Don't bank on it! Sweden gets credit it may not deserve
In December 2016, the Swedish government proudly proposed four new marine protected areas in the Baltic Sea. The areas are home to species like the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) as well as seabirds such as the long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). However, what at first glance seemed to be a noble action from an environmentally conscious government, soon turned into a complicated, ugly tale.
Sweden needs to implement the EU Nature Directives, and in order to do so, it needs to protect areas in the Hoburgs bank and Midsjöbankarna in the southern Baltic Sea spanning over 10 000 km2. These protected areas should have included three shallow banks, which together constitute a major wintering area for the Eurasian population of the long-tailed duck.
Unfortunetaly, the areas also sees a range of human activities. They are home to one of the most heavily used trafficked shipping routes in the world, with significant disturbance to marine life, including substantial oil spills as a consequence. The oil pollution is a serious threat to the wintering long-tailed duck population, which is in steep decline. In fact, this species is projected to decline by 59% in 2020. If the area is truly meant to be legally protected, a threat of this severity must be resolved immediately. Furthermore, fishing within the areas also have major impacts on the marine environment that is another matter that needs to be dealt with.
However, it soon became clear in the Swedish government’s proposal of marine protected areas that these differed from what was suggested by the central governmental authority SEPA (Swedish Environmental Protection Agency) and the relevant county administrative boards. Without ever mentioning it, the government had excluded a major part of Södra Midsjöbanken, one of the three shallow banks mentioned above, from the protected area, as well as the bank Kriegers flak more to the southwest in the Baltic Sea. The obvious reason for these exclusions is that there are plans to build wind farms on these two shallow banks. In fact, such plans are already on the government’s table.
Figure 1. The proposed Natura 2000 site ”Hoburgs bank and Midsjöbankarna” (green). The pink area shows the part of Södra Midsjöbanken that is included in the Natura 2000 site. The purple area is the remaining part of Södra Midsjöbanken that remains unprotected. A large part of the purple area seems to be designated for a huge wind farm, awaiting approval from the Swedish government. The whole pink/purple area is designated as an IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area).
BirdLife Sweden regards the exclusion of Södra Midsjöbanken from the protected area a clear breach against the EU directives. Under the directives, Natura 2000 designation, clearly requires that the most important areas for the species concerned must be included in the protected areas. In this case, the Swedish government has done the opposite, and excluded a critically important area from protection, to permit its exploitation. This decision is unacceptable and puts the whole biogeographical long-tailed duck population, considered Endangered (EN) on the Swedish Red List, at great risk. Scientific research has shown that long-tailed ducks clearly avoid offshore wind farms. This means that they will lose access to a huge area rich in their staple diet of blue mussels (Mytilus edulis), if the wind farms are built.
In May 2017, BirdLife Sweden filed an official complaint with the EU Commission regarding the breach of the designation directives. So far, the only response received is that the Swedish designations of all Natura 2000 sites are currently under investigation. We sincerely hope that the Commission takes this breach seriously and takes the the Swedish government to the European Court of Justice to be judged accordingly.
 Hearn, R., Harrison, A. & Cranswick, P. 2015. International Single Species Action Plan for the conservation of the Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis 2016-2025.