tmg logo The Monachus Guardian contents
Cover Story home
Vol. 9 (2): November 2006

Anatomy of a conference

William M Johnson

BLUEweek MEDday

An international conference on the Mediterranean monk seal took place in Kemer, near Antalya, Turkey on 17-19 September‚ – unlike previous gatherings, focusing on the political, legal and financial issues that affect the management and recovery of the species.

Held under the UNEP/MAP banner, the conference took place under the wider umbrella of the inaugural Med Blue Week, an event called to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of the Barcelona Convention, the international agreement that brought both the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) and the Mediterranean Monk Seal Action Plan into being.

Tunis-based RAC/SPA, the agency nominally responsible for advancing MAP’s Mediterranean Monk Seal Action Plan, took the lead role in organising the conference. Co-organisers included the Bonn, Bern and Barcelona Conventions, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and Turkish monk seal NGO, SAD-AFAG.

The Three Pillars

MAP has been facing increasingly harsh criticism of late, with critics pointing out that it has failed to achieve even one of its priority targets during the last 30 years – including its stated intention in 1985 to ensure protection of the monk seal within a decade [see Mediterranean governments vow protection for the Mediterranean monk seal, TMG 9 (1): June 2006].

Perhaps in view of that criticism – and in recognition of a recent declaration by a Barcelona Convention meeting in Slovenia that the fate of the Plan is inexorably intertwined with the fate of the monk seal – the organisers decided that the conference should target directly what some consider the most serious obstacles to conservation ‘Action’. Broadly, these fell into three main categories: Funding, Coordination and Information – what one observer has called “the three pillars of Mediterranean monk seal conservation” at the international level.

An agenda, obtained in draft form by TMG in July, provided further insights into these conference priorities.

While Day 1 was to be devoted to regional experiences, including presentations from Greece, Turkey, and the Atlantic area – where a Regional Action Plan under the auspices of the Bonn Convention has been solidifying among the range states (Mauritania, Morocco, Spain, Portugal-Madeira) – Day 2 was reserved for the institutional, legal and financial aspects of Mediterranean monk seal conservation.

Sessions included presentations or workshops on:

  • The possibilities of linking the developing Regional Action Plan for the Atlantic with the Action Plan in the Mediterranean (and hence forging collaboration between the Barcelona and Bonn Conventions).
  • The creation of a coordination and follow-up mechanism, such as an international steering committee.
  • The possible establishment of an international monk seal fund.
  • An international information programme on monk seals, spearheaded by MAP’s new information agency, INFO/RAC-MAP.

Though the issues set for discussion were potentially far-reaching, it was not until 31 August – barely two and a half weeks before the conference’s official opening – that prospective participants received a programme and agenda.

Even as those materials were at last being circulated, some governments and NGOs also began to express disquiet about the absence of pre-conference briefing materials – documents able to provide background analysis and overviews of the complex issues earmarked for discussion. Proving most vocal in such criticism were the Greek Ministry of Environment and MOm, Greece’s foremost monk seal conservation NGO.


Responding to such concerns, RAC/SPA released an IFAW briefing paper on 7 September, outlining possible plans to establish an international fund or trust in support of monk seal conservation (see Further information, below).

Additional documents were also distributed 5 days later, among them, a revised agenda, a list of prospective participants, and a species status review. Briefing materials on other key conference issues, however, remained elusive, provoking additional objections from Greece.

In rejecting those criticisms, RAC/SPA’s director, Abderrahmen Gannoun, reasoned that the “information and communication plan to support monk seal conservation” would be presented at the meeting by its sister agency in Rome, INFO/RAC-MAP. Where the other two potentially controversial agenda issues were concerned, he went on – the Coordination and Steering Committee issue and the Barcelona-Bonn Convention common work programme – working groups would be established on Day 2 of the conference to allow discussion.

Dr. Gannoun also went on to express confidence that the experts and institutions invited, qualified in various specific fields, would be present at the conference to guide participants through complex and unfamiliar agenda items.

Such reassurances, however, failed to allay the concerns of the Greek government, which, just three days before the conference, announced that it would not be attending [Greece declines to attend Antalya conference, TMG News Update].

In a similar move, MOm also announced that it, too, had decided not to participate.

While emphasising the organisation’s support for effective international cooperation that might further the conservation of the monk seal and its habitat, Dr. Spyros Kotomatas, MOm’s Chief Scientific Officer, stated that: “to properly and effectively address these issues, all participants must openly have access [to] the necessary information and have adequate time to prepare their contribution to the discussions in an effective and constructive way. This becomes even more necessary in view of the extremely short time available for discussing each of [these] topics.”

In response to MOm’s criticism over a perceived lack of pre-conference consultation, RAC/SPA’s Director defended the agency’s handling of arrangements, stating that “the content of the conference agenda and the different arrangements have been prepared by an organising committee comprising, among others, representatives from three multilateral conventions (Bonn, Bern and Barcelona) the host country and the International Fund for Animal Welfare.”

With Greece hosting some three quarters of the surviving monk seal population in the Mediterranean, however, the withdrawal of both the government and the country’s principal NGO did not appear to augur well for conference success.

Summer logistics

The perceived lack of consultation in the conference run-up period, the lack of discussion papers, and the distribution of an agenda just 17 days before the conference was, to some, more attributable to practical organisational difficulties than a deliberate intent to keep the monk seal community in the dark.

The Conference agenda, for example, was still undergoing substantial revision in the first two weeks of September, and some also pointed to the challenges of organising virtually any public event at short notice during the Mediterranean high summer, least of all a conference meant to attract several hundred people from across the world.

However, while the heat of summer almost certainly exacted its toll upon the logistics of the conference, its core issues – and those that gave sceptics the greatest cause for alarm – including the international steering committee, the fund, and the information campaign – had already been identified as key conference components by the organisers in February 2006, during one of the earliest planning meetings in Tunis.

Such lengthy preparation, says one source, makes it that much harder to understand how it was that the monk seal conservation community was only first notified of the conference on the 4th of July.

Some also point out that the intervening months leading up to the conference might have provided an ideal opportunity for a wide-ranging consultation process to be established on the objectives of the conference, involving those organisations and individuals who are central to the study and protection of the species.

“Debate and consultation,” says MOm’s Spyros Kotomatas, “would have allowed those organisations which are most practically involved in monk seal protection, education and information exchange to collectively develop and refine the conference agenda together with the organisers, and to draft adequate supporting documents. This, in turn, would have given the conference the best chance of success in terms of practical results. Recent history in the conservation of the species has shown time and time again the need for transparency and consultation.”

Conference floor

Facets of monk seal conservation

Facets of monk seal conservation

While acknowledging the value of such international gatherings as a crucial means of sharing practical conservation experiences from across the range of the species, some participants also voiced irritation that they or their organisations had been marginalised in the run-up to the conference.

“I was expecting to share the lessons learnt from the different regions, and modify the strategies and action plans according to what is recommended by the real experts working in the field,” said the participant. But now, he continued, “if the government focal points agree, a steering committee will be formed, most probably composed of those who have only ever read about the monk seal in text books, yet who will decide if our efforts in the field are right or wrong. They will also judge which projects merit funding and which do not. For me, it was a disappointment to realize there is such a huge gap between people working in the field and those in the international organisations and conventions.”

Some participants saw other reasons for concern, suggesting that long-established interests in monk seal conservation were opposed to fundamental change that might dilute their influence or trespass on their own turf. Potential members of the as-yet-hypothetical Steering Committee sparked particularly divisive debate, with some insisting that core members must include officials of the Conventions, others that it should incorporate international NGOs and recognized local experience on monk seals, and still others that it should be entirely independent, thereby allowing rational and impartial assessment of projects and their results.

Among those expressing the latter view, Prof. Alex Aguilar at the Department of Animal Biology at the University of Barcelona insisted that a clear separation between the Steering Committee members and those with vested interests in the projects themselves might be crucial for the survival of the species.

“For over 30 years,” Aguilar told TMG, “neither the Action Plan nor the conservation actions so far implemented have served to reverse the declining trend of the species. Unless the direction of the process is changed, I am terribly pessimistic about the future of the species. In this context, and very importantly, if the steering committee is eventually composed of ‘internal’ members, as it looks would happen, I don’t foresee any improvement. The conflict of interests is unavoidable if the setting of priorities and the evaluation of the success of the actions is made by the same people who execute such actions. Science – and conservation is based on science – only advances with peer, external review.”

Others, however, argue that some projects already undergo stringent independent assessment procedures, as is required, for example, by some EU-funded programmes. They add that it is the expansion of “best practice” methodologies in monk seal conservation that is urgently required – along with practical, grassroots action – rather than another layer of bureaucracy.

Though official conference proceedings were not available as this article was being prepared, preliminary information provided by INFO/RAC-MAP and the reports of participants indicate the following conference results and recommendations:

  • The three Conventions of relevance to the monk seal – Barcelona, Bonn and Bern – will be asked to agree on a single action plan governing the conservation of the species.
  • Assuming agreement by the Conventions concerned, an international Steering Committee would be formed.
  • The Steering Committee would establish an exploratory committee to investigate the creation of an international funding mechanism.

All of these results are, however, unofficial and non-binding unless and until they are approved by the signatory governments of the Barcelona Convention. With the current level of government and NGO opposition they are facing, it is by no means certain any of them will see the light of day.

In tacit recognition of the anxieties and disagreements within the conference hall, Turkish co-organiser SAD-AFAG let it be known that the “financing mechanism and steering committee subjects have not been concluded efficiently; however we hope that these preliminary discussions may be a good starting basis for the near future.” The organisation went on to say that, “we believe that the survival of this endangered species and its endangered habitats [can] only be protected for [the] long-term through cooperation among the states, conservationists and scientists, established on goodwill and trust.”

Looking to the future

With many crucial and potentially far-reaching issues still in play on the political front, it is likely to become increasingly difficult for monk seal conservation’s key players to remain on the sidelines without taking a stand or elucidating a policy on these matters.

As far as The Monachus Guardian is concerned, this journal and website has been committed to free and open debate within the monk seal conservation community, and to wide-ranging consultation in the development of international policy, since its inception in 1998.

Ironically, in its latest report to the US Congress, the Marine Mammal Commission states that management of the threats confronting the Mediterranean monk seal “is confounded by a lack of international cooperation and coordination.”

Though we cannot help but agree with that assessment, we also see distinct possibilities of remedying that situation through a cooperative international process that is rooted in dialogue, consultation and, above all, transparency.

Taking the first step on that road must be the responsibility of the organisations most involved in the conservation of the monk seal and its habitat, organisations such as MOm, SAD-AFAG, the Parque Natural da Madeira, CBD-Habitat, the Levant Nature Conservation Society, IFAW and others.

Further information

IFAW. 2006. Funding Mediterranean Monk Seal Conservation. Quick scan of possibilities and challenges. Prepared by Bart Romijn, Warner Strategy and Fundraising. Commissioned by IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare), July 2006: 1-22. [PDF pdf 168KB]

Marine Mammal Commission. 2006. Mediterranean monk seal. Page 99 in Chapter V, Other Species of Special Concern, Annual Report to Congress, 2005. Marine Mammal Commission, Bethesda, Maryland: 1-204. [PDF pdf 5MB]

RAC/SPA. 2006. Blue Week. Agenda [revised]. Conference on Monk Seal Conservation, 17/19 September 2006, Majesty Mirage Park - Kemer, Antalya, Turkey: 1-11. [PDF pdf 950KB]

RAC/SPA. 2006. Blue Week. The Monk seal in the Mediterranean Sea : General situation. Document prepared by Daniel Cebrian Menchero, RAC/SPA: 1-8. [PDF pdf 1.3MB]

RAC/SPA. 2006. Blue Week. Programme and agenda. Conference on Monk Seal Conservation, 17/19 September 2006, Majesty Mirage Park - Kemer, Antalya, Turkey. [PDF pdf 633KB]

RAC/SPA. 2006. Conference on Monk Seal Conservation. Second announcement. Med Blue Week. Antalya, 17/19 September 2006, Majesty Mirage Park - Kemer, Antalya – Turkey. [PDF pdf 310KB]

RAC/SPA. 2005. Portoroz Declaration. 14th Ordinary Meeting of the Contracting Parties to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean and its Protocols, Portoroz (Slovenia), 8-11 November 2005. UNEP(DEPI)/MED IG.16/13, Annex V: 1-5. [PDF pdf 273KB]

RAC/SPA. 2005. Progress report of the activities of RAC/SPA. Seventh Meeting of National Focal Points for SPAs, Seville, 31 May - 3 June 2005. UNEP/MAP, UNEP(DEC)/MED WG.268/4: 1-37. [PDF pdf 449KB]

RAC/SPA. 2005. Evaluation of the Mediterranean monk seal status. Meeting of MAP Focal Points, Athens (Greece), 21-24 September 2005. UNEP/MAP, UNEP(DEC)/MED WG.270/Inf.22: 1-7. [PDF pdf 127KB]

RAC/SPA. 2005. Information report on the status of the monk seal in the Mediterranean. Prepared for the Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA) by Dr. Daniel Cebrian. Seventh Meeting of National Focal Points for SPAs, Seville, 31 May - 3 June 2005. UNEP/MAP, UNEP(DEC)/MED WG.268/Inf.3: 1-45. [PDF pdf 208KB]

RAC/SPA. 2005. Declaration on the monk seal risk of extinction in the Mediterranean. Meeting of MAP Focal Points, Athens (Greece), 21-24 September 2005. UNEP/MAP, UNEP(DEC)/MED WG.270/17: 1-3. [PDF pdf 77KB]

RAC/SPA. 2003. The conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal: proposal of priority activities to be carried out in the Mediterranean sea. Sixth meeting of the National Focal Points for Specially Protected Areas, Marseilles, 17-20 June 2003: 1-45. [PDF pdf 143KB]

RAC/SPA. 2003. Progress report of the activities of RAC/SPA. Report on the activities carried out by RAC/SPA since the fifth meeting of National Focal Points for Specially Protected Areas. Sixth meeting of the National Focal Points for Specially Protected Areas, Marseilles, 17-20 June 2003: 1-29. [PDF pdf 124KB]

UNEP/MAP. 1987. Action plan for the management of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). United Nations Environment Programme, Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP). Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas, Tunis, Tunis & Athens. [PDF pdf 306KB]

TMG. 2003. Mystery at RAC/SPA Time for pup-catching, says its anonymous expert(s). The Monachus Guardian 6 (2): December 2003.

Triantafillou, K. 2006. Mediterranean governments vow protection for the Mediterranean monk seal – Success or failure of efforts to be a “defining moment” for the future of the Mediterranean Action Plan. The Monachus Guardian 9 (1): June 2006.

previous   contents   home   next
Copyright © 2006, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved