Monk Seal Fact Files
Mediterranean Monk Seal
Alarmed by the monk seal’s dwindling numbers, scientists, conservationists and government representatives from 22 countries met in Rhodes, Greece in 1978 to identify threats and priorities for remedial action.
The landmark conference drew up a comprehensive list of threats facing the species across its range, as well as a raft of measures to combat them (Ronald & Duguy eds. 1979, Israëls 1992, Johnson & Lavigne 1998).
- Effective international coordination of monk seal conservation activities.
- Effective enforcement of legislation prohibiting the direct killing and harassment of monk seals, and government actions to encourage coexistence between fishers and seals.
- Benign scientific research to identify and monitor monk seal habitat areas.
- The establishment of a network of reserves and protected areas.
- Education and public awareness programmes.
- Rescue and rehabilitation of wounded, stranded and orphaned seals.
Numerous meetings followed in the wake of the Rhodes Conference, yet all generally reiterated and re-emphasised its recommendations and conservation priorities. Arguably, it is this that speaks most eloquently of the one overriding and persistent problem affecting monk seal conservation: the failure to translate recommendations, priorities and even international treaty obligations into effective actions (Johnson & Lavigne 1999b).
The powerful economic forces arrayed against the monk seal (tourism, fishing, coastal development), coupled with chronic deficiencies in funding, both from the state and private sectors, have only served to undermine conservation efforts (Johnson & Lavigne 1999b, Johnson 2004).
As a consequence, progress in the conservation of the species and its habitat has generally been patchy and slow. The monk seal’s obscurity among the general public has only served to compound problems already stemming from lack of influence and resources.
“An extensive information campaign throughout the Mediterranean, must be launched at once to sensitise the public to the drastic status of the monk seal and to mobilise political and financial support for the urgent measures needed. The monk seal should be adopted as the symbol of Mediterranean conservation. NGOs, researchers, governments and international agencies should coordinate their‑information activities for the greatest possible impact. Support for the campaign from the business community should be encouraged.” (UNEP 1988)
Despite some early suggestions, there has been no concerted attempt to portray the Mediterranean monk seal as an ecological symbol or indicator species of the Mediterranean, a concept that sought to draw much-needed attention to the inter-relating conservation problems affecting the coastal/marine environment, humans included (Ronald & Duguy eds. 1979, UNEP 1988, Johnson ed. 2004c).
The holistic approach that this implies and the integrated solutions that would necessarily stem from it, has also remained elusive. Despite significant potential, there has been no serious or adequately-funded effort to draw coastal dwellers into the conservation process. In most monk seal MPAs, alternative economic development attuned to the protection rather than the exploitation of nature remains an unfulfilled aspiration – and with little prospect of becoming otherwise in the foreseeable future. Management authorities possess neither the funds nor the qualified staff to be able to develop, hand-in-hand with local communities, the alternative economic opportunities that would ultimately help to make the MPAs viable in the long term (Johnson & Lavigne 1999b, Johnson 2004a, 2004b).
Encouraging coexistence between seals and fishermen through direct aid, community assistance schemes and involvement in MPA monitoring or management remains far from widespread, although such measures have played a significant role in Turkey and Mauritania (see Marine protected areas and no-fishing zones).
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