Baltic Sea Problems and Solutions: An Interview with Oceanographer Anna SzaniawskaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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First we would like you to tell us a little about your background: where you grew up, what your parents did . . . Szaniawski: I was born in the Gdansk area, and I have spent my whole life there. My parents had a big influence on my life, because both of them were veterinarians. So now you understand. I've liked animals from the beginning, and we had a lot of animals at home, different types. We had a wild boar from the forest, a duck, and we had a nice dog, a crazy dog. My father could hypnotize animals and loved them very much. I also wanted to go into the veterinary field, but we didn't have anything like this in Gdansk. I had a boyfriend in Gdansk, and it was impossible for me to go to another place, so I went to Gdansk University. The year I started was the first year that they had oceanography at the university. I decided to go into oceanography, and I was in the first group of people who graduated - in 1972 - with a degree in oceanography. While we were students, two colleagues of mine and I started a student group in marine biology. Every year we had a camp on the Baltic coast and we investigated the kinds of organisms living there. Specialists came from different places, from Germany, from Sweden. My husband, who is older than me, had a car, and he traveled all around the Gdansk Bay, with the two guys and me in the back, looking for places to set up camps for students.
J: When did you first become concerned about environmental conditions in the Baltic?
Szaniawski: When I was a student, and a little later. Still, we didn't see many problems then. It's difficult to know whether that was because we just didn't measure this [pollution levels], and we didn't know what was going on, or because the sea really was not polluted. But I remember when it was completely different. Maybe it was not like the Bahamas, but it was really impressive, the sea was full of life. In Gdansk we never had a problem with pollution, the water was clean. Everything that has gone wrong with the Baltic has happened over a short period. Some people say the last 40 years, some say the last 20. Everything has changed very quickly.
Aistars: Your courses at the University of Michigan are about ecosystems and environmental problems in the Baltic. What are the main problems in Baltic ecology today?
Szaniawski: The biggest problem is pollution. But there is also another problem, which cannot strictly be considered pollution, and that is the process of eutrophication. You have increased nutrients in the water - phosphorous and nitrogen - which come from different sources, but mainly from agriculture, fertilizer. The increase of the nitrogen and phosphorous in the water leads to an increase of phytoplankton, and a build-up of organic material lying on the bottom, and the end result is depletion of oxygen in the water on the bottom of the sea, and in the sediment just below the water. Eutrophication has an influence, eventually, on biodiversity.
J: So, eutrophication involves several different stages. At first there is an overabundance of life, and then it can't be sustained?
Szaniawski: Exactly. Because of the depletion of oxygen, some animals change from aerobic to anaerobic metabolism. Still, animals that ordinarily depend on aerobic metabolism can make this change only for a period. When there is a lack of oxygen in the water, most of the animals just die or escape, only some of them are resistant, they can survive. In this situation, there is an increase in hydrosulfide, which is an end product of some processes of anaerobic metabolism. It's very toxic. The crustaceans can escape. But mussels, they have to die or adapt. One variety of mussel on the Baltic coast - Macoma balthica - can detoxify hydrosulfide by oxidizing it. The mussels survive pretty well, because they can live in low oxygen concentration. When the situation is bad, a lot of mussels can just close their shells and switch on the anaerobic metabolism. They close their shells, and they just forget about the world. These mussels are now about 80-90 percent of the total biomass below about 60 meters. And, in many places below 100 meters, there are no macrofauna living in the Baltic.
J: Do these changes at the bottom of the sea affect life higher up in the sea?
Szaniawski:They do. In order to spawn, cod need to go down to lower depths, where the salt concentration is higher. But how can they go down when there's no oxygen? Fish that live on the bottom - like flat fish, eels - are having a very hard time. Also, a lot of marine invertebrates, which have several developmental stages, need to be at the lower depths of the sea for some of these stages.
J: What other kinds of pollution are having an impact on the Baltic?
Szaniawski:The environment has been changed by pollution from the air, from industry, and from sewage from the towns. There aren't a lot of sewage treatment plants, and some of them are old, from the 1930s, built by the Germans. We don't have many sewage treatment plants with a biological system, against bacteria like coli. In many places swimming is not allowed, because of these bacteria.
