Detected oil spills in the Baltic Sea reach all-time low
The number of oil spills in the Baltic Sea detected through daily aerial surveillance reached an all-time low again in 2015. According to the annual HELCOM report now available, also the size of spills spotted in the region continue to decline following long-term trends.
Striking is that half (49%) of all spill detections were identified as substances other than oil or as unknown observations—highlighting the ongoing need to track various kinds of spills. Nonoil-based discharges, which only have been reported to HELCOM since 2014, are not as strictly regulated as oil in the Baltic Sea and may cause threats to the marine environment. Collecting data on the frequency, size and nature of such spills is essential to understanding the environmental impacts of different kinds of substances on the Baltic Sea.
According to the HELCOM report, a total of 82 mineral oil spills were identified in the Baltic Sea by air in 2015, with the overwhelming majority (98%) limited to an area of one cubic metre (1 m3) or less. Almost three-quarters (78%) were smaller than 100 litres or 0.1 m3.
The total flight time dedicated to spill detection by the HELCOM member countries has dropped in recent years with an average of around 4,000 hours per year being logged in 2014 and 2015. This is a significant fall from the 10-year average of over 4,500 flight hours a year—a fact that may play a factor in the decreasing number of detections made.
Regional aerial surveillance continues to be vital to detecting oil spills and other potentially harmful substances released into the Baltic Sea. It also acts as a deterrent to ships, thus preventing violations to regulations on ship pollution. When a spill is discovered, if possible, the identity of a polluter is established and the spill is sampled from both the sea surface and on-board the suspected offending ship to enable prosecution.
In addition to regular, nationally led flights, high-intensity operations are organized on a yearly basis to bolster compliance levels to anti-pollution regulations. During such operations a selected area is continuously surveyed together by a number of countries up to several days.
Cooperation between Baltic coastal countries on spill-related air surveillance dates back to the 1980s as a result of HELCOM efforts to protect the marine environment. Data on ship spills identified by aerial surveillance is reported on a yearly basis by most HELCOM member states; the current HELCOM annual report covers data conducted with fixed-wing aircraft from 1988 to 2015.
The purpose of aerial surveillance is to detect spills of oil and other harmful substances which can threaten the marine environment. If possible, the identity of a polluter should be established and a spill sampled from both the sea surface and the suspected offender on board.
Data on illegal discharges observed during national aerial surveillance activities of the coastal states in the Baltic Sea area are compiled by HELCOM every year.
Co-operation on aerial surveillance within the Baltic Sea area has been established within the framework of the Helsinki Convention and coordinated by the Informal Working Group on Aerial Surveillance (IWGAS). This requires the Contracting Parties to conduct regular surveillance outside their coastlines and to develop and apply, individually or in cooperation, surveillance activities covering the Baltic Sea area in order to spot and monitor oil and other substances released into the sea. Contracting Parties are also supposed to coordinate surveillance activities which take place outside territorial waters.
Working to safeguard the marine environment from pollution and ensure safe navigation in the Baltic Sea, HELCOM acts as the governing body of the 1974 Helsinki Convention. Its official name is the Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission.