What is ecological compensation?

The need to safeguard biodiversity is great worldwide. Human activities at sea, on the coast, and within the catchment area contribute to the deterioration of the natural state of the Baltic Sea.

Kirsi Kostamo

The author is Leading Researcher in the Sustainable Use of Marine Areas Group at the Marine Research Centre of the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE

As the use of shores and the sea increases, besides the protection of species and habitats, new ways of safeguarding marine biodiversity are also needed.

One additional means could be ecological compensation, where the basic idea is to compensate for the deterioration of nature caused by human activities in one area with improvement in another.

Ecological compensation is still in its infancy in Finland

Various compensations, such as carbon, nutrient, and climate compensations, have been talked about for years. The research and applications related to these compensations exist all over the world.

However, ecological compensation is a relatively new issue in Finland. There is currently a lively debate and research concerning compensation, and a large number of related projects are ongoing.

The possibilities of using ecological compensations in Finnish coastal and marine areas were assessed in a project entitled “Uudet työkalut ekologiseen rakentamiseen merellä” (New tools for ecological construction at sea), which was funded by the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.

In the project, it was noted that although there are some examples of ecological compensation in marine areas elsewhere in the world, the application of such measures in Finland and the Baltic Sea requires their adaptation to the prevailing conditions.

Examples of nature compensations that replace the loss of natural values that have already occurred on land or at sea have thus far been implemented very little in Finland and the Baltic Sea region.

What are the conditions for success?

In order to use ecological compensations, planning based on extensive background data, as well as ambitious implementation is needed to improve the probability of the compensation being successful.

In addition, the fact that there are only measures affecting habitats and/or species, in Finland the compensation plan could also include, for example, measures which limit nutrient emissions from its catchment area.

Improving the water quality would also increase the possibilities of success in the implementation of marine and coastal habitat rehabilitation or restoration as a natural compensation.

However, the diversity of the marine environment creates challenges as to how compensation succeeds and how it is monitored. Ecological compensation can also be successful in the marine environment, as long as all of the measures taken are based on the best information available.

The success of such measures can often only be assessed based on long-term monitoring. In addition, the sustainability of the natural values of the replacement site should be ensured through ecological research, monitoring and, if necessary, additional measures.

However, ecological compensation must not become a “fast lane” that simply ignores the avoidance and mitigation of natural damages when project planning is carried out.

Ecological compensation is not suitable for all sites

During the years 2017 to 2018, the suitability of all Finnish habitats for ecological compensation was investigated in a project funded by the Ministry of the Environment.

The final report of the project stated that the deterioration of some of the environments, habitats, and species is such that they simply cannot be compensated. This is due to either the complexity of the habitat itself or the degree of threat to it. Therefore, the degradation of such rare and unique items should always be avoided.