The Sea of My Childhood — and Its Uncertain Future

This post was originally published on Race for the Baltic.

As the summer kicks off in the Northern Hemisphere, the beach is increasingly on many people’s minds. But if you’ve seen plastic bags lining the world’s beaches, video footage of oil spills or explosive algae growth resulting in beach closures, you know that the future of our coasts and oceans is far from certain.

fishing boat, Baltic Sea

Fishing boat on the shore of the Baltic Sea. (© AVTG)

I grew up in Sweden by the Baltic Sea, and spent my childhood playing along its shores — swimming in its brackish water, catching perch and cod with family and friends, watching fishers from nearby islands tie up their small skiffs in the harbor and make their way to sell their catch at the local town market.

During the summers, I would accompany a neighbor on early morning trips in his open boat to check on gillnets set the evening before. It was always exciting to see what had been caught in the net as it was pulled out of the dark water in the quiet hours before most people had even woken up. Every now and then I made extra money after school by packing fish in the local processing plant.

It was an idyllic childhood, and I’m saddened to see that the coastal culture today looks quite different.

The general health of the Baltic Sea has declined precipitously since the 1970s. Its semi-enclosed geography ensures that all the nutrients and pollutants washing into it from lands around its edge — Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Baltic countries, Poland, Germany and Denmark — are trapped in the sea. This causes explosive phytoplankton growth. When the plankton die and sink to the shallow bottom, the decomposition process sucks up all the oxygen from the bottom water.

Sebastian Troeng on a boat in the Baltic Sea in 1981

Sebastian Troeng as a young boy growing up on the Swedish shores of the Baltic Sea. (photo courtesy of Sebastian Troeng)

Oxygen-depleted waters are empty of larger life forms; fish eggs sinking into such waters die before they’re given the chance to grow. Add to this long-term overfishing and the toxic chemicals discharged into coastal waters over decades, and you have a recipe for altered coasts and a transformed sea.

The little coastal town where I grew up no longer has a fish packing plant; it has been replaced by apartment buildings. The number of island fishers has declined to a few dozen, and the many small skiffs have been replaced by a handful of larger trawlers whose owners park their boats at the dock over the weekend while they drive home to the west coast of Sweden, where most of them live.

These days, explosive algae growth creates smelly, mushy mats and forces closures of popular beaches around the Baltic Sea pretty much every summer. The ample cod my family used to have for dinner a couple of nights a week is now a rare delicacy and has been replaced by farm-raised salmon from Norway. The saving grace is that seals and sea eagles — which I only recall seeing once or twice as a child — are more common thanks to a reduction in the use of damaging pesticides, and now can be seen regularly around the archipelago’s more remote islands.

Since moving away from the Baltic’s shores 23 years ago, I have spent a lot of time on other oceans and along distant coasts. I have learned about marine ecosystems and ocean management; patrolled isolated beaches at night in search of nesting sea turtles in Greece, Australia, Fiji, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Panama; and worked with government officials and communities in the South Pacific, Southeast Asia and Central America to better manage oceans and coasts so they can continue to generously provide the food, livelihoods and well-being that people need.

Eight years ago, I spent a couple of months back in Sweden and took the opportunity to learn more about the management of the Baltic Sea and its fisheries. I spoke with local fishers and government officials. One meeting, when I shared experiences from Costa Rica with a group of local fishermen, stands out in my memory.

I showed them a graph of the increase in green turtle nesting on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Although none of the fishers had ever visited Costa Rica, they immediately understood that nesting green turtles were increasing — the complete opposite trend of most of the species they were familiar with in the Baltic — and they inquired interestedly about the reasons for the increase.

I believe that people around the Baltic, like most people who live on the world’s coasts, want a healthy ocean — clean water to swim in and ample fish stocks to catch from. The good news is that there are many successes around the world to learn from, including:

Another initiative my compatriots and fellow Baltic Sea coast dwellers can benefit from is the Ocean Health Index. The Index defines a healthy ocean as one that sustainably provides a range of benefits to people, both now and in the future. It incorporates information about the status and trend of 10 public goals of a healthy ocean — food provision, coastal protection, coastal economies and livelihoods, tourism and recreation, biodiversity, etc. — as well as actions that put pressure on or contribute positively to the resilience of these 10 goals.

The Ocean Health Index is working to determine which actions can generate the greatest impact on the dimensions of ocean health we care the most about. It incorporates new information and insights when they become available, and can be adapted to specific cultural preferences and values. The Index can be helpful in setting priorities and measuring progress for efforts to improve the health of the Baltic Sea.

I applaud all those around the Baltic Sea who are racing to recover ocean health through responsible management of fish stocks, reduction in oxygen-depleting nutrient input and protection of sensitive marine areas. I hope my contributions to marine conservation in other parts of the world can help inspire successful approaches to improve the health of the sea of my childhood.

Sebastian Troëng is the managing director of CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.

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