Maritime spatial plan for the Northern Bothnian Sea, the Kvarken and the Bothnian Bay

Baseline – marine environmental status

Environmental conditions vary considerably in different parts of the Gulf of Bothnia. Together with the Kvarken, the northern part of the Bothnian Sea forms an ecotone between the southern part of the Gulf of Bothnia and the Bothnian Bay, which has very low salinity. Specific characteristics of the area’s seabed geology include extensive sand beds in the Bothnian Bay and isostatic rebound, i.e. land uplift, which is reflected in the landscape. Species diversity declines towards the Bothnian Bay due to its low salinity.

Marine environmental status is better in the northern marine area, which is also subjected to less pressure from human activity than the other two areas. With regard to protecting and managing the marine environment, the area is sensitive to climate change because climate change reduces marine salinity, increases precipitation and, consequently, runoff from land, decreases ice cover and raises water temperatures. The Kvarken is a salinity transition zone, where marine species decline as salinity decreases while precipitation and runoff increase. The Bothnian Bay is still becoming fresher, leading to a decline in species adapted to brackish water and deteriorating species diversity. Increasing runoff and winter floods also push up the amounts of nutrients leaching into the sea. Decreasing ice cover especially affects the stock of ringed seals.

Isostatic rebound is significant in the northern marine area, requiring constant dredging, which has adverse impacts on the environment. Land uplift should therefore be taken into account in maritime spatial planning in the long run with regard to the development of routes and port infrastructure, etc.

The ecological status of the area’s water bodies is mostly satisfactory; however, water status is poor off the City of Oulu. The status of phytoplankton and zooplankton is assessed as being good, as is that of nesting seabirds. The sources of nutrients released into the sea include agriculture, forestry, industry and human settlements. Natural leaching is a significant source of nutrient loads in the area, which is characterised by acid sulphite soils, and the runoff from fields and forests also increases as winters become milder.

The area’s leading uses currently include maritime transport, nature conservation areas, recreation and fishing. There are plenty of dredged waterways and ports. A considerable number of rivers are dammed up, which has led to a decline in migratory fish stocks.

Positive impacts:

Identifying areas of biodiversity importance has a positive impact on the marine environment, since identifying the locations of valuable underwater habitat types will raise awareness about underwater nature values. Underwater natural values found in the northern marine area include fish breeding grounds, underwater habitats and vegetation, as well as geological formations. Natural values are concentrated in shallow coastal waters and around islands. Significant sites are located in the Kvarken, along the coasts of Central and North Ostrobothnia and at the bottom of the Bothnian Bay. Maritime spatial planning has highlighted ecologically significant marine underwater areas (‘EMMA areas’) and significant ecological connectivity, such as migratory fish pathways and the migratory bird routes taken into account in the plan, which will also help take values that are normally invisible, yet important in terms of ecosystem functions, into account as part of planning marine activities. Identifying the pathways of migratory fish species will have a positive impact from the perspective of protecting migratory fish stocks, particularly if it advances protection measures.

Identifying sites suitable for dumping dredged material may promote marine environmental status, should the disposal sites currently located in less environmentally friendly areas be relocated to more sustainable areas designated in the report.

While the plan will have no impact on the existing fishing grounds, identifying fish spawning and fry grounds and migratory fish pathways may have a positive impact on fish stocks and fishing opportunities. The ‘ecological connection’ marked out in the plan to indicate a migratory fish pathway has been extended far into the marine area off the mouth of River Tornionjoki.

Tourism also creates pressure to protect and preserve the Baltic Sea and its marine environment as well as cultural heritage sites. Identifying the significant potential of tourism and cultural heritage sites will indirectly support the protection objectives and achievement of good status of the marine environment.

The area reserved for the Finnish Defence Forces off the coast of Lohtaja restricts its other uses, indirectly protecting its natural values.

Negative impacts:

A number of sites are designated for potential offshore wind generation in the northern area. The designated sites do not conflict with any significant nature values shown on the map. It should be noted, however, that offshore wind has a localised negative impact on water bodies, particularly during construction. Seabed preparation required for offshore wind construction and its impacts depend on the quality of the seabed at the available site (incl. possible need to dump dredging material, blasting operations). Site preparation closer to the coast involves higher environmental impacts as seabed sediments are disturbed, because marine environmental status along the coast is poorer to begin with. The impacts of operational maintenance measures of offshore wind farms depend on their extent (e.g. spills of harmful substances). The sites designated for offshore wind will partly overlap with fishing grounds, but potential construction activities can be scheduled taking account of factors such as fish spawning seasons.

