Helsinki 13-16 April. The group is chaired by Sakari Kuikka from the University of Helsinki.

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Oil tanker at Finnish coast

Cargo vessel at a Finnish port; Photo: Päivi Haapasaari, University of Helsinki, Finland

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Feature article – Hazard awareness: managing oil spill risk in the Baltic Sea

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