Over a century ago, biologist T. H. Huxley, famously known as “Darwin’s bulldog”, stated that the oceans “were an inexhaustible source of food and industrial products for humans to use with confidence.” We now know that his statement did not take into account the finite amount of pressure from human activities that the seas are able to absorb before they begin to falter.
The scientific evidence available to us today about the state of the oceans and the fisheries leaves little room for comfort. According to the draft version of the United Nations Environment Programme’s ‘Green Economy Report’ for 2010 to be released later this year, “marine fisheries around the world have been devastated over the years to the extent that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) believes that only about 25% of the commercial stocks, mostly of low-priced species, are currently underexploited. Studies estimate that by 2003 some 27% of the world’s marine fisheries had already collapsed, in the sense that their current catch level was less than 10% of the maximum registered catch. Extrapolating these trends, these studies predict that virtually all of the world’s commercial fisheries will have collapsed before 2050.”
Put simply, if present fishing practices continue unabated, in 40 years there will be little left of the marine life that we are used to, except, perhaps, for very simple life forms, such as worms and seaweed coated in mud. If this news is not bad enough for the world’s oceans, things are even worse for the Mediterranean.
According to the EU’s Scientific, Technical and Economic Committee for Fisheries (STECF), 54% of the 46 species of Mediterranean fish it looked into are being overfished (i.e. they are being fished intensively and at a very young age, preventing their populations from reproducing in adequate numbers). What’s more, the percentage of fish stocks in the Mediterranean that lie outside what are known as ‘safe biological limits’ (that is beyond sustainable limits) varies from 44% to 73%, with the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Crete at the top of the list of ‘danger zones’, according to the European Environment Agency’s SEBI2010 biodiversity indicators.
In an attempt to save the fish stocks in the southern Cyclades from collapsing, a team of scientists from the University of the Aegean made up of Professor Giorgos Kokkoris and PhD student Sylvaine Giakoumi, recently proposed setting up a network of marine reserves in the south Aegean, where fishing and all kinds of extractive or destructive activities will be strictly forbidden. The meeting where they presented their proposals took place in the town hall of Naxos on Friday 23 July and was attended by representatives of the fishing industry and a number of officials. Three different scenarios were presented by the scientists. All the scenarios foresee the creation of ‘no-take’ zones that will extend along the islands’ shoreline (and stretch one kilometre out to sea), as it is these areas that face the greatest pressure from fishing activities and that are home to the Posidonia meadows (the ‘sea forests’ which keep the seas supplied with oxygen and sustain marine life). An ‘extreme’ scenario foresees the creation of a network of marine reserves covering 412 square kilometres or 27% of the coastline of the islands of the southern Cyclades.
A ‘medium’ scenario envisages 17% of the islands’ coastline being set aside for protection, while a more conservative scenario calls for 10% of the coastline to be designated as a network of ‘no-take’ zones.
The final decision of the Cyclades prefecture, which commissioned the report, on which scenario to adopt (if any) will be taken at a meeting that will be held on the island of Anafi on 6 September. Its implementation will then fall upon the regional and central authorities that will succeed it at the end of this year, as foreseen by the ‘Kallikratis’ reform.
Although the creation of marine reserves is a novel concept in Greece, protected marine areas have already been set up in a number of other parts of the world. In Spain, for example, protected areas along the Mediterranean coast have been in existence since the early 1990s. Such areas are estimated to cover a total of 0.8% of the surface of the sea at present. In the last few years, however, there have been ever more vociferous demands by members of the scientific community and environmentalists urging governments to increase the scope of protected areas in order to give the oceans much needed space to breathe. In “The End of the Line”, for example, the documentary on the state of the world’s fisheries that was released last year, marine reserves are portrayed as the ocean’s insurance policy against extinction, ecosystem collapse, climate change, hunger and permanent unemployment for fishermen. Greenpeace is calling for an increase in the share of protected areas at sea to 40% of the oceans’ surface.
