Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission (HELCOM)
For immediate release
Helsinki, 23 September (HELCOM Information Service) - Catches of dumped World War II chemical munitions in the Baltic Sea have substantially decreased during the past several years. According to the latest annual statistics, submitted by Denmark to HELCOM, fishermen reported two incidents of chemical munitions being caught in their nets in 2007 and only one in 2006, compared to 25 incidents reported in 2003. This is the lowest number since HELCOM began tracking this information in 1995.
However, experts are not yet attributing the decrease to any specific factors. The reason for the dramatic decrease is unknown, as was the case for the dramatic increase in 2003. These variations are probably due to a combination of different factors, such as the intensity of fishing activities in the areas close to the dumped chemical munitions, and the recommendations issued by HELCOM and local authorities.
As Lead Country for monitoring dumped chemical munitions, Denmark prepared the latest annual report based on information received as of 1 April 2008. All catches occurred east of the island of Bornholm, near an area where large amounts of chemical munitions were dumped after World War II. The chemical munitions netted in 2007 were completely corroded, and consisted of lumps of mustard gas, with a total weight of approximately 58 kg. The weight of the catch in 2006 was only 6 kg. All catches were released at sea.
The year 2003, when a total of 1,110 kg of gas-derived lumps was netted in 25 incidents represented one of the biggest increases in both the numbers of incidents and the total weight of the chemical munitions caught in the Baltic Sea since the mid-1990s. Over the period 1995-2002, about 5 -11 incidents were reported annually, with the total weight of munitions involved not exceeding 514 kg a year. The highest number of incidents during the last 20 years was in 1991 when a total of 5,378 kg of munitions was netted in 103 incidents.
About 40,000 tonnes of chemical munitions were dumped into the Baltic Sea after World War II - mostly in the area to the east of Bornholm, southeast of Gotland and south of the Little Belt. It is estimated that these chemical munitions contained some 13,000 tonnes of chemical warfare agents. Dumping areas are marked as foul, with "anchoring and fishing not recommended" on nautical charts. However, fishing in these waters is not prohibited, and commercial fishing is continuing.
Warfare agents are also discovered outside the dumping areas from time to time, especially near Bornholm. Fishermen in these waters occasionally find bombs, shells or fragments of munitions and even lumps of mustard gas in their bottom trawl nets. The crews of fishing vessels risk contamination from chemical warfare agents if lumps of viscous mustard gas or chemical munitions caught in bottom trawls are hauled on board. Simply touching these chemical agents or inhaling their vapours is very dangerous.
Chemical warfare agents break down at varying rates into less toxic, water-soluble substances. Some compounds, however, show an extremely low solubility and slow degradability (e.g. viscous mustard gas, Clark I and II, and Adamsite). Therefore these compounds cannot occur at higher concentrations in water, so any wide-scale threat to the marine environment from these chemical warfare agents can be ruled out. HELCOM has carried out extensive assessments and concluded that any threat to coastal areas from such residues of warfare agents or chemical munitions is also unlikely.
Note to Editors:
The Baltic Marine Environment Protection Commission, usually referred to as the Helsinki Commission, or HELCOM, is an intergovernmental organisation of all the nine Baltic Sea countries and the EU which works to protect the marine environment of the Baltic Sea from all sources of pollution and to ensure safety of navigation.
HELCOM is the governing body of the "Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area", known as the Helsinki Convention.
For more information, please contact:
Ms. Monika Stankiewicz
Tel: +358 (0)207 412 643
Fax: +358 (0)207 412 639
Mr. Nikolay Vlasov
Tel: +358 (0)207 412 635
Fax: +358 (0)207 412 639