Vol. 4 (2): November 2001

Back to the future
    I suspect a research scientist, hoping to continue where he had left off, coined the saying “never go back”.

    Recently, I proved the futility of hoping that nature would have a natural protector in time. Returning to Rhodes brought back a flood of memories – something to savour since it was from this Eastern Aegean island that we had first encountered the rare, elusive Monachus [see Monachus in Memoria, TMG 3(1): May 2000].

    (click to enlarge)
    In 10 days we drove 689 kilometres along the coastline of this wonderful old island. We revisited bays and caves still lightly touched by the ubiquitous foot of the human. We talked to fishermen, tourist guides, charter boat captains, and with those who could still communicate in the beach tavernas. We talked to the captains of the daily ferry boat running to Simi, Lindos, and other tourist attractions on the eastern coast of Rhodes, and of the hydrofoils to Kos, Chios, Patmos and other islands of the intricate Greek archipelago. The same questions, the same results. The “fokia” was unknown, had not been seen for many, many years.

    We gave up our allegiance to Rhodes and took the new high-speed catamaran to Tilos. The chora had changed but it was easy enough to escape to the more sedate parts of the island, where we went through the same question-same answer routine. Perhaps the new Teliots were matching the speed of the their new Norwegian catamaran and had no time for the slow moving, but rapidly dwindling, Monachus. This island, though, may have potential as another seal sanctuary. The new transport system produces only a limited influx of humans – unfortunate for the shipowners, but good for marine wildlife.

    We moved on to one of the most fascinating of the Greek islands, Nisyros, where in 1974 we moored for a week and experienced a full step back into another century. This is a volcanic island with a smoking sulphurous cone of some size. Dormant it may be, dead it certainly isn’t. In the 70s we discovered a large abandoned spa, and a talkative, cigarette-begging priest who became our guide and showed us a subterranean church, now desolate and abandoned. The town had also changed. Ferries now run from Kadamana on Kos, Rhodes and other points north. Buses run to the hotdog stand at the edge of the volcanic cone.

    We were able to stay at a hotel equipped with running water – something of a mystery as the island was considered dry in the 70s, and still has no desalination plant. As an island, Nisyros towers above others because of its turbulent history and former isolation. It has been ravaged by explosions of nature, by Turkish invaders and the German army. Ghost towns cling to the sides of the calderas, filled with the reek of fire and brimstone. Tourism has also struck, drawn by the fires of hell, the gently puffing smoke from the bubbling cauldron of the 500 metre-wide cone. Again the same questions – some to old friends, some to fishermen and ferryboat captains – “fokia"? During earlier surveys, it was here that we’d met with the full-blown wisdom of the Nisyriot fisherman who, when asked if he ever saw seals, said “yes”; when asked how many, replied: "every fisherman has his seal". This not only meant that they had accepted them as part of their lives; it also suggested that the seals had become opportunistic feeders.

    Slowly we drove around the island, taking several days. A far cry from the deserted village where the cigarette-smoking papas had told us of seal kills, Pali is now a bustling centre, with a new harbour. Further along the coast, we came to the island’s long pebble beaches, lying far below the almost deserted village of Emporios. Here at last was sanctuary, we thought, our chance to remake Monachus’ acquaintance – but only a charming family of naked Russians occupied the 6-kilometre beach. Neither seals were seen, nor sightings made for many years, despite the potential for hundreds on this putative breeding site.

    We returned to the village and on the cliff edge ordered Greek kafe from a surly waiter, who had little else to do all day but stare at the sea. Just as we left I asked him where he got his fish. “Athens,” he replied. We turned and there, not more than 100 metres from his restaurant, was our fokia. I spun around and asked the waiter, “do you see many?” “No,” he said. “Do the fishermen still shoot them?” “No – no need. Fishing is now a hobby, tourism pays for everything.”

    Had we been offered the one solution that might give Monachus a chance? Here, the seal was no longer considered in competition with those who made their living from the sea. From one sighting and one disgruntled waiter came a slight glimmer of hope for the seal’s future.

    We travelled on to Turkey, again using one of the modern catamarans that have superseded the old slow ferries. In fact customs procedures now exceed the travel time from Rhodes to Marmaris by several hours. We revisited the old haunts of the seals in the Bay of Marmaris, but saw only fish farms, modern hotel complexes, tour boats, and mobile aquatic ice cream vendors. What was once a small, fortified town in the 70s was now spreading 10 kilometres along the beach where we had once sighted Monachus.