The functional connection marked out on the map from the City of Oulu to the island of Hailuoto means building a bridge and a causeway. Since the project is already going through the permit procedure, assessment is restricted in this context to the impacts of increasing activities enabled by improved access on Hailuoto. Better access will bring about more tourism activities and boost recreational uses, straining the island’s sensitive environment.

The ecological connectivity identified in the area refers to important spawning rivers for migratory fish. As migratory fish stocks have declined, it is important to safeguard them.

Sites designated for aquaculture are especially located in the Vaasa archipelago, the Kvarken and the Bothnian Bay. Milder winters will increase runoff and, consequently, nutrient loads on the marine area, which is particularly sensitive to the impacts of climate change. Aquaculture will increase localised nutrient loads.

Growing tourism may have slight negative impacts on the marine environment as it may increase wear, disturbances, waste and noise levels. Negative impacts can be mitigated by directing tourist flows and creating tourism packages. Impacts on water are conflicting, since a clean water body can be seen as an essential precondition for tourism and recreational activities.

In the area reserved for the Finnish Defence Forces off the coast of Lohtaja, releases of heavy metals and other harmful substances and unexploded ammunition used in drills end up in the sea. Drills also use ammunition that causes mechanical damage to the seabed and shores when exploded.

Positive impacts:

The area provides good conditions for offshore wind construction, especially in the open sea areas of the northern Bothnian Sea and the Bothnian Bay. The marine area’s shallow waters facilitate cost-efficient offshore wind construction. Offshore wind construction and wind farm operation and maintenance will have significant direct and indirect employment creation impacts. In terms of employment, the impact of offshore wind construction is considerably higher than that of onshore wind projects. Offshore wind construction will also indirectly impact on accommodation services, as builders may come from elsewhere, especially in the early stages before relevant skills can be built up in Finland.

Offshore wind farm construction and operation offer new business opportunities for marine industries and maritime transport operators. Foundation solutions, construction, operation and maintenance require specialised equipment that few of those operating in the sector have used before. Ports will presumably be used for temporary storage of turbine parts and as base ports for supply and personnel vessels.

The plan also contributes to the achievement of the area-specific target scenario by comprehensively designating maritime areas and ports. Offshore wind construction requires onshore bases (temporary storage of turbine parts, specialised equipment), which will, if implemented, boost coastal port operations and possibly shipyard operations as well. The sites designated for offshore wind are mostly located in the vicinity of areas designated for shipping, which supports logistics. Offshore wind farms should be navigable even for larger vessels during both the construction and the maintenance phase.

The plan designates an existing functional connection between the cities of Vaasa and Umeå, which is the only year-round ferry connection across the Gulf of Bothnia and the northernmost one in Europe. The connection plays a significant role in the regional economies on both sides of the sea. The cities have established a joint port venture, Kvarken Ports, with a view to developing the status of the ports as part of Baltic Sea transport.

It is expected that the Northern Sea Route will open up for shipping as a result of climate change. This may significantly increase the use of Finland’s northern roads, railways, ports and marine waterways. The plan map does not take account of the impact of the Northern Sea Route opening up on the adequacy of the capacity of logistics routes and ports, although the measures determined in the plan, including the roadmap (such as routes developed to meet increasing maritime transport volumes), will support the achievement of the area-specific target scenario in terms such as accessibility and by comprehensively designating maritime areas and ports for the area.

If successful, increasing fish-farming will contribute to the regional economy through its employment creation impacts and support for the use of local services. The northern marine area has a comprehensive network of fishing ports. Increasing both fishing and fish-farming will contribute to the vitality of these smaller ports as well as local cultural heritage. Increasing domestic fish production will also promote employment throughout the processing chain.

Identifying the potential of tourism and its development will also make it possible to develop services and infrastructure for local residents and enhance their wellbeing by providing new earning opportunities and secondary livelihoods (such as through increasing coastal recreational boat and cruise line traffic). Developing the planning area’s key tourist destinations as part of Arctic tourism will create significant potential.

