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Seabed Integrity in the Baltic Sea: An Introduction to Case Study 3

seabed integrity | baltic sea

The damage to seabed and habitat loss are caused by multiple human activities, threatening marine biodiversity and the seabed capacity to store carbon. Roughly 40% of the seabed area in the Baltic Sea is potentially disturbed.

Effective seabed management requires a coordinated policy, something that is easier said than done. Human pressures are caused by multiple sectors, including energy (e.g. platform installations, submarine cables), tourism, fishing. Reducing these pressures is a complex task since governance is fragmented under several sectoral policies. The case study will examine practices and challenges to implementing commitments related to ensuring seabed integrity at the level of a regional sea.

By their nature, many environmental problems transcend political, legal and other anthropogenic boundaries, and thus cannot be adequately solved by individual countries alone. Regional Seas Conventions (RSCs) such as the Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area, establish policy frameworks for necessary transboundary cooperation. In the HELCOM 2021 BSAP Action, S65 states that by 2026 countries are committed to implementing a common approach to address and, where possible, minimise the loss of and disturbance to seabed habitats caused by human activities.

In the case of seabed integrity, there are multiple sectors and policies with vested interest in the governance related to seabed. If countries around the Baltic Sea are to adequately address the pressures causing impact on the seabed (in line with action S65), and thus secure ecosystem function and the ecosystem services provided by the seabed, there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of how the various policies and governance structures interact. This requires mapping governance structures and policies, identifying antagonistic and synergetic effects across them, as well as analysing institutional barriers and identifying challenges blocking implementation.

Subsequently, proposed solutions and improvements would need to be identified, enabling the implementation of a common approach and appropriate measures, which would help address both the BSAP and EU policies. A particularly important target for PERMAGOV results is to support the implementation of BSAP through a coordinated governance response in relation to seabed integrity. The next reporting on BSAP implementation is in 2025, and a coordinated approach, as well as appropriate measures, need to be in place by 2026.


The case study scrutinises synergetic and antagonistic relationships between various EU policies relevant to seabed integrity, and how these affect the intergovernmental collaboration at HELCOM level. Selected examples from the national level will exemplify the multi-level nature of policy implementation.

Geographically, the case focuses on the Baltic Sea region. Administratively, the case centres around the regional sea collaboration within HELCOM, but sets it in a multi-layer continuum from the EU level to national.


To ensure effective and consistent implementation of new strategies like the EU Green Deal and the Biodiversity Strategy 2030 they need to be coordinated with the implementation of existing EU marine policies and directives, including the MSFD, the CFP, and the MSPD, as well as with the existing regional sea and national level policies that steer human activities that create pressures on the seabed integrity.

One assumption that the case study will test is that the multi-layered nature of relevant policies creates complexity and challenges for a coordinated handling of the topic. The issue of seabed integrity lies at the intersection of several policy frameworks that either aim to protect the seabed or that create counterproductive incentives to its exploitation. It is assumed that the governance of the topic is fragmented across several sectoral and environmental policies and there is a lack of well-functioning, effective integrative policy frameworks. Power imbalances between sectors further hamper possibilities for a more coordinated and effective policy implementation. The multi-layered and multi-sectoral setting brings to the fore a particularly complex coordination challenge to achieving effective solutions that satisfy many parties.

Research questions

  • What are the institutional barriers for reaching HELCOM’s goals on seabed integrity? How can we address these barriers, and which key actors need to be engaged on different levels of governance?

  • What are the main institutional barriers that affect our ability to address human pressures on seabed integrity in the Baltic Sea region?

  • How do these institutional barriers affect initiatives that manage human pressures on seabed integrity at various levels of governance?

  • What are the opportunities for enhancing the HELCOM’s approach in addressing the human pressures on seabed integrity in ways that cut across various sectoral governance regimes and levels?

  • How does EU level guidance and policies address the issue of seabed integrity in combination with relevant EU and national sectoral policies (linked to human pressures) that enable or constrain the achievement of HELCOM’s goals on seabed integrity?

  • What changes in the EU level policies would support sustainable governance of the Baltic Sea’s seabed integrity, and what e-governance approaches can support this change?

  • What digital tools and e-governance intervention are used – and how – to support policies to address the human activities that cause pressures on seabed integrity? How do relevant actors perceive the value and usability of these tools?

  • What effective, just and actionable pathways are needed to reach sustainable governance of the Baltic Sea’s seabed integrity, and what role do e-governance solutions play in supporting this transition?

PERMAGOV partners

The case will be conducted by the Finnish Environment Institute (Syke) and HELCOM. The case study is relevant to the work of several HELCOM working groups (WGs) and expert groups (EGs) as described below.

WG GEAR: Implementation of the Ecosystem Approach

The group works across HELCOM workstreams to support region-wide cooperation on all horizontal strategic elements of regional policy related to HELCOM’s work.

WG Sea-Based Pressures: Reduction of Pressures from Sea-Based Sources

WG BioDiv: Biodiversity, Protection and Restoration

WG Fish: Ecosystem-Based Sustainable Fisheries

EG Benthic: Benthic Habitats and Biotopes

EG DREDS: Dredging/Depositing Operations at Sea

Connections with other case studies

  • Sustainable fisheries in the Italian MPAs (Case Study 4): Possible connection if the MPA-fisheries case addresses bottom trawling that will be addressed in case 3

  • Marine Litter in the Baltic Sea (Case Study 8): Both cases focus on the same regional sea and are covered by HELCOM's policies and decision-making system

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PERMAGOV has received funding from the European Union's Horizon Europe research and innovation programme HORIZON-CL6-2022-GOVERNANCE-01-03 under grant agreement No 101086297, and by UK Research and Innovation under the UK government’s Horizon Europe funding guarantee grant numbers 10045993, 10062097, 101086297.

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