Understanding human impact on the Baltic ecosystem: Changing views in recent decades

  • Elmgren R
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Grave environmental problems, including contamination of biota by organochlorines and heavy metals, and increasing deep-water oxygen deficiency, were discovered in the Baltic Sea in the late 1960s. Toxic pollutants, including the newly discovered PCB, were initially seen as the main threat to the Baltic ecosystem, and the impaired reproduction found in Baltic seals and white-tailed eagles implied a threat also to human fish eaters. Countermeasures gradually gave results, and today the struggle to limit toxic pollution of the Baltic is an international environmental success story. Calculations showed that Baltic deep-water oxygen consumption must have increased, and that the Baltic nutrient load had grown about fourfold for nitrogen and 8 times for phosphorus. Evidence of increased organic production at all trophic levels in the ecosystem gradually accumulated. Phosphorus was first thought to limit Baltic primary production, but measurements soon showed that nitrogen is generally limiting in the open Baltic proper, except for nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria. Today, the debate is concerned with whether phosphorus, by limiting nitrogen-fixers, can control open-sea ecosystem production, even where phytoplankton is clearly nitrogen limited. The Baltic lesson teaches us that our views of newly discovered environmental problems undergo repeated changes, and that it may take decades for scientists to agree on their causes. Once society decides on countermeasures, it may take decades for them to become effective, and for nature to recover. Thus, environmental management decisions can hardly wait for scientific certainty. We should therefore view environmental management decisions as experiments, to be monitored, learned from, and then modified as needed.

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  • R Elmgren

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