Skóra: It’s better to get tall wellington boots

IMG_20150619_134501Jaś Kapela: During workshops with young people from Hel we were trying to imagine what their life might look like in 50 years time. One of the groups presented a following scenario: Hel is an island. Food is brought over by boats. There is no work. All fish has died. We have no home. Slow death.

Krzysztof Skóra: A rather pessimistic vision.

Will Hel become an island?

Depends on the time perspective we assume. In geological terms fifty years is not much. Right now most of the people are convinced that the Peninsula is dying because the sea is swallowing its coast. And that’s why it gets reinforced – stones are brought here that were never here before, concrete is being used, embankments raised higher. Open sea beaches on the Peninsula – from Władysławowo to the border of Jurata with Hel – are all already artificial. Only Hel itself still has natural ones. The number of natural sections on the Puck Bay side is diminishing as well. What would happen if we didn’t reinforce the coastline? That will remain the area of academic speculation. The boundaries where seas, rivers and lakes meet the land have existed as long as the world we know. Some animals and plants only live on the borderline of land and water. When we reinforce the coastline, many lose their natural habitat and die out. Does anybody care about preservation of natural processes within the coastal ecotone, which the Helsinki Commission has recommended for the last 20 years? I don’t think so.

And can we preserve it at all?

We are delaying the sentence, but the large-scale geological and hydrological processes cannot be stopped. I think it is worth to delay the impact of the environment in a life strategy of any given community. That allows for getting accustomed to a different life in a different place. Various low-lying oceanic islands already face that problem. If climatologists and hydrologists are right, they have to be ready to react accordingly. Here, in our local strategy, immediacy takes over – it is politically viable, but economically and environmentally damaging. Changes, or rather the symptoms of the effects of forthcoming climate change, preoccupy the specialists and a large part of the public to such an extent, that we dismiss current dangers, damaging to the environment. We are getting ready for the changes which will come in 70 or 100 years time, while habitats and species die out now, sometimes due to very trivial reasons.

Are we to allow the sea to swallow the Peninsula then?

Every now and then our road used to be flooded by the sea and it will most likely happen many times in the future. But will a car be such an important mode of transport in 100 years time? Isn’t it better to have means of transport operating a bit higher up? Sometimes it is cheaper and better to get tall enough wellington boots than to raise the altitude of the terrain. And anyway the high water stays here only for dozen or so hours. And when the really high water comes, there will be other problems anyway. Hydrotechnical companies can be sure to get large commissions paid for by the state budget – our descendants will again reinforce the coastline, they might also elevate the altitudes of the road and railway.

They say that Hel was once a number of small islands…

Yeah, that’s what they say and that’s we used to be taught. Me too.

And what was it really like?

A few years ago geologists compared all historical maps of the Hel Peninsula. And they found out that it is difficult to create such sequence. Hel is not made of islands even on the oldest maps. Perhaps those showing water passages across the Peninsula were created to show the water levels when the sea joined the bay? It used to be much easier than now. For two reasons: there was no railway embankment and there was no road embankment – those two parallel mounds which even out all decreases in the ground level where water could travel freely. The road with hardened surface leading to Hel was only built in the 1960s, while the railway was constructed dozen or so years before World War II. Earlier than that you could reach Hel by water, by a dirt road or along the seashore.

In the past nobody built buildings as close to the water edge as they do now. Tourist race for the better view from the window pushed investments towards the coastline. It’s a trap. The Helsinki Commission pointed it out as early as 20 years ago in Recommendation 15/1 “Protection of the Coastal Strip”.

Today people can afford such risk. They are not afraid to lose their assets, because the state insures them. Confrontation with the nature of the sea still takes many by surprise. They say it is getting worse, but they don’t realise that our ancestors’ cabins stood further away from the sea, that they used carts and then drove Warszawas or Polski Fiats 125p. Nowadays that same water will easily get into our low-hung “wheels”. So we raise the road. The houses are separated from the coast by embankments or some other reinforcements. And then, when another storm “of the century” comes, it takes us by surprise that the physics of environmental phenomena are adverse to human “necessities of life”.

So will Hel be an island or not?

And do we want it to be an island?

Is that really up to us?

We live in a democratic state. The majority of the society decides what to spend the money on. For example, should we concrete the peninsula over to reinforce it or not? Some people might also want to dig across it, for example when Puck starts fighting for access to the sea. A lot of private and public money has been spent on the coastal line of the Peninsula. Even more public money will have to be spent, because according to the law, whoever invests can expect the state to protect his or her assets. So if somebody gets permission from the local government or appropriate public institutions and, for example, builds a hotel very close to the seashore, the taxes paid by all of us will have to be spent on protecting the hotel from the water. It doesn’t work like that in other countries. There the risk is on the investor’s side. And some countries simply don’t allow building so close to the shore.

I’m not sure we are aware of the fact that we pay for such protection.

I don’t think we are. It’s the legacy from many years of technocratic approach in water management. Nowadays, though on a small scale, rivers start getting renaturalized. Though when it comes to coastal management, I think we are still stuck in the old paradigm. The old approach of melioration and strengthening the banks gets transferred onto the Baltic coast. A Polish person still hears that the Baltic Sea takes away his or her homeland.

That’s why he or she looks favourably at the widespread projects of reinforcing the coastline. The Pole knows that the state border at sea is far away from the coastline, that our Exclusive Economic Zone reaches even further out and that waves and currents can’t move those lines. There are investments that bewilder with their scope and location. I still can’t understand the sense of reinforcement near Ostrów. To protect woods and rabbits? That usually results in a beach disappearing or only existing in a rudimentary form. But local governments demand the reinforcements. And the state pays for them. Nobody is responsible for failed investments worth millions, which didn’t prevent anything. Cliffs and flood plains are still the areas where people want to carelessly invest and they still get permission to do so. The HELCOM’s Recommendations from the mid 1990s: 15/1 on “Protection of the Coastal Strip” and 16/3 on “Preservation of Natural Coastal Dynamics” should be on compulsory reading list in many coastal local governments. Perhaps they should even be discussed at high schools, for example in the context of the story of the church in Trzęsacz which collapsed into the sea even though at the time it was built it was 2 kilometres away from the shore.

So there are recommendations, but we don’t pay much attention to them in Poland?

Because for a Polish person his or her homeland is the land: fields, woods. We don’t have much consideration for the sea. We’ve wedded the Baltic Sea quite recently and the awareness of its dowry, its environmental richness, is low, therefore also the responsibility for its state is poor. Perhaps being in the European Union will help us to grow up faster and start sharing the responsibility for the environment of all of its seas and oceans. If not, then after reinforcing the coastline we will push for tiling it, I’m afraid…

But crowds still come here.

The Baltic is our national bathtub. But holidays by the sea don’t make us a sea nation. There are very few legendary sea heroes in our national pantheon.

Joseph Conrad…

Where did he create? Where did he write?


We have conquered the world on horseback, while others did it on boats and sailing vessels. This resulted in a different mentality, different attitude to sea, to people living overseas. It is field (!) marshals that we had plenty of. We find it difficult to comprehend what goes on by the sea and in the sea, because the vast majority of us don’t live near the sea. What’s more, amongst the community living on the Baltic coast many come from elsewhere and local minorities – Kashubians or Slovincians, for years isolated and distrustful – didn’t like to share their cultural know-how stemming from living by the sea.

And what’s the life like here now?

Hel has been gaining and has gained a lot in the military period of the European history, starting from the 1930s. It’s been given an urban infrastructure, a new harbour, hospital, schools…

IMG_7863-2But young people from those schools don’t see any future for themselves. Will they be able to be fishermen here in 50 years time? Supposedly 95 per cent of fish in the Puck Bay are three-spined sticklebacks.

There should also be fry of other kinds of fish. It isn’t there, because somebody has concreted over the coastal ecotone or cut coastal reed beds. Fish has nowhere to shelter and grow. No species can function without a habitat. Fish must have a place where they can spawn and hide from predators, they need something to eat and they can’t be fished out in excess or too early. If we get rid of underwater vegetation because we are building camping sites, those “cash hunting grounds”, then where should fish live? We either hunt for tourists or for fish. If we want to have both, we have to manage the space and its functions appropriately. And in this respect we have chaos. Local development strategies are just wishful thinking and not analyses of possibilities and realistic objectives.

But there is no noticeable conflict between tourism and fishermen.

That’s because fishermen themselves invest their money into tourism. A fisherman has a fishing boat, but often also a guesthouse, a shop or a chippy. It’s apparent that the flair for overexploitation gets transferred from fishing to tourism. To get more and more tourists you need more and more space. There isn’t much space on the Peninsula. And nature needs some for itself. You could assume that the hunt for tourists will go on until the bait runs out. And the baits are the beaches (less and less natural), the original landscape (which degrades year in, year out), and the local fish (diminishing, for obvious reasons). There is also the evident deficit of peace and quiet, so desired by holidaymakers from large cities.

I don’t like coming here in the season either.

And you are not the only one. But there are still plenty of fans of summer Władysławowo buzz and stalls.

The marketplace?

I think it makes the town ugly. Other people see it differently. It might be a new disco aesthetics. Perhaps it will become fashionable one day. But for now more and more postcards from our area are bird eye view photos. Close ups are dangerous. Here, in Hel, we still make the huge effort to preserve some originality; sometimes we succeed in preserving historical authenticity too. We are in the process of organising another Day of the Fish. This edu-eco-art event is different to anything that goes on in other coastal places. This is how we attempt to show others that the prosperity of many people from Hel depends directly or indirectly on the size of population and health of local fish. And they, on the other hand, depend on the quality of environment which we, people living in the catchment area of the Baltic Sea, have in our care and which we affect so heavily.

Hel has another advantage – it is a partially student town, and it has the Seal Sanctuary, which made it very popular. It is a side effect of our research and educational work, we didn’t plan it, but it happened. We are a powerful “extension” to the tourist season and the target of weekend and educational tourism. Another touristic but also pro-environmental product is the Dune Park with around 270 thousand visitors per year. Based on this experience we prepared the foundation for a similar park at the Hel Tip. It channels the movement of 490 thousand people. If not for this investment, some of them would most likely venture out onto the protected dunes. And if we lose grey dunes we won’t fulfil our obligations to the European Union in respect to nature protection in the Natura 2000 areas.

We don’t seem to worry about it too much for now.

But one day we will feel it. We won’t avoid fines if we don’t improve things. We have to know how to make civilizational progress without destroying species and habitats considered valuable for the whole community.

According to what I’ve read, it’s getting worse and worse: diminishing numbers of storks, overfishing, habitats getting destroyed.

Well, yes, there are more and more negative examples. But the numbers of grey seals have gone up to 32 thousand. We have been working on it with other Baltic states for over 20 years now.

And what about harbour porpoises?

The situation is not too good.

But there is a programme for harbour porpoise protection.


It hasn’t been put to vote yet?

It hasn’t been officially dealt with as yet. The specialists did everything that was needed. We have run an enormous Sambah project. Three hundred detectors have monitored porpoises all over the Baltic.

And you found out that there are 450 of them.

Yes. The size of the population got confirmed which means the species is critically endangered in the Baltic. Now we also now where they gather. They visit our waters mainly in wintertime and in spring. And? The EU has paid, we have data to manage the protection of the species and work towards removing the dangers. And not much happens. WWF appealed to the Minister to start further work on the national programme for the protection of harbour porpoises. A hundred thousand signatures were collected. It was promised that the case would soon move forward. But what if the Ministry of Agriculture takes a different stance, as it often does, assuming, for example, that the programme would limit fishing? The Ministry of Infrastructure might be against it too, because of something else… Everything will get delayed again. And it still needs to undergo public consultations. When everybody had their say, the Minister will make a decision whether to accept the programme or not. As it is or in a different form, because he can also modify it. It will take at least two more years. And let’s not forget that the species we are talking about has been under strict protection for years.

What about the Porpoise Sanctuary project?

That also is a long way away. The University of Gdańsk owns appropriate location. We will soon start discussing this project. It has to have the acceptance of the community. The experience with seals and the Seal Sanctuary encourage us to follow the same road. But in contrast to our ideas, there are also plans to build commercial dolphinaria for entertainment. Despite the fact that nobody in Europe builds them anymore, just like there are less and less circuses with live animals. Robert Biedroń hasn’t allowed a circus into Słupsk, I think the same happened in Gdynia. As long as Wojciech Szczurek and Jerzy Zając govern this city, animals won’t be the source of entertainment.

There are new rehabilitation and research centres in Europe which – though only as a by the by – also exhibit certain species that require more public attention. These are usually animals that cannot be released into the wild anymore. They suffer chronic diseases and have to be provided appropriate medication on a daily basis.

But it seems that local governments are quite eager to support water circus investors and they want to make money on it at the same time. Haven’t they learned that it is ethically questionable?

Let’s go back to the world in 50 years time. What trends do you see?

I think that for another 30 years we will continue to destroy the environment and then we will start spending huge amounts of money to rebuild it. After crossing a certain line we will understand that we have created unnecessary things and we have destroyed the necessary ones. We will try to renaturalize the environment. We will close camping sites on the Peninsula, we will buy out the land to revitalise it, in hope that the natural habitats will return. The entrance onto the Peninsula by car will be limited. People will need to book parking spots the same way we now book rooms in hotels. Only the richest will be able to afford proper holidays in the wilderness. Poorer people will be crowded into tourist camps. To go on holidays they will move from a gated residential estate to a gated tourist estate. And the only difference will be not having to go to work when on holidays. The rest of Europeans, the more wealthy ones, will prefer to holiday in the wilderness of Siberia than here.

For now holiday tastes of Poles are formed mainly by TV commercials.

Hel cannot afford such adverts; there are only about 3 to 4 thousand of us here. But you can be popular even without advertising. The problem is the number of visiting holidaymakers. “Ecological capacity” of the Peninsula seems to be depleting and the number of tourists still grows. Hel itself is in a better situation than other places on the Peninsula – it has plenty of wonderful, natural spots and loads of ex-military land for urbanisation (let’s hope it’s done with taste). Making money in summertime was always exceptionally easy here. The tricky bit is earning on tourism in the period between September and June. I think the educational tourism has the biggest potential. More and more often children and young people come here for trips and nature schools. We have Blue School here, we teach about the sea environment. There are also wonderful museums in Hel. You can educate yourself in history, ethnography and patriotic traditions. I hope that in 50 years time Hel will be a synonym of such tourism (and not necessarily just one-day tourism), as well as of health tourism. We have the foundation for it; we just need to develop it further. There will be more and more people needing a place to get their health on track. Young Hel residents should get the right education for it. Work guaranteed.

And perhaps finally Hel will become part of Gdynia administrative district. We are the most natural and closest year-round development supply base for each other. It’s time to increase the public transport across the bay all year round. And then make corrections on the administrative map of the country. For hundreds of years we were part of Gdańsk and now we are part of Puck. Gdynia has lost its fishing port, it needs larger beaches, because its own are located along cliffs, so they won’t get any bigger. People from Gdynia can see us and we, too, can see Gdynia’s growing potential on the horizon pretty much every day. I think that people from Hel working in Gdynia can be something natural, same as specialists from Gdynia working in Hel. These are our perspectives.

Are we mentally ready for it though?

I don’t know. Changes are in the hands of politicians and their voters.

Professor Krzysztof Skóra – biologist, specialist in ichthyology (biology and ecology of fish of the Baltic coastal zone), biological oceanography, protection of marine environment and marine mammals. He is the head of the Hel Marine Station of the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Gdańsk.

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