    So what was the result of this two-week trip? Pessimism for the seal in some of its old haunts in southern Turkey; a curious sign of hope in Nisyros where a seal or two may have survived centuries of hostility by fishermen; open beaches on both Tilos and Nisyros awaiting the return of the prodigal seal.

    The chance encounter with the seal in Nisyros brought my sightings record over 37 years to 8 individuals. Those were intensive mail surveys, along with several years of surveys from clifftops, boats and helicopters. The success rate is not high and I have to wonder, if I survive another decade, will Monachus?

    Keith Ronald, Guelph, Canada

Mystery sightings in the Bahamas

    While on a scuba diving trip to San Salvador, the Bahamas, this past week [July-August 2001] we saw a strange thing. We encountered a monk seal in the harbour of Riding Rock Inn, much to the amazement of everyone in the dive group and on the island.

    The seal has been in the harbour there for the last two days and we had no idea who to tell.

    We hope you or maybe somebody you know can help this poor creature and obviously its other relatives in the area.

    Wayne & Cher Bamberger, St. Petersburg, Florida.

And in Antigua...

    Last April my husband and I vacationed in Antigua. During our stay, we circled the island on a chartered catamaran cruise. One side of the island faces the Atlantic, while the other is in the Caribbean Sea. During the trip we saw many fish, dolphins and birds (including tropic birds!).

    I sat at the front of the boat with my feet hanging over the side – and I saw a seal. It came up and put its face out of the water so that I saw its head, face, eyes, whiskers, and body. Then it tilted its head back and used its flippers to dive to avoid the boat. It was fifteen feet away from me and I saw it clearly. When I yelled to the others to look, the crew members laughed at me. "No, man... seals don't live here…,” they snickered. “It must’ve been a turtle." I've been deep sea fishing many times and have seen hundreds of turtles. This was no turtle. I saw its eyes. I saw the shape of its head, its fins, its body. It was a seal.

    The new issue of the National Geographic mentions the Caribbean monk seal, and so I decided to research my sighting online. The seal I saw was in Antigua. Are there any other seal species native to the area?

    Jeanne Peabody, USA.

    Editor’s note: Antonio A. Mignucci-Giannoni of the Caribbean Marine Mammal Laboratory, Universidad Metropolitana, Puerto Rico, and Peter Haddow of the Seal Conservation Society, U.K., address these “mystery” sightings in an article specially written for TMG: Caribbean monk seals or hooded seals?

Speargun fishing in Foça

    I am a French speargun fisher and am going on holidays at the Club Med near Foça [Turkey], situated close to the Siren Rocks. I was wondering whether speargun fishing is prohibited in this area, or whether I need to apply for a license. I practise speargun fishing without scuba gear.

    If it is strictly prohibited, what about free-diving (without any weapon)? Also, are any diving or speargun fishing restrictions in place at nearby Hayirsiz island?

    Jérôme Lescure, France.

    Yalçin Savas, of the SAD-AFAG Aegean Programme office in Foça, replies:

    Basically, daytime speargun fishing that is non-commercial in nature is permitted along all Turkish coasts for Turkish citizens. Speargun fishing with scuba gear anywhere and at any time of night is prohibited. In addition, entering seal caves is also prohibited by law.

    Foreign tourists are only allowed to fish if they come to Turkey with an ‘A’ Class tourist agency which has an "Amateur Fishery Tourism Permit", or if the agency possesses a "special fishing permit" issued in the name of the tourist(s) concerned.

    Snorkelling is not prohibited in general. Scuba diving is prohibited along many stretches of coast (including Foça) but tourists can apply to one of many dive centres that have been established to promote and organise diving tourism in certain concentrated areas.

    In the Foça Specially Protected Area (SPA), human activities at the Siren Rocks (western coast of Orak Island) are strictly limited. In this area, only the professional, artisanal fishermen of Foça are allowed to enter for fishing, without anchoring. All forms of human activity on the Siren Rocks are otherwise prohibited. The same restriction applies to Hayirsiz island which also forms part of the Foça SPA. Tourists intending to visit Foça are invited to contact the SAD-AFAG office for further information.

Albanian puzzles

    Monachus monachus is listed as regionally extinct [RE] in the [IUCN] Redlist data base for Albania. Do you have an approximate date when it might have become extinct in Albania?

    Michael Nieswiadomy, University of North Texas, USA.

