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Opportunities and benefits of joint use of the Vistula Lagoon


The Vistula Lagoon is one of the most important spawning areas for the Baltic herring and at the moment there is no joint trans-border management plan of activities. Trans-regional cooperation between Russia and Poland needs to be initiated.

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Questions this practice may help answer

  • Are there samples on how to interact with non-EU Member States on MSP?

Area covered

The Vistula Lagoon and its watershed are shared by Republic of Poland and Russian Federation. The Eastern part of the Lagoon belongs to Russia which also control the only connection of the lagoon with the open sea (Pilau Straight).

There is no single or formal boundary of the  Vistula Lagoon region. One of the way of approximation of the border is through the self identification mechanism of the citizens involved. The Vistula Lagoon itself is  a brackish water lagoon of a surface 838 km². It is roughly 90 km long, and 10 to 19 km wide. It is very shallow with an average depth 2,7 m. The figure below shows the drainage basin of the Vistula Lagoon and the municipalities surrounding the Lagoon. The region is peripheral both for Poland and Russia.

The issue

The Vistula Lagoon is on the list of HELCOM “hot spots”, as nutrient load from its catchment significantly influences water quality of the Baltic Sea. However, due to high natural values the entire Polish part of the Vistula Lagoon, have been declared as Natura 200 area. Two Natura 2000 sites exist: PLH280007 (Vistula Lagoon and Vistula Spit - the habitat area) and PLB280010 (Vistula Lagoon - the bird area). Vistula Lagoon is one of the most important spawning areas for the  Baltic herring.

At the moment there is no joint trans-border management plan of activities in the Vistula Lagoon and its watershed. There has also been a lack of serious public discussions in Russia and in Poland on water resources issues in the area.

Long history of cooperation among stakeholders from Poland and Russia brought the understanding that next step in trans-regional cooperation may be done only via open discussions of wide scope of themes.

On the other hand, the Vistula Lagoon and its basin have always been and will remain the most important development factor of this sub-region. Many local, regional, national, and even international bodies and projects have already been cooperating on issues related to the management of the Lagoon. Cooperation was often structured around one specific issue. A joint discussion between institutions representing different interests such as maritime spatial planning, fisheries management, environmental protection and several other important factors has been lacking.

Therefore, there has been an urgent need to develop plans for common use of the Vistula Lagoon and its catchment. This required cooperation between Russia and Poland, based on the ecosystem approach, where the economic benefits are achieved while the vital interests of the parties as well as environmental safety of the region remain intact.

Implementation Context

The  work was  pursued in the framework of the VILA project dedicated to this issue and co-financed from the cross-border Cooperation Programme Lithuania-Poland-Russia 2007-2013.The work was led by Maritime Institute in Gdańsk,  supported by the following Russian partners: the Atlantic Department of the P.P. Shirshov Institute of Oenology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, Administration of the City of Baltiysk from Russia  and the Polish partner – the City Commune of Elbląg. The joint work lasted two years  and was started in January 2013.

Objectives  and methods

The long term aim was to strengthen the economic and social cooperation in the Vistula Lagoon region.

The main objective was to identify opportunities to fully take advantage of the economic and social potential of the areas located within the Vistula Lagoon region. The specific objectives were following: (i) a joint assessment of the  natural and social conditions that make a sustainable development of the Vistula Lagoon region possible, (ii)  preparation of a detailed catalogue of  the existing infrastructure in ports and harbours as well as an overview of  the infrastructure development plans in the future. All these was expected to  enhance the knowledge and bring a new approach to planning and management of  ports and infrastructure in the region, which should result not only in a real  increase of cargo flows in the Vistula Lagoon, but also in a closer cooperation in the field of environmental protection. The assessment of the  current state of transport cooperation and the possibility of improving the waterways was expected to  help establishment of a cross-border forum that might  facilitate communication, solving common problems and make business contacts.

As described above the method of joint work has been based on studies, analysis and discussions (forums conferences) that might led foundations for a long-term development strategy. Such strategy as expected to cover the whole region in question, and encompass strategic goals, sustainable development rules, directions of modernizing the infrastructure as well as a public-private- partnership model suitable for using in the region. The strategy was also expected to describe the ways how local and central politics could cooperate and to encourage the municipalities to play a bigger role in developing the Vistula Lagoon region.

This was the first attempt of joint spatial planning between Russia and Poland covering both sea and terrestrial space. The work was of extremely challenging since in Russia Maritime Spatial Planning (MSP) did  not exist. Management of the sea space was  disintegrated, based on sartorial competences, shared by different authorities. Responsibility for using sea space in Russia  rested with the national government, but with different agencies and ministries. The result was  that different sectoral interests were prioritised in uncoordinated way. The sea space was hardly put into the national or regional planning context. In Poland it was also challenging since sea was planned by national administration whereas land by local self-governments (mainly municipalities) with some influence of regional level. Vistula Lagoon at Polish side has been divided between two Polish regions: Pomorskie Province and Warmińsko-Mazurskie Province which has made joint planning effort with Russia even more difficult.

