08/22/2011 03:34 pm ET | Updated Oct 22, 2011

Baltic Sea Expedition Shows Importance of Marine Protected Areas

Despite being surrounded by some of Europe's oldest cities, such as Stockholm and Copenhagen, the Baltic Sea doesn't get too much global attention. That's a shame, because the Baltic has provided fish for millions of people since the days of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, the sea is increasingly sick as a result of decades of pollution and overfishing.

A comprehensive expedition this summer set out to change that. Oceana spent two months documenting marine life in the waters of all nine countries bordering the Baltic Sea -- the first time any environmental non-governmental organization has done so.

Covering more than 7,000 nautical miles, the team completed over 130 dives using an underwater robot capable of diving to more than 300 feet, gathered hundreds of videos and photos, which will help make the case for new protections for the brackish sea. The expedition team will now use the data, photographs and videos to support the implementation of proposals to expand the Baltic's marine protected areas and new measures to protect the existing MPAs.

Last summer, the BBC reported on satellite imagery that revealed a vast algal bloom spreading in the sea, covering 146,000 square miles and posing a risk to marine life. These toxic blooms have occurred every summer for decades, and are mainly caused by fertilizer runoff that leads to eutrophication.

As a result, the crew of divers had a unique set of challenges. The excess of organic material limits visibility in the Baltic to almost zero in many places. Plus, the icy chill of the water -- it was near freezing in some places -- meant that underwater cameras had to be put on automatic settings since the divers' fingers were too numb to operate the buttons.

Despite the long hours and frigid conditions, the crew successfully collected sediment samples and oxygen levels in a process that will help determine the most threatened parts of the sea.
In the oxygen-depleted areas, the expedition team saw little wildlife. But the good news is that especially near some marine protected areas, they saw healthy ecosystems with an array of marine life, such as seals, sea kelp, starfish, mussels and sea snails.

Oceana's expedition showed that the Baltic Sea is under a lot of stress, but there are still healthy areas left. The same can be said for all of the world's oceans, where overfishing, pollution and climate change are wreaking havoc on marine life and ecosystems. We must actively protect the marine places that are still thriving, and do more to help the damaged areas recover -- in the Baltic and around the world.