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Making integrated Baltic monitoring a reality

New action plan stemming from the Baltic marine environment monitoring project BALSAM will see the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) and ICES move towards superior data management and infrastructure in the region.
Published: 12 June 2015

​​​​​Amongst a host of other products, the recent finalization of the Baltic Sea Pilot project (BALSAM) lays out ICES intention to work with regional seas commission HELCOM​ to improve the way that Baltic marine data are handled and flow through the system from source to user. From those on eutrophication and contaminants to foodweb structure and biodiversity, the data hosted by ICES and supporting HELCOM assessments and programmes will be augmented and streamlined in a number of novel ways.

The aim of BALSAM, which ran for almost two years from 2013, was to bolster coordinated monitoring across the Baltic Sea through addressing the respective monitoring gaps, focusing on environment and fisheries, seals and seabirds, non-indigenous species, seafloor (benthic) habitats, and the coordinated use of marine vessels. Added to long-held monitoring data on the Baltic Sea by HELCOM, the collected information on environmental monitoring was used to produce common monitoring guidelines and databases for use amongst the Baltic countries.

Up-to-date data​​​

ICES contribution to BALSAM came as part of the project's work package two – environment and fisheries.

Most outcomes centered on the optimization of HELCOM's Cooperative Monitoring in the Baltic Marine Environment (COMBINE) data, as stored in the databases in the ICES Data Centre, with a work plan detailing key recommendations. The project found that certain data are reported to HELCOM yet not to ICES to for inclusion in the database, meaning not all information can be easily accessed or viewed online.

"We have identified action points to tackle these data issues," explained Johanna Karhu, Project Coordinator at the HELCOM Secretariat in Helsinki. "This will be achieved through ICES accepting data in other formats and with different data labelling, by submitting a new data call to the HELCOM Contracting Parties, and by developing guidelines for data management, amongst other things. We will also increase the flexibility of data formats and modify the existing format."

Investigating these data requirements and dealing with any shortcomings will support both upcoming HELCOM assessments such as the HOLAS II​ project and core indicators – measures to regularly test the status of the Baltic Sea marine environment against targets that reflect Good Environmental Status (GES)​​. It is expected the HELCOM COMBINE database will support around half of these indicators. All this will help signal progress towards assessing and achieving Good Environmental Status, the goal by 2021 of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP)​ and by 2020 of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD).

"There is a need to have up-to-date data which can be compared, viewed easily, and extracted simply for use. This would be beneficial for upcoming state of the Baltic marine environment assessment," added Karhu.​​

Fitting together fisheries and environment

Possibilities for bringing together fisheries and environmental monitoring surveys were also explored over the course of the project, with existing fish trawl surveys being cited as opportunities to provide environmental data for regional assessments should the number or range of monitoring activities in the Baltic increase. To work on the challenges of integrating the different types of surveys in this way, several lines of action were finalized during BALSAM.

A technical ICES-HELCOM workshop was also proposed to investigate and pitch ideas for how these surveys can provide such data for regional assessments. One solution would be adapting the current fishery sampling protocol in order to collect data on the state, pressure and status of the environment – such as on marine litter and eutrophication. Surveys, carried out in specific seasons and areas, could see extra sample stations and techniques added in order to reflect habitat diversity, crucial under the MSFD.

A study group, meanwhile, should focus on how to reconcile these monitoring needs – pressure and state of the environment – with the spatial and temporal coverage of fish research surveys. One recommendation was for the creation of a time and space scale variation matrix, which could give guidelines on the surveys where sampling activity in space and time could be both reduced and increased. For the latter, both recreational boats and commercial fishing vessels could be employed in new ways to meet any heightened need for sampling.​

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divers in the Kvarken marine region Gulf of Bothnia

​Divers in the Kvarken region of the Gulf of Bothnia; photo: Sabina Långström, Metsähallitus

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Making integrated Baltic monitoring a reality

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