Stakeholder engagement

A conference opening the joint work  entitled “Vistula Lagoon – prospects of development and use of socio-economic potential in the framework of Polish-Russian cooperation”, took place in January 2013. The conference discussed the challenges of exploring the potential of the Vistula Lagoon. It was attended  by the representatives of  the Polish and Russian research institutions, local governments, businesses and residents of the region. During the meeting, the participants debated on the region and its ports’ role in the Polish and the Kaliningrad Oblast’s transport systems, the state of cross-border cooperation in the region and its major challenges as well as the potential and the future of the Vistula Lagoon region.

The kick-off conference was  followed by various seminars on e.g. evaluation of natural and socioeconomic conditions of the Lagoon; transregional teamwork between Polish and Russian partners and preparation of a spatial planning characteristic or  development of a handbook with recommendations on use of water in  the Vistula Lagoon. There was also a 2-day Forum in Kaliningrad organised jointly  with the HELCOM BASE project to agree upon the baseline situation and to start preparation of the plans. In addition to that there were also  some other meetings and field trips: e.g. a study visit to Polish and Russian Baltic ports.

Main Outputs

The main outputs were the following publications in Polish and Russian:

  • Catalogue of ports and harbour infrastructure in the Vistula Lagoon – in Polish and Russian (Katalog infrastruktury portów i przystani Zalewu Wiślanego,  Каталог малых портов и гаваней Калининградского/Вислинского залива),
  • Analysis of contribution of spatial planning  to the formation of the Vistula Lagoon region and its development – in Polish and Russian (Planowanie przestrzenne w procesie kształtowania subregionu Zalewu Wiślanego, Пространственное планирование как инструмент координации и развития портов и гаваней Калининград Калининградского/ Вислинского залива), (Polish and Russian texts differ with regard to their focus),
  • Handbook on sustainable development in Vistula Lagoon subregion – in Polish and Russian (Stan obecny i rekomendacje dla przyszłego rozwoju subregionu Zalewu Wiślanego, Регион Калининградского/Вислинского залива: современное состояние и сценарий развития),
  • Vistula Lagoon Catchment: Atlas of water use – in English.


The Figure below presents some samples of the information available in the “Vistula Lagoon Catchment: Atlas of water use” by Domin, Chubarenko, Lewandowski.

Source: Domnin, D., Chubarenko, B., Lewandowski A. (2015) Vistula Lagoon Catchment: Atlas of water use. Moscow: Exlibris Press, 106 p.

Legal basis

As a preparatory action resulting only in inventory of current uses and studying some  planning solutions, it has had no legal power.

Impact on planning and decision-making

The action aimed at supporting  the preparation of legally binding development plans in Poland and Russia  covering both sea and land. But the main impact was on consciousness of the decision makers by  offering them updated planning information and  fresh development ideas in their own languages.


A review of the existing infrastructure and plans for the development of ports and the Vistula Lagoon region has been conducted. Also an action plan for the future development of the region  concerning mainly the protection of the environment, maritime safety and Polish-Russian cooperation in this field has been prepared, and discussed.

The analysis identified the most promising directions of development for the Vistula Lagoon regions. These have been mainly: the region's geographical location close to transport corridors, development of ports in Kaliningrad and Baltijsk (Russia), modern port infrastructure in Elblag and a network of marinas so called  " Żuławska Loop " (Poland). Also the developmental barriers  have been identified and addressed. They encompassed: state border separating the Vistula Lagoon between the two countries, the visa regime between Russia and the European Union and the Polish division of the area between the two provinces. These factors negatively affected the development of  freight and passenger transport, both  at land and at water. It was also noted that a key problem was lack of comprehensive tourist products and underdeveloped spatial plans for the land and water areas (or even lack of spatial plans for the water areas).

The action resulted in jointly developed policy recommendations for the development of the Vistula Lagoon region. The two most important recommendations concerned (i) the inclusion of maritime border crossings between Poland and Russia under "local border traffic movement" in order to deploy yacht tourism in the region (ii) and the opening of a new border crossing point in the port Krasnofłotskoje (Mamonovo, Russia). It was also proposed the restarting of the work  of the river port of Kaliningrad, reestablishing passenger water connection between Kaliningrad and Elblag, and establishing an additional waterway leading from the  Kaliningrad -Baltic Sea Channel to the Polish-Russian border.

However, there was also a failure. The original ambition was to prepare a joint Polish-Russian strategy of development of the Vistula Lagoon region. But the differences in opinions on  the concrete directions and priorities of development among co-operating parties  and stakeholders were so large that two different (i.e. Polish and Russian) strategic documents were produced that could not be amalgamated into a coherent one. This shows how much effort is required in discussing future development of  cross-border regions suffering from a complex syndrome of peripherality and underdevelopment.


This practice is applicable in some other third countries but must be adapted to their specificity. The most suitable place for its multiplication is Curonian Lagoon shared by Lithuania and Russia of a very similar situation to the Vistula Lagoon.

Contact Person

Urszula Kowalczyk
Długi Targ 41/42, 80-830 Gdańsk
e-mail: (urszula[dot]kowalczyk[at]im[dot]gda[dot]pl)

Responsible Entity

Maritime Institute in Gdańsk

Costs / Funding Source

European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument in the framework of the Lithuania — Poland — Russia Crossborder Cooperation Programme 2007—2013