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Vol. 12 (1): June 2009

Our Sea, Our Life

Konstantinos Mentzelopoulos

Northern Cyclades Marine Conservation Project Coordinator

When I grew up as a child in Athens, my family always took their August holiday by the sea. I remember fishing with my brother and father, swimming in crystal clear water and feeling the cleansing and restorative powers of the sea.

Half a century later, I have become increasingly alarmed by the global warnings about the health risks associated with swimming in contaminated waters, the limit on fish consumption to minimize ingestion of toxic elements, and, worst of all, the suffering of marine life and the lives of those who depend upon the sea.

These profoundly disturbing changes in our oceans prompted me to respond with alacrity when Dimitri Zannes, President of the Fishermen’s Union of the Southern Aegean, asked for help to develop the Union’s idea to create a marine protected area in the Northern Cyclades where the office of the Union President is based.  He expressed the urgency for immediate action in the region to protect the threatened marine ecosystems and develop measures to rehabilitate the declining fish stocks.

In July 2007, Mr. Zannes sent me a map illustrating a suggested Northern Cycladic marine protected area within the somewhat circular island chain of Andros, Tinos, Mykonos, Delos, Renia, Syros, Kythnos and Kea connecting back to Andros. He also suggested the establishment of a fully protected marine reserve, which the Union agreed would be a no-fishing zone, to replenish fish stocks and marine life around the uninhabited island of Giaros, which lies in the centre of this island chain.

Map of Northern Cyclades Marine Conservation Project

Project area (enlarged map with legend)

The Northern Cycladic marine area is characterized by the presence of a rich variety of important species and natural habitat types, many of which are identified as legally protected in the Annexes of the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. There are marine mammals, including at least 8 reported resident cetacean species and a very valuable population of the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). The area is also home to threatened sea bird (e.g. Larus audouinii, Calonectris diomedia], reptile (e.g. Caretta caretta) and invertebrate (e.g. Pinna nobilis) species; Posidonia sea grass beds; sandbanks with Maerl beds; mudflats; reefs; and submerged as well as partially submerged sea caves which are of critical importance to the monk seals.

monk seal pups in a cave on Giaros. © MOm/A.Karamanlidis

Two monk seal pups in a cave on Giaros.

According to MOm (Hellenic Society for the Study & Protection of the Monk Seal), the Mediterranean monk seal population in the project area “represents 32% of the Greek population and approximately 27% of the European population of the species”. The Northern Cyclades host numerous sheltering caves for the seals in remote areas along its 442 nautical miles of coastline. Some of the caves feature multiple entrances, interior beaches with soft substrate, and may be inaccessible to humans. It is therefore imperative to locate, record, map and evaluate all resting, feeding and pupping habitats in the region; document the population size; record the threats to the species; and formulate protection measures, to which MOm is eagerly committed.

The extent to which Mr. Zannes and his Union colleagues have understood the relationship between the degrading condition as well as population size of marine species due to poorly managed anthropogenic activities and the problem of declining fish stocks has been impressive. Although the Union President had attempted in the past few years to solicit active support in resolving the problem by meeting with representatives of the European Commission, NGOs and government officials, he received only ideological support for a resolution to the problem. Mr. Zannes nevertheless continued to seek the concrete partnership of experienced organizations and individuals who would join hands and commit to the fulfilment of shared marine conservation aims.

at the island of giaros. © MOm/A.Karamanlidis

Now uninhabited, the island of Giaros was once a place of exile and imprisonment for political dissidents.

This was the genesis of the Northern Cyclades Marine Conservation Project in Greece, launched in April 2008 for the rehabilitation and conservation of marine wildlife as well as the development of a sustainable fisheries industry, to which the following team has committed its long term participation: MOm, Hellenic Ornithological Society, ARION Cetacean Rehabilitation and Research Centre, Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, Fishermen’s Union of the Southern Aegean, OIKOM Ltd., and the Korthi Municipality on Andros Island.

In addition, ten more municipalities – Andros, Anos Syros, Exomvourgo, Kea, Kythnos, Mykonos, Panormou, Posidonia, Tinos, and Ydroussa – which surround the 5.955 km2 project area have expressed their support for our project through municipal council decisions that were each passed unanimously, with no abstentions or opposition, and which included representation from all of the Greek political parties. In view of the aims, credentials and range of public as well as private sector project participants, the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation has agreed to support the project financially, sharing our long-term vision of a succession of projects designed to achieve marine conservation and sustainable fisheries development goals.

This support is vital to the successful development of the marine conservation project’s actions, including the development and establishment of (a) a new environmental NGO called, to facilitate the development of scientific research, marine wildlife mapping, community support, and improved enforcement of fishing regulations, with the potential cooperation of the Ministry of Defence radar facilities on Andros that is under discussion; (b) the Northern Cyclades Marine Conservation Centre in Korthi, Andros; (c) legally protected areas, including Natura 2000 and IBA sites; and (d) EU fisheries programmes and measures to resolve the current unsustainable level and forms of fishing, which include those that destroy our natural marine resources.

On December 1, 2008, the Fishermen’s Union President acknowledged the merit of the project strategy to utilize environmental protection laws to the fullest extent during the process of sustainable fisheries development in the Northern Cyclades. This conclusion was based upon an evaluation of the current ill-conceived fisheries policies which have not prevented the continuing degradation of marine life, including commercially exploited species (evidenced in part by the recent ICAAT decision for allowable 2009 bluefin tuna catches, including during the May/June spawning season, disgracefully supported by the EU contrary to all accredited scientific recommendations). As a result, the Union supports the Northern Cyclades Marine Conservation Project which is focusing on multiple wildlife conservation issues with its partnership team, including the development of new methods of reducing the often lethal conflict between fishers and pinnipeds, as well as cetacean species, protecting the natural habitats upon which fish reproduction depends and raising consumer awareness about the importance of ascertaining the methods, sources and locations from which their fish purchases originate.

Mr. Zannes stated at a 2006 news conference with Greenpeace, “We [the fishermen] are on the brink of collapse… We know now that we will only continue to exist if we create a healthy ecosystem… If the sea perishes, so will we.”* It is with this understanding that organizations, some of which are now setting aside their past differences with one another, are now focusing on the marine environmental crisis that must be addressed swiftly and comprehensively if we are to improve the prospects for our shared destiny. After all, it is our sea and, thus, our life.

*IUCN European Newsletter, Volume 13/2007

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