Toxic algae is another really big problem now. With global warming, because of the higher temperature in summer, there is an increase in the biomass of the algae, which can be toxic. In many places in the summer, you can't swim, and the water can be dangerous especially for people with allergies.
Another problem is that there are a lot of heavy metals. Levels of some metals - cadmium, zinc - can be several times higher than in the Atlantic Ocean. The lead comes from traffic, but most of these metals are from industry. When there is a high concentration of heavy metals in the water, then they have a bad influence on the muscle system, reproductive system, nerve system, immune system. It's easier for animals to catch all types of virus or bacteria. A lot of fish, on the bottom, have spots from bacterial or viral infections. Some are dying, some are ill. A lot of seals are ill, they have reproductive problems; some mussels have a type of cancer.
Morin: And these are all new developments over the last twenty years?
Szaniawski: Yes, that's right. They have been caused by urbanization, by industrial development, by growth in traffic, especially cars. Another problem has been an increase in fertilization. We have been measuring biodiversity for the last 20 years. And there's a significant difference - we had many more species in the Baltic than we have today.
Aistars: How do you think these problems could be solved? What do you think the starting point is?
Szaniawski: The principle is just to do everything to stop the pollution - this is the biggest problem. Not polluting is the first step. Later we can clean up, but first we must stop the pollution. If you know a lot of pollution is coming from an industry, then just tell them not to pollute - not only to pay if they pollute, but not to pollute at all. The sewage system has to be rebuilt, and we have started to do this. In one place, on the coast of the Gulf of Gdansk, we have new biological sewage treatment. It means you have to invest a lot of money, to change technologies. There are problems with money, social problems, problems with the people's mentality.
Aistars: When you say "mentality," do you mean the mentality of the general population, or of the government, or both?
Szaniawski: I mean the general population, the people. It will take a long time just to understand that a lot of things depend on the people, that many things depend on "what I do." It is a very big problem. After many years when nothing depended on them, when people didn't have any influence on anything, they don't understand that now many things can depend on them. It's very difficult to change this mentality. But people are beginning to understand that we have to do this, and their attitude toward environmental protection is becoming completely different. Before, directors of factories had an understanding that it would be cheaper to pollute and pay some money [fees based on emissions] than to change their technology and reduce pollution. Now, a lot of money is invested in good directions. When a new factory is planned, people look at possible dangers to the environment. It is very difficult to change everything, especially with huge industries like mining. This is something you have to do step-by-step.
Morin: Do you see the solution to this problem of outlook in education?
Szaniawski: Education, by itself, is not the solution, but we try to do our best by teaching on many different levels. My interest is education on the university level. A colleague of mine at the biological station goes on television once a week to talk about the environment. Another colleague of mine from the Institute talks on the radio once a week. He also writes something every day in the local newspaper, just a few lines about the environment, in a very normal, non-scientific way. We participate in an international program, Coast Watch, in which students [age 15-19] from schools monitor a small area of the coast. The students walk along, collect samples, and try to note everything they find at the beach. We also try to influence the government, especially the local government, which we are close to. Many of our scientists are advisors to the government. We feel at least that we have some influence. Before, I didn't have a feeling that I had an influence. I worked in science just because it was something - a small piece - that did depend on me. But I didn't have a feeling that much depended on me. Now I know that many things depend on me - not just because I am the director of the Institute. Especially on the local level, we can do quite a lot.
Aistars: What kind of local community involvement is there in environmental issues?
Szaniawski: Most of the organizations that we have are just types of governmental organizations. We have a Green Party, and we have some non-governmental organizations, but these are not very strong or active. So the direction comes from government organizations, from university organizations, not from the local community organizations.
Aistars: Is that something you would like to see change?