The overwhelming evidence given by marine biologists is that of a ‘win-win’ story for marine life and their biodiversity wherever marine reserves have been set up. Fish stocks tend to bounce back in a short time and ecosystems are given a chance to recover after decades of overexploitation. In making the case for marine reserves in the Aegean Sea, the scientific team from the University of the Aegean referred to the successful example of ‘no-take’ zones established in California’s Channel Islands in 2003. Five years later scientists found that the biomass of fish and lobsters within the protected areas had increased and that the catches of fish in adjacent areas had also increased in the majority of cases.
So what are the obstacles to increasing the share of marine reserves around the world, as well as in our own corner of the Mediterranean? The single most important obstacle to these plans is the position of the fishing industry. In the Naxos meeting, which generated more heat than light, news of a possible network of ‘no-take’ zones in the Cyclades didn’t go down well with most of the fishing industry representatives attending. What was even more disconcerting is that most of the fishermen who voiced their opposition to such plans should not even be affected by the presence of the proposed marine reserves; trawlers pulling drag-nets are already not allowed to fish within one nautical mile of the shore, according to national and EU legislation. Yet representatives of the approximately 750 trawlers (‘mechanotrates’ and ‘vintzotrates’) operating in Greek waters were in no mood to negotiate setting aside part of the ‘commons’ in order to create ‘no-take’ zones. Some went as far as to call for the cancellation of the meeting, claiming it lacked political legitimacy. These fishermen fear that a change in the status quo at sea will jeopardise their future prospects. More moderate opinions, such as that expressed by Dimitris Zannes, president of the federation of small-scale coastal fishermen of the Cyclades, urging fishermen with all types of vessels to think it over, and calling the plan their “best hope yet to move towards sustainability,” were clearly in the minority.
Another obstacle standing in the way of marine reserves is the uncertainty concerning their funding. Although means of funding the marine reserves were not included in the scope of the scientists’ research (apart from a general mention of scuba diving), if sufficient funds for the protection and operation of marine reserves are not raised on a consistent basis the whole idea risks being a non-starter.
Both of these problems ultimately boil down to the need to find a financial motive for the creation of protected areas. If marine zones are to rely on the goodwill of fishermen, it is feared that in the medium-term, as fish stocks begin to run out in non-protected zones, the protected areas will be put under unbearable pressure by fishing fleets no longer able to find adequate catches in the regions where they are permitted to fish.
As some socioeconomic studies have shown, the virtually unqualified support of marine biologists for marine reserves tends to ignore the importance of economic incentives. The potential of marine reserves as a fisheries management tool is more likely to be realised if one takes into account the impact of economic incentives on fishermen's behaviour. The long-term viability of the reserves therefore seems to hinge on their proponents' ability to provide local communities and the fishing industry with a stake in their creation, through aligning economic incentives with conservation efforts.
So what incentives can we think of in support of the idea of marine reserves, apart from the conservation and replenishing of fish stocks – which are, after all, the base of the fishermen’s livelihood, even if their short-term goals don’t allow them to see that this is also in their best interests.
Looking at examples of successful marine reserves that have been created elsewhere we cannot fail to notice the example of the Medes Islands, a craggy group of islets off the Catalan coast, which was turned into an area of absolute protection in 1990. Marine life in this area recovered just a few years after its designation as a protected area and today there are some 1,345 different marine species living within its boundaries, making it one of the most biodiverse areas in the Mediterranean.
The transformation of the Medes into a marine reserve was made possible by the revenue generated by the many scuba divers who have flocked to the islands since the reserve was created. A website for divers, http://marenostrum.org/nuestrascostas/cbbuceo/medes/indexi.htm – which is full of praise for the initiative – tells us: “The reserve is financed through a charge by the authorities of £1.60 (approx. 2€) per dive. Annual dives were around the 80,000 mark in 1994 but have now been restricted to 60,000 (400 a day) to protect the reserve.” In fact, the total annual revenue generated in the area from scuba diving tourism today amounts to 5,260,000€.
