Photo: Ant Rozetsky / Unsplash ©

Marine Conservation in Germany

OCEAN TALK with Sebastian Unger

(Federal Government Commissioner for the Ocean)

In this episode of OCEAN TALK, we interview Sebastian Unger about his career journey leading to his role as a Federal Government Commissioner for the Ocean, as well as discussing the current state of marine conservation in Germany.

Reactive nitrogen - an invisible problem

In this year's program, the topic of marine conservation is the focus of two films.

"The Return to Antarctica" addresses the protection of krill in the Antarctic, while "Older Than Trees" explores how marine protected areas have sustainably improved the ecosystem of some Seychelles islands.

But what about our "own" seas?

According to information from the “Umweltbundesamt” (Germany’s "Federal Environment Agency"), the current condition of the North and Baltic Seas has been rated as poor for some time. Many fish stocks are endangered due to years of overfishing. The situation is also serious for marine mammals such as seals and porpoises. Although the pollution from heavy metals has greatly decreased since the mid-1990s, the presence of reactive nitrogen in the water remains a major problem.

Why is reactive nitrogen a problem?

Nitrogen acts as fertilizer for algae and other nitrogen-loving aquatic plants, promoting their growth. When these plants die, they are decomposed by bacteria and other microorganisms, consuming a lot of oxygen in the process. This oxygen is then lacking in the ecosystem elsewhere. Bottom-dwelling animals die, while others must seek new habitats. Many aquatic plants lack the light they need to grow due to increased algae growth, as the water is so turbid due to algal blooms.

To monitor and improve the condition of the North and Baltic Seas in the long term, the EU issued the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) in 2008. It requires member states to assess and evaluate the environmental status of the seas every six years.

However, the causes of the problem in the seas lie elsewhere: agriculture, energy production, as well as industry, transportation, and wastewater all contribute to the increased nitrogen concentration in the North and Baltic Seas to varying degrees. Agriculture, through its use of fertilizers, has a larger share of this problem than all other areas combined. And although measures have been taken by policymakers in each of these areas for years, the result for our seas is still unsatisfactory.

To improve the current situation, action must be taken primarily by policymakers and the agricultural sector. However, every individual in this country also contributes to the spread of reactive nitrogen through their personal consumption and dietary habits.

And at this point, everyone can become active:

Animal products have a worse nitrogen balance than plant-based ones. So, reducing meat consumption also reduces one's nitrogen footprint.

Goods do not need to be transported unnecessarily far. Buying local products contributes to reducing freight traffic.

The use of non-combustion-generated energy for electricity, heating, and hot water, as well as the use of energy-efficient electrical appliances, also has a positive effect on the nitrogen balance - but above all on one's own wallet!

The example of nitrogen pollution shows: the topic of marine conservation is complex. It encompasses many different areas - and it concerns everyone.

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