Vol. 6 (2): December 2003
Time for pup-catching, says its anonymous expert(s)
Many readers will be forgiven for not realising the key role that the Regional Activity Center for Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA) plays in the conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal. While some cynics might argue that monk seals have certainly not realised it either, the Center has sponsored useful studies over the years, including field surveys in Libya [Monachus Science II, TMG 6 (1): June 2003] and Syria [Monachus Science III, TMG 6 (1): June 2003].
Tunis-based RAC/SPA one of whose mandates is to coordinate the implementation of the UN Action Plan for the recovery of Monachus monachus also formed a 5-member Group of Experts in 2002 to pinpoint priority actions for the species. These would then be used to advise and guide government officials attending the meeting of National Focal Points of the Barcelona Convention in Marseilles on 17-20 June 2003.
The Group, composed of experts from Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain and Turkey, duly met in Lathakia, Syria, on 29-30 September 2002, and drew up their list of recommendations [RAC/SPA confronts Action Plan failures in Syria, TMG 5 (2): November 2002]. These focused primarily on establishing protected areas, ensuring adequate management of new and existing reserves, and further scientific research to identify critical seal habitat.
The resulting document [UNEP(DEC)MED WG.232/Inf.6.] was submitted to the Marseilles meeting as an annex Information Document to the RAC/SPAs own Progress Report of the Activities of RAC/SPA. TMG, however, has been informed by 3 of the reports authors that they did not see, review or approve the final draft of the document before its release. Subsequent requests to obtain the document from RAC/SPA also elicited no response [see also Barcelona Convention slip-up has Turkish monk seals disappear from the conservation radar screen, this issue].
Possibly, it is here where the plot thickens, for RAC/SPAs own recommendations for action presented at Marseilles written in admirably insistent prose, it has to be said bear no resemblance whatsoever to those formulated by its own Group of Experts.
Lamenting government inaction and the dwindling fortunes of the species, the report declares:
The situation is too critical to put off action any longer. Action must be taken now. For a species in critical danger of extinction the risk of doing nothing may be even greater than risking starting management actions and may justify active intervention.
The reasons driving to the monk seal extinction [sic] are very well known: the main one is killing, mostly deliberate but also accidental, almost exclusively by fishermen; it is followed by human degradation of breeding areas. Although actions at several levels are needed for the long term survival of this species, priority should be given now to direct measures to neutralize these two root problems, concentrating on them every effort and economic allocation on behalf of the species within the areas where it still subsists, and rescheduling other measures until a trend in this long lasting situation changes.
Providing details, the report goes on to pinpoint its recommendations for action, including:
Most objective observers would not argue about the indifference with which most national governments despite their legal obligations and promises have treated the monk seal. Nor would they reject the importance of scientific debate of controversial management actions that, experience has shown, could well end up killing monk seals [see Conservation Guidelines, 955KB].
Despite some promising and energetic conservation solutions (for example, the proposed ban on setting nets outside breeding caves) many question marks hang over RAC/SPA policy. Why has it disregarded the recommendations of its own Group of Experts, consigning their views to an annex that few officials will bother to read? And who, exactly, has formulated its action priority recommendations in a document that bears no name? Which scientists, if any, supported the view that we should now rescue pups from their mothers and transport them to UN safe havens in other regions and countries? And if such secure zones can be created, why not create them where the seals are still living?
Unfortunately, the report does not tell us and nor does it explain why funds would be available for such costly schemes when fieldworkers are still struggling to find the price of a can of petrol to run their patrol boats in protected areas [Funding crisis strikes Turkish, Greek and international efforts, TMG 6 (1): June 2003]. Even more importantly, perhaps, it does not reveal why this scandalous state of affairs should be any different in the RAC/SPA safe havens.
It is known that at least one government Focal Point reacted with alarm when reading the RAC/SPA proposals in preparation for the Marseilles meeting. Though the precise causes remain uncertain at present, it appears that the meeting could not agree on the range of measures presented to them. As a result, the delegates appear to have deferred a decision in the UN bureaucracys time-honoured fashion, voting instead to convene another high-level meeting in 2004 [see Barcelona Convention slip-up has Turkish monk seals disappear from the conservation radar screen, this issue, and Mediterranean states commit to implement urgent actions, below].
Although TMG contacted RAC/SPA several times for further comment and information, the secretariat in Tunis did not respond.
Sadly, this follows a tediously familiar path, well trodden by advocates of monk seal captive breeding and translocation. Those who most favour such invasive conservation actions for the species have always been the ones most reluctant to encourage or to engage in open debate on these issues. Even so, it is a dark day indeed when a UN organization withholds public documents on the basis that releasing them, and making them available for scrutiny and debate, may damage pet policies that enjoy no consensus.
Mediterranean monk seal population estimates
Aguilar A. 1998. Current status of Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) populations. Meeting of experts on the implementation of the action plans for marine mammals (monk seal and cetaceans) adopted within MAP. Arta, Greece, 29-31 October 1998. UNEP, Athens: 1-34.
Forcada J., P.S. Hammond and A. Aguilar. 1999. Status of the Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus in the western Sahara and the implications of a mass mortality event. Marine Ecology Progress Series 188: 249-261.
González L. M. 1999. Update on the situation of the Mediterranean monk seal (English translation). In: Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. Scientific Council of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. 9th Meeting, Cape Town, 4-6 November 1999: 1-16 + 6 maps.
Johnson W. M. (ed). The Monachus Guardian. http://www.monachus-guardian.org
Kiraç C.O. 2001. Witnessing the monk seals extinction in the Black Sea, TMG 4 (2): November 2001.
Kiraç C.O., Y. Savas, H. Güçlüsoy and N.O. Veryeri. 1998. Status and Distribution of Monk Seals Monachus monachus (Hermann 1779) along Turkish Coasts. World Marine Mammal Science Conference, Monaco, 19-24 January 1998, Workshop on the Worlds Endangered Monk Seals, SAD-AFAG Poster Presentation [ 51KB].
Proceedings of the April 2002 ECS Workshop, Seal Rehabilitation in theory and practice: protocols, techniques, cases [see Rehab workshop convenes in Liege, TMG 5 (1): May 2002] have at last been published online:
Androukaki E. and Y. Larondelle (eds). 2003. Seal rehabilitation in theory and practice workshop: protocols, techniques, cases. 16th Annual Conference of the European Cetacean Society, 7 April 2002, Liege, Belgium.
At the risk of sounding like a UK station announcement, we would like to apologise for the late arrival of Decembers Monachus Guardian.
This year, the journal has been produced on an entirely voluntary basis, despite the fact that the publication continues to fulfil a conservation Action Priority first identified at the Rhodes Conference in 1978.
On the plus side, TMG retains its independence as a publication that defends the interests of monk seals, and reflects the diverse views of those who are engaged in the frontline conservation of the species and their threatened habitats.
Responding to a suggestion from several readers, we hope to publish more on the funding issue in our next edition including who pays what and who does not.
Its a fire alarm, says Richard Ellis about his new book, The Empty Ocean, which joins a chorus of recent publications documenting the precipitous decline of world fisheries and the dire state of the marine environment. That alarm should make you think long and hard about your lunchtime tuna sandwich or the sashimi you order at your favorite Japanese restaurant
In The Empty Ocean, Ellis recounts the historical eradication of entire marine species, including Caribbean monk seals, Labrador ducks, and Stellers sea cow, which was slaughtered to extinction in less than 30 years. Only recently have biologists come to understand the intricacies of fish breeding, recruitment, and migration, and for many species the revelations have come too late, Ellis writes. Yet despite all we have learned about ecology and biology, he says, we continue to decimate ocean species: We have entered an era in which the lesson of the sea cows has been ignored, usually in the name of short-term profits.
So what do we do now? I wish we could turn the clock back, says Ellis. Barring that, he says, we must take steps to protect and restore whats left. Marine reserves that incorporate no-take zones, which means no fishing by anybody, are essential to stemming the decline of world fisheries, he writes. But, he adds, even penicillin wont work if you dont take it. How, then, to ensure that marine ecosystems get the protection they need? We have to keep this going, says Ellis of the current barrage of books, articles, reports, and editorials detailing the plight of the oceans. Otherwise, he says, the only way these lessons will get driven home, is when fish is no longer on the menu.
From Cod Is Dead. Richard Elliss The Empty Ocean delves into the world of marine destruction, by Elizabeth Grossman, Grist Magazine, 24 July 2003.
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