November 26, 2018

Dialogue is everything

Our initial idea for the SEABASED project was to tackle the challenges related to internal nutrient loading in the Baltic Sea. We aimed at creating a project that in the end would provide, also some practical solutions for cutting down the eutrophication of the sea. However, when preparing the project, we found out that actually very little coherent information exists about the so call sea-based measures, and a bunch of novel and innovative ideas around them. Based on discussions with a number of stakeholders, presenting very different viewpoints and perspective, we have given our best shot to identify the most potential ideas to pilot and to learn more. What this will amount to, we now believe, is building up a fruitful dialogue between a number of stakeholders over the coming 30 months and, hopefully, finding sustainable solutions for helping the sea.

Take a look in the mirror

For getting our head around the challenges of “internal loading”, it has been important for us first to get familiar with the facts. The term “internal load” as such easily leads to wrong conclusions. The sea is not generating load from the sediments. Instead, most of the nutrients have originally come from land, from human activities such as wastewaters, industry and agriculture. The nutrients have accumulated in the sea during decades and little by little grown the internal nutrient reserves of the sea.

And, unfortunately, the changes currently visible in the Baltic Sea, the algal blooms, murky waters and dead bottom areas, are caused by our own activities.

More nutrients still keep accumulating to the sea via the land-based runoff, which has ultimately caused the increase of the internal nutrient reserves in the sea, too. Therefore, it is evident that while discovering new ways of helping the sea, we still need to continue cutting down the load originating from our activities on land.

What we know, and what do we know we don’t know

A lot has already been done when trying to turn around the negative development of the state of the Baltic Sea: the land-based load of eutrophying nutrients and some hazardous chemicals have been decreasing since the 1990s and great milestones in the protection of the Baltic Sea have been achieved, for instance, the  Baltic population of the white-tailed eagle has been saved from becoming extinct.  Recently, the scientists working on the Baltic Sea have also been able to show some signs of improvement in the ecological state of the sea, even though those signs might not yet be visible for laymen. This gives us hope, proving that that if the nutrient load from land-based sources is cut down further, the Baltic Sea is, at least to some extent, able to heal itself.

However, it is unlikely that we could ever get back the crystal-clear Baltic Sea that the generations before us knew, and some people still remember. Instead, we will get something different, something we don’t know yet about. The researchers also try to take a sneak preview to the future with their models that chart out the rate and direction of a variety of changes in the complex marine ecosystem, some of them also resulting from our own attempts to help the sea.

The damage our activities have caused to the sea during the last century cannot be undone. However, could we somehow try to fix the situation and help the sea to recover? Are we allowed to influence the direction of the change in marine ecosystems towards what would be the most favorable for ourselves? Or should we just wait for the nature to adapt itself, and, if so, do we have the patience for waiting?

Listen to those who disagree the most

Discussion on potential application of new kinds of “sea-based” water protection measures is currently ongoing, especially in countries like Finland and Sweden, who, suffer the symptoms of eutrophication the most. There is no consensus, however, either on the ecological or economic benefits of such measures. Furthermore, the existing documentation or data on different sea-based measures is still relatively scarce. The truth is not there yet, or rather, there are number of truths around.  Depending on who speaks, the opinions are rather divergent, with different stakeholders representing different knowledge, standpoints and opinions.

At the same time, miscellaneous ideas and initiatives start to emerge. During the recent years, different, and sometimes quite imaginative, technical and other proposals have been popping up for saving the Baltic Sea, all the way from removing Denmark to adding salt to the Baltic Sea in order to somehow compensate the scarce saline water flows from Danish Straits. Even though it might be easy to laugh at some of the wildest ideas, there is something very valuable in all of them: the will and the acute need for saving our beloved sea.

In many cases, the best way of learning is to listen carefully at all the voices, especially those that disagree the most. Therefore, our philosophy in SEABASED project is built on including all stakeholders, opinions and ideas into the dialogue. We hope this will lead us into fruitful discussions and, in the end, to our goal of identifying new sustainable ways of helping the sea – together.

What is a pike factory, actually?

This clarifying question, posed by the project’s financier before the final approval of the project, actually gets to the heart of how we understand dialogue. It’s essential that everyone included in the discussion agree on what they are discussing about, and that the basic facts on natural sciences, economics, legislative and social factors are well defined and, at least on the general level, there’s a shared understanding of their meaning between the stakeholders participating in the dialogue. If that’s not the case, the discussion easily leads to a dead end: arguments behind different standpoints vary from science-based facts to emotional responses, and at worse, we can’t even get to talking about the fundamental points.

In the center of the dialogue, behind each standpoint, there is ultimately the moral dilemma on whether or not we have the right to interfere with nature, even if our intentions are good. And if we do, in what extent it would be acceptable, and who should finally be responsible for the consequences.

The project SEABASED will neither provide answers to this dilemma nor takes a standpoint for or against. Instead, it seeks to generate more information on different sea-based measures on which the fruitful, multidisciplinary dialogue could lean on. For myself, so far, the project has brought up more questions than answers, but that’s also what makes the work so interesting.

And what about the pike factory, then? The curious term refers to a natural place, where pikes are being generated, and such places will be created in selected sea bays by restoring small coastal wetlands with plentiful favorable patches where pikes might like to spawn. And for the rest, the pikes will take care themselves.

If you would like to join the dialogue, and hear more news about the pikes and other interesting SEABASED pilots, subscribe to our newsletter at

Miina Mäki is the project manager of the SEABASED project. She has been working at the John Nurminen Foundation since 2006.

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