    Editor’s reply: Albania has always been a hazy spot on the monk seal distribution map [see The numbers game, TMG 3(1): May 2000]. Field research along potentially favourable coastal habitat proved impossible during the communist dictatorship years under Enver Hoxha (1946-1985). As a result, it has never been clearly established whether there ever was a resident monk seal population as such in Albania. Much of the coastline topography appears unsuitable, with the possible exception of the Karaburuni peninsula, dominated by steep cliffs. There also appear to be suitable sea caves in the nearby area of Reza E Kanarit, where a joint Albanian-Croatian survey reported finding traces of monk seal presence in 1999 [see Field research in Albania and Croatia, TMG 2(2): November 1999]. To make matters rather more complicated, it is entirely possible that there continues to be seasonal movements of seals into Albanian waters from the Ionian Islands of Greece, where there is a resident population. Formerly, it was also suspected that seals resident in the Croatian islands (now extinct) undertook similar movements.

Cilician fishermen speak out

    We are living in the village of Demiroren Koyu on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. We make our living by fishing with small boats (7-9 meters). We are in trouble with the monk seals. We lay our fishing nets in the evening and collect them early in the morning. You should see the condition of the nets. A net which is 1000 meters long generally lasts only one month, but afterwards the net has lots of holes made by the seals. We are poor people and cannot afford to buy new nets every month. The seals are also eating most of the fishes we catch. We do not want to harm these animals and so far we have not. But we also need to think of ourselves and our families. It is an urgent situation. We need help.

    Halifi Gungor, Ali Deniz, Ugur Tufan, Mustafa Tag, Demiroren Koyu, Anamur, Mersin, Turkey (letter written on the fishermen’s behalf by Naki Tez).

    The following reply is provided by Ali Cemal Gücü & Gül Moran, SAD-AFAG Mediterranean Programme:

    The Cilician Basin lies in the northeastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, between the island of Cyprus and the Turkish mainland. Its unspoilt coasts provide a home to endangered monk seals, some of whose last remaining breeding caves are also found in the area. Despite the fact that fish stocks – the only food source for monk seals – are at a level that can only sustain a small-scale artisanal fishery, the fishing fleet in the region has rapidly expanded to industrial-scale, with boats equipped with huge, unselective trawl nets and purse seines. Consequently, within the last fifteen years the area has been heavily exploited. The uncontrolled development of the industrial fishery not only negatively affected the local economy – i.e. through a drop in catch per unit of effort (CPUE) and a loss of income – but also resulted in the loss of biodiversity. Therefore, today, all parties evidently accept that an effective policy is necessary for the recovery and the survival of the ecosystem supporting not only endangered marine mammals and turtles, but also local and other fishermen.

    Recently, joint conservation efforts in the region by Middle East Technical University-Institute of Marine Sciences (METU-IMS) and the Underwater Research Society-Monk Seal Research Group (SAD-AFAG), yielded the establishment of five protected coastal sites encompassing primary monk seal habitat, and the creation of a no-trawling area, including a No-Fishing Zone. In this way, the fish stocks in a large area (12 x 16 n. miles) are reserved for the exclusive use of the monk seal and local artisanal fishermen. The No-Fishing Zone is considered the only effective tool to preserve the ecosystem’s biological diversity and the only hope for its recovery. Even at the end of the first year of protection, promising signs of improvement were observed in some demersal stocks, and a significant increase in the CPUE of the artisanal fishermen was reported.

    In an ecological sense, the artisanal fishermen and the monk seal, being at the top of the food chain, are competitors. They depend on the same food source. Confrontation is inevitable and one may hinder the livelihood of the other.

    Anamur fishermen meeting in SAD-AFAG's Bozyazi office
    What SAD-AFAG is trying to achieve is the creation of a community-based marine ecosystem conservation model, in which local stakeholders are unified for their common future, are sensitive to the utilization-conservation balance, and are in harmony with the ecosystem. Therefore, one of the major tasks of the project is to show to everyone, from ministers to local fishermen, that the protection measures established for the sake of the monk seal will also help the recovery of a depleted ecosystem. When the health of the ecosystem is restored and sustained, this will be beneficial not only for the monk seal but for all those who depend upon it.

    Unfortunately, human greed has led this small group of cunning fishermen from Anamur to exaggerate the losses they’ve suffered from the seals, and to issue thinly veiled threats to slaughter the animals unless they receive compensation.

    When the news reached us, we called the fishermen to a meeting in our Bozyazi office, where the idea of human-monk seal coexistence was again explained to them. They were also reminded that artisanal fishermen had already gained important privileges by having the right to use the largest marine protected area in the country. To defuse any remaining threat, they were warned that any harassment of monk seals in the area would put them first on the list of suspects.


Copyright © 2001 The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved