Protection and management of the marine environment

The Significant underwater ecological values notation identifies sites with potential as production areas for ecosystem services. The notation does not take a stand on administrative boundaries or protected areas, and the plan does not propose that the identified areas should be protected.

When developing the use of these areas, it is important to address the preservation of the characteristics of underwater habitats. The plan also identifies significant ecological corridors, including rivers important for migratory fish and international green corridors.

Vision of the sector: All actors with an impact on the sea will take the marine environment’s ecological marginal conditions into account and safeguard marine biodiversity. Collaborative and sustainable protection of the marine area will improve the ecological status of the marine ecosystem. 

The Maritime Spatial Plan has put ecologically valuable underwater biodiversity areas (EMMA)[1] on the map, as well as significant ecological corridors for land-sea interactions, including rivers significant for migratory fish and international green corridors. National parks and Natura sites as well as the ecological status classification of coastal waters were also taken into consideration when planning functional areas. In addition, the principles of maritime spatial planning include following sustainable practices that support ecological values and underwater biodiversity in all marine sectors, which also contributes to achieving the objectives of a good status of waters set in both the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive of the EU. Rather than designating new protected areas or planning conservation measures, the Marine Spatial Plan will make an impact by highlighting ecological values, by recognising conservation as an important part of planning and developing the use of the areas, and by identifying and taking into account the special features of coastal areas in planning. The preconditions for attaining the conservation objectives and a good status of the marine environment as set out in the Maritime Spatial Plan include changes to land operations. The Maritime Spatial Plan emphasises and makes visible the need to plan the management and use of marine areas, which in itself will promote dialogue between activities on land and at sea. In addition to regional characteristics, the plan also takes into account the coastal zones classified by their openness from the inner archipelago to the open sea. Additionally, an effort has been made to address the characteristics of nature and the marine environment, the functions to be coordinated, and the land-sea interactions in each zone.



The underwater sites of significant ecological value designated in the Maritime Spatial Plan do not take a stand on administrative boundaries or existing protected areas, nor do they comprise proposals for protecting these sites. The plan has no direct legal effects on the consideration of permits for projects related to the use of the environment. 

Identifying and drawing attention to underwater ecological values builds up knowledge and understanding, thus promoting the preservation of biodiversity and habitats as well as the renewal and preservation of natural resources. Wetlands and estuaries, shallow bays and lagoons as well as rocky shores and reefs are some of the most biodiverse underwater habitats in the Baltic Sea with the greatest importance for the functioning of the ecosystem[2]. The occurrence of valuable habitats was one of the principles for identifying valuable areas in the EMMA project. By identifying these sites of significant ecological value, the Maritime Spatial Plan may promote the protection of the marine environment which, if realised, would safeguard a significant part of the biodiversity in the Baltic Sea.

Wetlands and estuaries retain nutrients, sequester carbon and buffer floods as well as provide habitats for many species, including insects and birds. In their natural state, shallow sea bays and lagoons also retain nutrients and are significant nursery areas for fish. Rocky shores and reefs provide habitats for the most important key species of the Baltic Sea, or the bladder wrack and blue mussel, and thus support the functioning of many ecosystems by creating habitats for numerous invertebrates and fish, which for their part provide food for birds and mammals.[3]

As the climate grows warmer, precipitation and especially winter floods have become more common[4], which increases run-off especially from fields and forests, as overwintering plants do not retain water. Whereas the nutrient load that ends up in the Baltic Sea as a result of human activity has been successfully reduced in recent years, the status of several water bodies has continued to deteriorate, and increased run-off has been suggested as the reason for this. Higher rainfall amounts also sometimes load wastewater treatment plants to a point where they are forced to divert large amounts of water unprocessed, as there are no separate stormwater drains. In these situations, wetlands, estuaries with sluggish flows and fertile shallow bays effectively retain nutrients, particles that make the water cloudy, and hazardous substances carried from land by the run-off waters, protecting the Baltic Sea from increased loading.[5]

Healthy ecosystems provide important services that also maintain the human living environment. Identified ecosystem services produced by the Baltic Sea include regulation of the climate and air quality, regulating the circulation of such substances as nutrients and water, landscape and recreational values, production of food and other tangible goods, biodiversity, and habitat services.[6]

Drawing attention to underwater sites of high ecological value identified in the EMMA work and significant ecological corridors in the Maritime Spatial Plan notations may support the potential expansion of the protected area network and sustainable management of the marine environment in the future. While the notations are not legally binding, they may have a guiding effect on project planning.