Negative impacts:

Offshore wind is located in the open sea area on the plan map. It should be noted that the costs of offshore wind construction will grow the further from the coast the site is located. A location far from the coast reduces the usability of offshore wind potential due to costly investments (incl. the price of the offshore cable and its installation costs, as sites further out on the open sea are presumably deeper). Ice conditions have been identified as a specific characteristic of the area. Northern marine areas are exposed to exceptionally difficult ice conditions (incl. pack ice), restricting the number of available cost-efficient offshore wind platform solutions and suitable maintenance equipment options. Operating an offshore wind farm will also be more complicated in difficult ice conditions, with a direct impact on expected levels of energy generation and financial profitability.

Positive impacts:

Enabling offshore wind in the planning area promotes opportunities for renewables generation while also helping to combat climate change on a global scale.

The plan marks out a proposed fishing area off the City of Tornio. There is a conflict between sea and river fishing. River Tornionjoki is mentioned as a significant destination for fishing tourism. The plan does not impact on the legal fishing restrictions in place in the marine or river areas. However, the notation of the connectivity need for migratory fish demonstrates the importance of ecological connectivity and may serve the objective of coordinating different activities as well as the area-specific target scenario for securing the operating conditions for coastal fishing.

The plan designates the Kvarken archipelago, the Luoto archipelago and the Hailuoto Island as core archipelago areas. These are considered to have a positive social impact, as recognising the potential of the archipelago will support access to the archipelago, its culture and marine trades.

With regard to the northern Bothnian Sea, the Kvarken and the Bothnian Bay, the plan includes a proposal for a tourism and recreational connection to the west in northern Bothnian Bay, while also highlighting the significant potential of tourism activities along the coast between Kemi and Tornio. The plan marks out the Hailuoto Island and the Kvarken as significant tourism and recreational areas, which are also identified as sites of high nature value alongside the Kvarken archipelago. The Kvarken archipelago is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the only one in Finland protected on the basis of its nature values. Together with the Swedish High Coast (Höga Kusten), the Kvarken Archipelago World Heritage Site forms an integrated area reflecting the phenomenon of land uplift. The plan supports the comprehensive development of these areas and improvement of their accessibility.

The plan presents the Kvarken Archipelago World Heritage Site as the largest cultural heritage cluster in the marine area. Identifying and fostering cultural values comprehensively will strengthen valuable cultural heritage sites as attractions, contributing to their vitality and tourism and recreational uses, while also facilitating allocation of resources to maintaining and developing cultural heritage clusters. There are places where tourism may account for a substantial proportion of local livelihoods, in which case its impacts are significant.

The area reserved for use by the Finnish Defence Forces off the coast of Lohtaja supports the operating conditions of national defence.

Negative impacts:

A considerable number of areas of marine environmental and biodiversity importance are marked out in the northern area. There are some conflicting and overlapping activities with regard to the use of the coast and other marine areas, in particular in the Vaasa archipelago, Lohtaja, Oulu, Kemi and Tornio.

Sites designated for energy generation are located at such a distance from the coast and archipelago (min. 10 km) that offshore wind cannot be expected to cause any significant harm to permanent or holiday residents. However, harmful impacts may emerge if offshore wind generation becomes a large-scale activity both on land and sea. The change can be managed as a whole by ensuring sufficient distances to the coast and islands. The potential offshore wind sites on the northern Bothnian Bay expand towards the open sea, reducing their harmful effects on the landscape. Offshore wind farms affect the sensors used by the Finnish Defence Forces to produce aerial and maritime situational awareness by creating blind spots that may prevent full surveillance of the airspace and territorial waters.

The potential offshore wind site proposed off the town of Närpes is located to the south of the Kvarken Archipelago World Heritage Site, where its distance to the closest islands of the cultural heritage cluster is less than 10 km. Likewise, the potential offshore wind site located to the southwest of the Hailuoto Island extends to a distance of about 10 km from the island at its closest point. If implemented, these wind farms may potentially have a negative impact on the character and quality of the cultural heritage clusters. The significance of the potential impacts of these areas will need to be addressed as part of further planning.

Appeals against environmental permits granted for fish-farming indicate that fish farms are especially perceived to have a harmful effect on the landscape if they are visible from holiday homes and boating areas.