Several large animals in the Baltic Sea have become emaciated

18 December, 2023

Leaner cods, guillemot, and seals. Sluggish and red-spotted salmon. Several of the Baltic Sea’s large animals are being pressured by ill health and new environmental toxins, according to a new report.

But for several species it is going quite well – and for one the development is a pure success story.

Cods, guillemot and seals are among the animals affected by the environment in the Baltic Sea. Photo: Mary Evans Picture/Roland Johansson/Torbjörn Jacobsson/TT

Despite the fact that they live in one of the world’s most polluted seas – overcast, oxygen-poor and exposed to environmental toxins – several of the larger species in the Baltic Sea are doing reasonably well.

This is shown in the new report from the Baltic Sea Center at Stockholm University, which compiled the latest research and data from environmental monitoring concerning nine of the Baltic Sea’s large mammals, fish and seabirds.

Both gray seals and ringed seals now have stable populations after it previously looked bleak.

The same with the guillemot, which nest on cliffs and are known for their young’s death-defying jumps along the cliffs when they leave their parental home. On Stora Karlsö, the species’ strongest stronghold in the Baltic Sea, the population has tripled since the 1980s.

The guillemot here on Stora Karlsö where the largest stock is found, have become significantly more numerous – but something is disturbing their health and the young have lost weight. Photo: Roland Johansson/TT Archive image.

Algae bloom that disturbs?

At the same time, everything looks far from bright. A clear trend, according to the report, is that many of the species in the Baltic Sea have become increasingly lean – including the gray seal, the guillemot, the cod and the herring.

Why, scientists don’t know for sure. In the case of cod and herring, there are suspicions of a lack of food, but Henrik Svedäng, researcher in marine ecology at Stockholm University, does not think that is the cause.

– I don’t think we have a good explanation today, he says.

But a likely hypothesis, according to Svedäng, is that the algal bloom has a hand in the game. An increased amount of blue-green algae can upset the food chain and make the food less nutritious for cod and herring.

Sluggish salmon

The fact that stocks of both fish species are at critically low levels is largely due to overfishing, according to the report. But even the fact that they have become slimmer worries the researchers.

– For the cod, it makes it more fragile and sicker, and it doesn’t live as long, says Henrik Svedäng.

Considerably more gray seals are swimming in the Baltic Sea now than a couple of decades ago, but their stores of blubber have decreased. Research also shows high levels of mercury levels in some. Photo: Torbjörn Jacobsson/TT Archive image.

For the guillemot, it may be that increased competition for the main food, sprats, causes the young to become thinner.

Things are going better for the wild salmon, in such a way that the stocks have increased in general. At the same time, in recent years the salmon have developed several new health problems such as red rashes, bleeding and fungal infections. Many are also lethargic. But the reasons are unclear.

Other growing threats to several species highlighted in the report are the increasingly warm water, as well as new types of environmental toxins.

Poison from car tires

While the levels of classic environmental toxins such as DDT and PCBs, which came close to killing the seals in the 70s and 80s, are on the decline, several other chemicals are increasing.

An example is a substance that is widely used in car tires and is very toxic to living things, according to Andriy Rebryk, researcher in chemistry at Umeå University. Another is flame retardants called declorans, which have been found, among other things, in sea eagles and porpoise eggs.

Another concern is the many new chemicals that are used in industry and where the environmental effects are still unclear. Andriy Rebryk’s research shows that there are a number of substances that are potentially hazardous to health and the environment that have accumulated in, for example, porpoises and sea eagles.

– The problem is that once they start to spread in nature, they are very difficult to get rid of, says Andriy Rebryk.

The Baltic Sea’s only permanently resident whale, the porpoise, is classified as acutely endangered. Photo: Paula Olson/AP/TT Archive image

Despite the threat from new toxins, the development of the sea eagle can be described as a success story: In the 70s, there were around 70 pairs along the coasts – most of them sterile due to environmental toxins. Now plenty of white-tailed sea eagles soar over Swedish waters, 1,200 pairs nested last year, most of them in the marine environment.

That the trend reversed, and survival increased was largely due to volunteers feeding the eagles non-toxic food.

Sea eagles have gone from low levels to being relatively common in many places along the Baltic coast. The downside is that, among other things, the guillemot is threatened by their success. Photo: Stian Lysberg Solum/TT/NTB Archive image.
A female eider swims with her young. In the Baltic Sea, eiders have declined by 50 percent since the 1990s. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT Archive image.

Gray seal

Gray seals have increased sharply since the dip in the 80s. But they have become thinner, many suffer from parasites and intestinal ulcers, and new environmental toxins are a threat.

Ringed seal

During the 20th century, things looked bleak for the Baltic Sea’s smallest seal, but today the populations are stable. However, they are threatened by both environmental toxins and climate change.


The Baltic Sea’s only whale is classified as critically endangered, there are probably only around 500 individuals left. Underwater noise is one of the threats to the porpoise’s health, as are leaner prey fish.

Sea eagle

Our largest bird of prey is today widespread along the entire Baltic Sea coast, and in many places relatively common. But environmental toxins are likely to be a continuing problem for the species.


The stock has increased but something is disturbing the well-being. The average weight of the young has decreased, heat waves are a stress, as are the increasing number of sea eagles.


The number has decreased considerably and the eider has disappeared in several places. Several things are believed to have contributed, such as increasing numbers of sea eagles. Thiamine deficiency has led to fewer eggs and mass death among chicks.


The Swedish wild salmon stocks are generally increasing, but they are suffering from new health problems such as skin redness and fungal infections. Hydroelectric power and dams hinder stock recovery.


In recent decades, the number of herring has declined sharply and all stocks in the Baltic Sea, except in the Gulf of Riga, have spawning biomass below the minimum sustainable limit value. They have generally also become significantly thinner.


Stocks are at critically low levels and have difficulty recovering despite fishing stops. Many are sick and weakened, but the reasons are not fully understood.


Source: The report “How are the large animals in the Baltic Sea from the Baltic Sea Center at Stockholm University?”

Text: Hanna Odelfors/TT

Related articles

When the seal population had collapsed around 1980 and was almost completely extinct, the authorities put an end to all hunting. Seal protection areas were established, and all three species found along our coasts were protected. At the same time, we received EU directives to reduce emissions of DDT and PCBs. It led to the recovery of all three seal tribes….
Reporter: Lena Scherman
Editing: Alexandre Gobatti/Daniel Hager
Graphics: Daniel Hager
The release of farmed salmon has affected the wild salmon stocks, according to a new study from (SLU)…
Source: SLU
Photo: TT Bildbyrå / Mikael Gustafsson
Now it is scientifically confirmed. The number of herring fry is dramatically decreasing in the Stockholm archipelago. Scientists suspect that large-scale industrial fishing is largely to blame for the disappearance of herring. Today, the big stickleback reigns: “It’s like a locust invasion,” says Gustaf Almqvist, a fishing expert at the County Administrative Board in Stockholm….
Reportage: Peter Löfgren, Daniel Hedström
Photo: Leif Eiranson, Kimmo Hagman
Scroll to Top