Identifying the ecological values of the marine environment has positive impacts on the urban structure of coastal and archipelago areas and the competitiveness of industries. A clean and viable marine environment is an important pull factor in the tourism sector and when municipalities are competing for residents. It also supports the vitality of fish stocks. 

Domestic tourism and recreational use are also clearly increasing. Visitor numbers to national parks went up from 1.9 million to 3.2 million in the 2010s.[7]. There are several national parks on the coast and in the archipelago to which more visitors can be attracted by promoting a good status of the marine environment. On the other hand, more effective protection measures will be needed to safeguard the functioning of ecosystems in the face of increased use and wear and tear. The valuable sites recognised in the Maritime Spatial Plan will support the planning of the network comprised of national parks and other protected areas.

Similarly, promoting the welfare of marine ecosystems and a good status of waters will improve the preconditions for professional fishing by supporting the vitality of fish stocks. Fish farming also benefits from a healthy marine environment, as a clean sea will enable sustainable fish farming to continue in marine areas.

A good status of the marine environment has a positive impact on the quality and attractiveness of human living environments. If realised, the principles of sustainable use and planning highlighted in the Maritime Spatial Plan will support the preservation of landscape and cultural heritage values and consideration of underwater ecological values in the location decisions and implementation of maritime activities. 

The healing and stress-relieving impacts of green areas and nature have been studied a great deal recently.[8]  A natural and healthy environment promotes human well-being and comfort. The status of underwater habitats and the seabed is reflected in water quality and cleanliness of beaches, for example, as well as at the higher levels of marine food networks, including the status of bird species, all of which are manifestations of the marine environment noticed by humans. The proximity of water is particularly important in the Finnish housing culture, and the value of properties in good condition which are located near or on the shores of water bodies is high. For people living in the archipelago and coastal areas, the status of the waters is often significant and important; cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms, overgrowth and cloudiness of the water are perceived as negative things; and there is general interest in the welfare of identifiable species, including fish and birds.[9]  Promoting the good ecological status of the sea thus has positive impacts on human living environments.

Recreational fishing also clearly benefits from a good status of underwater habitats. Lagoons, shallow bays and reefs are highly important nurseries for fish. A single lagoon can produce a significant proportion of the young of many fish species which spawn in bays, including the perch, pike and three-spined stickleback. This is why the restoration of even one lagoon can significantly improve the status of the fish stocks in an area and, correspondingly, impairment in the status of a single lagoon, for example by dredging, may cause the stocks to decline.

The principles of sustainable use of marine areas that promotes the preservation of their natural state highlighted in the Maritime Spatial Plan may clash with such land use objectives as recreation, tourism and shipping. Local disputes or conflicts of interest may arise if both significant ecological values and development potential are identified in the same area. Addressing the needs to protect underwater habitats as described in the Maritime Spatial Plan would require some restrictions on the use of areas and the dredging of shores. In order to avoid conflicts, open and positive communication will be important. 


[1] https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/312221

[2] In the latest study on threatened habitats in the Baltic Sea, HELCOM HUB classification was used, which is based on the coverage of species. While the HUB habitats were applied when selecting EMMA sites, other criteria were also used, such as sufficient research data on the area. https://www.ymparisto.fi/fi-FI/Luonto/Luontotyypit/Luontotyyppien_uhanalaisuus/Itameri/Itameren_luontotyyppien_luokittelu

[3] Baltic Sea habitats Ympäristö.fi (in Finnish) https://www.ymparisto.fi/fi-FI/Luonto/Luontotyypit/Luontotyyppien_uhanalaisuus/Itameri

[4] https://ilmasto-opas.fi/fi/ilmastonmuutos/suomen-muuttuva-ilmasto/-/artikkeli/27922915-7ee5-4122-ae60-51f58e6aef9a/sademaarat-kasvavat.html

[5] https://www.ymparisto.fi/fi-FI/Vesi/Vesien_kaytto/Maankuivatus_ja_ojitus/Luonnonmukainen_peruskuivatus/Monivaikutteiset_kosteikot

[6] Sagebiel et al. 2016 https://academic.oup.com/icesjms/article/73/4/991/2458767

[7] Metsähallitus, visitor numbers to national parks https://www.metsa.fi/kayntimaarat

[8] Hedblom et al. 2019 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-46099-7

[9] Finnish Environment Institute, Hjerppe: Rantakiinteistöjen virkistyskäyttöhyödyn arvioiminen vesienhoidon toisella suunnittelukaudella 2014 (Assessing the benefits of recreational use of shore properties during the second water resource management planning period