Find the differences!

The three pictures reflect the state of the Gulf of Finland in 1900s, 1980s and 2021. To demonstrate how its ecosystem changed over time the artists drew both on facts and their imagination. We would like to encourage the visitors to compare the pictures, to find the differences in the Gulf’s image and to think why the same water body may look so drastically different!

20th century

By the beginning of the 20th century the coastal zone of the Gulf of Finland was a highly densely populated area. The population of nearby cities grew constantly as a result of a steady influx of people from the countryside. Despite this, the number of people living in the countryside remained quite high.

A significant part of the rural population were engaged in a variety of traditional activities such as crafts, fishing, hunting and foraging, in addition to a range of traditional crafts. The rest of the population were peasants. By the beginning of the 20th century the majority of land suitable for agricultural purposes was utilised, while the forest began gradually depleting. In places where land was less fertile, peasants used the land to rear livestock. Peasant farms consisted for the most part of small individual households.

The transport infrastructure of the region was developing rapidly, including the construction of ships and the creation of new shipping lines and railways. Transport accessibility has initiated the formation of new communities. An ever increasing number of country houses, the so-called Russian ‘dachas’, continued to be built on the picturesque shores of the Gulf of Finland. The construction required substantial amounts of timber which was transported over large rivers. The extensive damage to the ecosystems which occurred as a result meant that the rivers were no longer suitable for spawning of fish populations which travelled from the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland.

The industry's growth led to the creation of new factories and plants, emitting more and more pollutants and thus affecting the marine and air environment. The cities have also made a significant contribution to water pollution as untreated household wastewater was discharged straight into the rivers and then into the Gulf of Finland.

By the beginning of the 20th century, economic activities led to the deterioration of the habitats of many animal species. This, together with overhunting, significantly reduced indigenous populations. Consequently, a number of valuable fish species were affected, such as the Baltic sturgeon and the salmon family, as well as large mammals.

The beginning of the 20th century marked the beginning of a period when the impact of human actions would have an increasingly detrimental impact on the environment.


In the second half of the 20th century the anthropogenic load on the Gulf of Finland rose significantly. Whilst previously the economic activities comprised mainly of small individual households, by the middle of the century large scale farms gave rise to commercial agriculture. Along with a much higher capacity, they also produced more emissions. As a result, the flow of nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus compounds) into the Gulf of Finland has been constantly increasing over the last decades.

Industrial development and population growth added to the volume of household and industrial wastewater discharge. Up until the 1980s the largest city of the region – Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) – had all its wastewater drained directly into the Gulf of Finland without any treatment.

Moreover, in the 20th century the chemical industry introduced new synthetic substances used in almost everything a human needs in everyday life: washing liquids, clothes, dishes, toys, stationery, furniture, packing and construction materials. No solution was found to their utilisation which led to formation of large scale landfills for solid domestic waste and to littering of large territories and release of toxic substances to the environment.

The region’s ecosystems have suffered severe losses with the development of energy industry in the second half of the 20th century. In particular, the concentration levels of combustion pollutants increased as a consequence of high-capacity cogeneration plants operating on fossil fuels.

The construction of two nuclear power plants in Russia and Finland caused a severe damage to the ecosystems of the region. This brought a new kind of environmental pollution - thermal pollution, waters from cooling systems used in power plants flowed directly into the Gulf. In addition, this added a risk factor of radioactive emissions as a result of nuclear accidents.

The number of vehicles rocketed in the second half of the 20th century leading to higher levels of air pollution and the transportation of pollutants in the terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

New shipping lines were built making the Gulf of Finland one of the busiest regions in the world ocean by traffic intensity. In the 20th century the transportation of oil in tankers through shallow and tricky waters of the Gulf became a problem for the region. Oil spill incidents began to occur on an annual basis. Thousands of animals living in and around the sea, such as birds and fish, died as a result of toxic contamination.

In the second half of the 20th century the Gulf of Finland experienced a landscape change due to a number of factors, including the construction of residential and commercial buildings along the shorelines and on islands, the construction of ports and terminals, new waterlines, land reclamation works in shallow waters, dredging works in the eastern part of the Gulf of Finland, and the construction of the dam.

This caused a decline in the living conditions of many different species of plants and animals and the destruction of their habitat, including important breeding grounds of many species of fish and stopover sites of wetland birds flying over from their wintering ranges in Western Europe and Africa to breeding grounds in Northern Europe. 

