(RFE/RL) -- Political and business leaders from the Baltic Sea region have pledged to save what they call "one of the most polluted seas in the world."
Representatives from nine countries gathered in the Finnish capital for the one-day Baltic Sea Action Summit today and pledged to take steps to reverse the region's rapidly deteriorating environment.
Speaking at a press conference closing the event, Ilkka Herlin, chairman of the Baltic Sea Action Group, expressed satisfaction at what was accomplished. "We anticipated we would get around 50 commitments. But now we have got 150 -- three times more than we anticipated," Herlin said. "Of course it's a very good thing, but for us it means lots of work. Now we have to really take the measures to fulfill those commitments."
Agricultural producers pledged to take steps to cut nutrient deposits. Educators committed to promote awareness of marine-environmental issues in schools and universities. And business leaders promised new innovations, like recycling nutrients from waste water and improving communications between vessels to enhance maritime safety.
In a speech opening the summit, Finnish President Tarja Halonen stressed the urgency of the moment, saying "something has to be done -- and quickly."
"Today, some of the richest and most environmentally conscious countries on Earth live on the shores of one of the world's most polluted seas," she said. "Isn't it a tragedy?"
Also speaking to the summit, Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf said the sea was a "precious resource," which countries "have to take care of, and manage in the best possible way."
"The Baltic Sea is in a very bad stage. We can read about it in the newspapers nearly every week," he added. "Oil spills, uncontrolled coastal development, and pollution are just a few examples."
The Baltic Sea has been subjected to decades of toxic dumping, oil spills, and untreated sewage. Experts say the sea is particularly vulnerable to environmental changes because it has only a narrow outlet to the Atlantic Ocean, providing paltry supplies of fresh, salty water.
Overfished, surrounded by dirty industry, and uncared for, researchers say the marine life in the Baltic Sea is being decimated. The population of gray seals has fallen to just a few thousand from about 100,000 a century ago because of hunting and pollution. And according to Greenpeace, the sea is so toxic that pregnant women should not eat fish that are caught in it.
More recently there have been allegations the Soviet military dumped chemical and radioactive waste into the Baltic Sea during the 1990s.
And the sea is also facing rising sea traffic and Russia's oil and gas expansion plans. The Russian port of Ust Luga, which is being expanded, is to be the final point of a projected second trunk of the Baltic Pipeline System.
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told the summit that 15 percent of the world's cargo traffic passes through the Baltic Sea, while Swedish Environment Minister Andreas Carlgren said 90 percent of all trade in the region is transported by sea.
At the summit, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin highlighted actions Russia was taking to clean up the Baltic, including upgrading water-treatment plants in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad. He also assured the summit that the underwater Nord Stream gas pipeline planned between Russia and Germany would be "environmentally safe."
Responding to environmental concerns over the project, Putin said more than $130 million had been spent on researching the environmental impact of laying the pipeline on a seabed riddled with containers of toxic chemicals and weapons from two world wars.
And speaking to journalists, Finland's Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen ruled out any ecological risk, saying that if there were one, "I don't believe that the project could get permission from any country. It is so simple. We would not allow this type of project to harm the environment."
The countries affected by the project have given it the green light, but Nord Stream still needs approval from Finnish environmental authorities, which are expected to announce their decision this week.
Three years ago, regional countries agreed to cut pollution and restore the Baltic's "good ecological status" by 2021. But critics say good intentions are one thing; concrete action, so far, has been lagging.
The summit brought together presidents and cabinet ministers from Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Germany, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Representatives of the business community, nongovernmental organizations, and philanthropy also attended.
with agency reports