In an email exchange with Professor Giorgos Kokkoris, I was told that we would need to wait a number of years before fish stocks are adequately replenished if we want to attract large numbers of scuba divers to the south Aegean, as there are few fish left in the area. But we have another important potential lure for divers in our seas – underwater archaeological sites. Are there enough of these sites to attract their attention? According to the Inspectorate of Underwater Antiquities of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in 2002 there were 54 ‘official’ underwater archaeological sites and around 1,000 shipwrecks lying at the bottom of Greek seas. Many more sites and wrecks are waiting to be discovered by archaeologists and amateur divers, all of which could serve to ignite the imagination of many a scuba diver out there.
Closer to home, off the coasts of Paros and Antiparos, we already know of a number of sites of potential interest to divers. Small cruise ships with glass bottoms do the rounds of Antiparos every summer, showing their passengers the remains of ancient buildings and old wells that used to supply human settlements with fresh water before being submerged under the sea. Amateur divers come across ancient amphorae strewn on the sandy sea floor just metres off the coast, while in the port of Naoussa I’ve heard fishermen talk of the “Ottoman wreck” or the “Russian gunboat” in order to describe specific marine locations.
For many years archaeologists were against the idea of allowing scuba divers to visit underwater sites, fearing that an influx of divers would cause them harm. Yet serious damage has already been caused by the hi-tech trawlers that drag their nets along the sea bottom, crushing ancient artifacts, as well as by the fact that Greece does not have adequate resources to guard and protect these sites. Areas designated off limits to fishing vessels, where controlled scuba diving is allowed, would offer obvious advantages to fish and antiquities alike.
In areas where there are no specific undersea sights worth visiting, it is also a common practice elsewhere to create them by deliberately sinking ships or creating artificial reefs in an effort to attract scuba divers.
Sylvaine Giakoumi, one of the scientists behind the proposal for the creation of protected areas, suggested in an email to me that a fund could be set up where money is channeled from marine reserves that attract tourist revenue to other areas that do not – another good idea worth trying out.
Another possible means of funding the marine reserves is to make use of EU or government subsidies that are allocated to ecologically sensitive areas. This could serve as a complementary source of income for reserves, although of course subsidies, unlike ongoing viable economic activities, will run out at some point.
Clearly the best way of preserving fish stocks is to align economic incentives with the conservation of our natural resources, so that the interests of everyone with a stake in these resources are served, including those of the fishermen.
There is another important reason for investing in alternative, eco-friendly forms of tourism: the ‘sun and sea’ model that has guided the development of the tourism industry in this country for decades seems to be running out of steam. It is by now abundantly clear that this sector is going through one of its worst years for a long time. Tourism revenue is dropping for the second year in a row. Greece’s main industry is struggling to stay afloat. As has often been remarked by tourism professionals, one the main reasons for this is the fact that the industry has failed to diversify its product, enabling it to tap into lucrative markets such as scuba diving. According to PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, the world’s largest recreational diving and training organisation, more than one million people worldwide obtain diving licenses each year. Most of these people are high income earners, concerned about conservation, and willing to travel wherever there are areas of interest to them.
Other Mediterranean countries have taken bold steps to diversify their tourism offerings and invest in eco-friendly, sustainable practices. After its successful Medes experiment, the Catalan government last year decided to create a new natural park encompassing 6km of coastline from the Montgri Massif all the way to Cala Montgo, L'Escala. If Greece wants to remain competitive it needs to think ‘green’ fast and offer new, high-quality services to its visitors.
Creating viable marine reserves will not only sustain biodiversity in our oceans and keep fish populations healthy, it will also give the tourism industry a much needed boost, provide new employment opportunities and ensure that all of us will still be able to enjoy the fresh catch of the day at our local seaside taverna. ‘No-take’ zones might just hold the key to a better future for the Cyclades. A win-win situation for everyone!
For further information on overfishing in Greek seas, as well as the main reasons that have been cited by coastal fishermen for the depletion of the fish stocks, see the article entitled “Aegean Sends out SOS Signal”, published in July 2009 in Parianos Logos and available in English at:
For information (in Greek) on the minimum size of fish allowed to be caught by Greek and other EU fishermen and eaten in restaurants (consumers can do their part by refusing to eat fish that don’t meet the criteria), look under “Alieia” (Fisheries), Katanolotes (Consumers) at the WWF webpage www.wwf.gr