Economic activities in the region and, first and foremost, forest clearance and increased wildlife disturbance caused declines in the number of species and mammal populations. However, this also determined the appearance of invasive plant and animal species from other regions. : these penetrated into the Gulf of Finland with untreated ballast waters discharged directly from ships. Some of them have acclimatised and began spreading, forcing out indigenous species. Similar processes occurred in terrestrial ecosystems. For example, imported animals, such as the Canadian beaver and the American mink, have almost completely replaced the native species - the European beaver and the European mink.

All these factors have led to the fact that by the 1980s the Gulf of Finland was facing a very threatening ecological situation. Man has jeopardized his own environment - his home. This immediately affected not only the way of life, but also human health.


Why 2021? 2021 is the year when the targets of the HELCOM Baltic Sea Action Plan should be reached through efforts of each  country of the Baltic Sea Region and international cooperation.

It was in 2007 at the HELCOM ministerial meeting in Krakow, Poland, that a strategy to restore the good ecological status of the Baltic marine environment by 2021 was adopted by all the coastal states and the European Union. The main objective of the Baltic Sea Action Plan is to combat the continuing deterioration of the marine environment resulting from human activities.

The strategy considers 4 major issues affecting the environment state of the Baltic Sea, on which we should concentrate in the coming years:

Eutrophication is a major problem in the Baltic Sea. Since the 1900s, the Baltic Sea has changed from an oligotrophic clear-water sea into a eutrophic marine environment. High nutrient concentrations lead to imbalanced functioning of the system, such as: intense algal growth; excess of filamentous algae and phytoplankton blooms; production of excess organic matter; increase in oxygen consumption; oxygen depletion with recurrent internal loading of nutrients; and death of benthic organisms, including fish.

Pollution by hazardous substances means a massive number of different anthropogenic substances ending up in the marine environment, including substances that do not occur naturally in the environment and substances occurring at concentrations exceeding natural levels. Although the loads of some hazardous substances have been reduced considerably over the past 20–30 years, problems still persists, and concentrations in the marine environment of some new substances have even increased (e.g. perfluorinated substances).

Once released into the Baltic Sea, hazardous substances can remain in the marine environment for very long periods and can accumulate in the marine food chains up to levels which are toxic to marine organisms. Hazardous substances cause adverse effects on the ecosystem, such as impaired general health status of animals; impaired reproduction of animals, especially top predators; increased pollutant levels in fish for human food.  

Preservation of biodiversity. The Baltic Sea has a unique combination of marine and freshwater species and habitats adapted to brackish conditions. Favourable conservation status of Baltic Sea biodiversity is a prerequisite for the marine ecosystems to be resilient and able to adapt to changing environmental conditions. 

Maritime activities. The Baltic Sea is one of the most intensively trafficked areas in the world. Both the number and the size of the ships, especially oil tankers, have been growing during the last years, and this trend is expected to continue. This heavy traffic is being carried out within narrow straits and in shallow water, covered with ice for a long period, which makes the Baltic a difficult area to navigate and leads to traffic junctions and an increased risk of shipping incidents. The main negative environmental effects of shipping and other activities at sea include pollution to the air, illegal and accidental discharge of oil, hazardous substances and other wastes, and introduction of alien organisms via ships' ballast water and hulls.

So, we expect that by the year 2021, when the targets of the Baltic Sea Action Plan are reached, the Baltic Sea, and therefore, the Gulf of Finland, will be

Unaffected by eutrophication which implies:

  • Concentrations of nutrients close to natural levels
  • Clear water
  • Natural level of algal blooms
  • Natural distribution and occurrence of plants and animals
  • Natural oxygen levels

Undisturbed by hazardous substances which implies:

  • Concentrations of hazardous substances close to natural levels
  • All fish are safe to eat
  • Healthy wildlife
  • Radioactivity at the pre-Chernobyl level

Having a favourable status of the biodiversity which implies:

  • Natural marine and coastal landscapes
  • Thriving and balanced communities of plants and animals
  • Viable population of species

Carrying out maritime activities in an environmentally friendly way which implies.

  • Enforcement of international regulations – no illegal discharges
  • Safe maritime traffic without accidental pollution
  • Efficient emergency and response capabilities
  • Minimum sewage pollution from ships
  • No introductions of alien species from ships
  • Minimum air pollution from ships
  • Zero discharges from offshore platforms
  • Minimum threats from offshore installations