Szaniawski: I think it will take time. It will take time for people to understand that they have an influence on something. Now, not so many people really understand that. The university tries to educate people in different ways, but this education still comes from the government, because my university is government, although there are now beginning to be some independent institutions of higher education. We have meetings and invite a lot of people from outside: newspaper, radio and television reporters, teachers. Everyone, every teacher, every person from industry can come and be educated about environmental protection. Sometimes, the schools send teachers and pay for them. But it still comes from the government, everything comes from this direction.
Aistars: You are currently director of the Institute of Oceanography at Gdansk University. Is it unusual for women to be directors? AS: Very much so. I am very close to the university, and I have started a lot of initiatives, so the people know me, and I am just like a part of them. I probably shouldn't say this, but they don't look at me as a woman, just as a person. They just look at me as a person who can do something, who organizes work, is involved in this program. I know that for you I am much older, but for us, I am part of a new generation. Before we had people from 60 to 80 who decided the important things. Now we try to choose
people a little younger, and I am a little younger. People expect that there will be something a little different, new, and I try to do my best to change things.
J: Can you describe how you are trying to change things at the university?
Szaniawski:In Poland, in many fields, we have a system where in the first three years everybody has to attend required classes. In the fourth and fifth years they can choose some classes, but it is still not enough. I think this system will be changed at the beginning of the next semester, so that students will have more chances to choose courses that they like, and more possibility to get a broader scientific education. I took some information from here, how it works, I sent the information to Poland, and the people are working on this, just to adapt this system to Polish conditions. We would like to have our students more open to everything that's going on in the world, to send students to universities in different places, for instance, in Denmark, Germany, France. We would like our system of education to be comparable to the system in other European countries, so that our students can go anywhere, so they can be told: "your master's thesis is exactly like ours, you don't need to repeat anything." The same with the doctoral thesis. So that, if you apply for a job in another country, it doesn't matter that you are Polish, you have a comparable education. This is something that is very important for me. I would also like to bring more people in from abroad to teach and to do research.
J: Do you have ideas for further collaboration between your university and institute in Gdansk and the University of Michigan?
Szaniawski: I think we can have cooperation on two levels: science and education. There are organisms with similar morphologies in the Baltic Sea and here in Lake Michigan: small arthropods, fish. . . . We would like to have cooperation between specialists from Poland and from the University of Michigan. And this has started, because now they are communicating by email. On the educational level, I would like to organize a course at our marine station on the Hel Peninsula, about Baltic environments and Baltic problems. The Institute would coordinate the instruction, and students from Michigan, and maybe other universities, could come to study. This is at the planning stage.
Morin: Can you elaborate at all on the evolution of environmental consciousness among people in Poland?
Szaniawski: This is something that will take time. I remember one student told me that environmental protection just means protecting human beings. Today there is no danger. It doesn't matter what is going on out there: "It's very nice outside, I can see the sun. What are you telling me, what should I protect?" This is strange from my point of view. "Just to protect the human being" - what does this mean? We are part of the environment, we are part of everything, we can't isolate ourselves.
Anna Szaniawska's work as both a scientist and a teacher has been centrally concerned with the acute environmental problems that have developed in the Baltic Sea.
She is the director of the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Gdansk, where her research, in recent years, has been in the field of marine physiology. She has studied, in particular, the effects of oxygen depletion and differential concentrations of hydrosulfide on the metabolism of crustaceans and mussels. In addition, she is part of a research team that has recently received funding to identify a protein which can serve as an indicator of environmental stress in marine animals.
The Institute of Oceanography provides instruction and conducts research on the Baltic Sea in four different areas: marine biology and ecology; chemistry and environmental protection; physical oceanography; and geology. In addition, the Institute operates the state-of-the-art Hel Marine Station, which specializes in research on the fish and sea mammals of the Baltic.
Anna Szaniawska was a visiting professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Michigan in Winter 1997. Her visit was co-sponsored by the Center for Russian and East European Studies (CREES), and the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). She taught two courses: Marine Ecosystems: The Baltic Sea; and Resource Management in the Baltic Sea. She was interviewed on February 24 and March 20, by Guntra Aistars and Angela Morin, both students in the joint M.S./M.A. program in SNRE and CREES, specializing in East European environmental issues; and Jonathan Mogul, an editor of the Journal.