European Cetacean Bycatch banner loading

"Man is but a strand in the complex web of life"

Internal links buttons



Pollution endangers Baltic Sea fishing

SWEDEN: 2nd July 2002

Planet Ark

GAVLE, Sweden - A large school of Baltic herring forms a red mass on the sonic depth sounder.

Fisherman Lars Berglund steers the Birgitta to the right and 60 metres (200 feet) of herring drift net is thrown overboard.
The herring spawn in early summer and massive catches are not uncommon.

"I hope we don't get three tonnes of fish in the nets," he said. "I have an order for 200 kilos (440 lb) of smoked herring and could not possibly take care of more fish today."

Since 1809 his family has been fishing in the waters outside Gavle, a port 170 km (105 miles) north of Stockholm, but Berglund is now worried about the future.

New fishing quotas and proposed cuts in fishing fleets have made waves in the past few months as the European Union debates future fishing policies.

But for the fishermen on the coasts of the Baltic Sea, there is an even more acute problem.


Tests have shown that some species of Baltic fish have too high levels of dioxin and the EU has called for a ban on sales of fish exceeding permitted levels from July 1.

Dioxins - cancer-causing toxic chemical compounds caused by burning plastic, fuel and rubbish - are hard to break down once they get into the food chain. They are also found in dairy products, meat and eggs.

The Baltic Sea has been exposed in the past century to heavy pollution, much of it deriving from industry in Russia's coastal cities of St Petersburg and Kaliningrad.

Sweden is a driving force in efforts to clean up the sea and measures have been taken by the ex-Soviet states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as they apply for membership of the EU.

But the problems are far from solved and dioxin levels in fish remain a health risk in the region.

"Luckily, human beings have not yet been exposed to very high levels of dioxins," said Per-Ola Darnerud, toxicologist at Sweden's National Food Administration.

"But we have seen in experiments with rats that high dioxin levels can harm reproduction and increase the risk of tumours."

Among fish species with excessive dioxin levels is the Baltic herring. A smaller variety of the herring found in the North Sea, it is the main source of income for fishermen on Sweden's east coast.

In 2001, the total herring take on Sweden's Baltic coast amounted to 11,700 tonnes, and Baltic herring is a staple of the region's food culture.


As a result, Sweden and neighbouring Finland have been granted an exemption from the EU directive and can continue to sell the fish on their national markets until the end of 2006.

A condition of this is that the health authorities of both countries must tell people how much Baltic Sea fish can be consumed without harmful effects.

Sweden's National Food Administration stresses that eating fish is good for the health.

But it says young girls and women of child-bearing age should not eat herring and salmon from the Baltic Sea more than once a month. For other consumers the recommendation is once a week.

"With our recommendations consumers can feel safe, but of course there are people who eat more than the recommended limits," said Darnerud.

What will happen to Baltic Sea fishing after 2006 is still unclear. Environmentalists say it is unlikely that dioxin levels will fall since not enough is being done to combat incineration of rubbish around the sea.

The pollution is mainly air-borne and drifts in on southwest winds from Germany and Britain, and from combustion in the Baltic region countries.

"I think it very unlikely that the dioxin levels will decrease dramatically within the next five or six years," said Gunnar Noren, secretary-general of Coalition Clean Baltic, a network that includes environmental organisations in nine countries around the Baltic Sea.

"It is of course good that the EU sets high standards on dioxin in food, but is it ready to make the same effort with the source of the pollution?" Noren said.

Back on the Birgitta, Berglund has little faith in the future for him and his colleagues.

"This coastline used to be dotted with small fishing communities," he said. "Today only a handful of us are left."

Story by Karin Lundback