The Mediterranean: A Semi-Enclosed Sea Rich in Biodiversity, Culture, and MPA Initiatives

By Tundi Agardy, Executive Director, Sound Seas

The Mediterranean Sea is a place of paradox and surprises. Despite many people's image of the area as being vastly overpopulated, with built-up shorelines, polluted waters, and over-exploited resources, the Mediterranean is in actuality a thriving, diverse ecosystem upon which people of many cultures depend. From the famous European resort beaches on its north coast, through the vast archipelagos in its eastern reaches, and to the productive and largely unexplored coastal wetlands, extensive beaches, and rocky shores of its south coast, the coastal environment of the Mediterranean is exceedingly diverse. And the open ocean areas of the Mediterranean also support a surprisingly rich variety of life - so much so that the Mediterranean Basin has been flagged as a top marine conservation priority by environmental groups (for instance, it is in the top 15 marine hotspots of the world identified by Conservation International, and Mediterranean areas figure prominently in the Global 200 list of WWF).

The European, North African, and Middle Eastern nations that line the Mediterranean all have an enormous dependence on the sea. Almost all of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean were seafarers, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Berbers, and Moors. The heritage that thousands of years of ocean-going travel has left on the ocean floor makes the Mediterranean the world's premier area for studying underwater archeology. Modern cultures continue to rely heavily on the sea and its resources. Fisheries are important not only as a source of protein, but also for the role that seafood plays in the gastronomy and cultural identify of Mediterranean cultures. Many traditional fisheries still exist in the Mediterranean, including the fascinating tonnara fisheries around Sicily in which giant bluefin enter into one-on-one wrestling matches with fishers, the hand line fisheries for pelagics still practiced in Algeria, Spain, Corsica, and elsewhere, and the clay pot octopus fisheries of the Greek Islands.

The great demands placed on the natural resources of this semi-enclosed sea have caused the collapse of some stocks, and an overall decline in the productivity of the Basin. In addition, fisheries have caused the decimation of charismatic species like the Mediterranean monk seal and loggerhead turtle, which continue to be killed as bycatch in commercial fisheries. The situation only worsened as the Black Sea - once the breadbasket for fisheries products for all of Europe - underwent total ecological collapse during the last century. Now aquaculture threatens many of the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, as well as the species that live in them.

However, a greater problem for the Mediterranean has been that of pollution. This semi-enclosed ocean basin has only two small outlets: one at the Bosporus in Turkey that connects the Mediterranean with the Black Sea, the other through the Straits of Gibraltar that connect it with the North Atlantic. The limited flows mean that water masses in the Mediterranean are exchanged only once every 70 years. Everything that flows into the Mediterranean - via the major river drainages, small creeks, or even as run-off - thus resides in the Basin for decades. With the 21 countries that surround the Mediterranean supporting more than 100 million people in nearshore coastal areas, and with large-scale industries lining its ports and watersheds, land-based sources of pollutants are rampant. Add to this the marine pollution generated from the region's massive shipping industry, as well as the spread of invasive species that has wreaked havoc in some Mediterranean environments, and it is easy to understand why the Mediterranean is one of the world's most polluted seas.

Yet it is this pollution burden that spurred international interest in protecting and restoring the Mediterranean, and providing the foundations for an optimistic future for the sea. In 1975, the states bordering the Mediterranean adopted the Mediterranean Action Plan to improve the health of this great ocean basin. The plan inventoried pollution levels and identified sources of pollutants, including domestic sewage, industrial centers, power plants, river discharges, and agricultural run-off. The nations bordering the sea then agreed to standards for all pollutants, and entered into legally binding agreements (through the United Nations Environment Programme's Regional Seas Treaty for the Mediterranean, known as the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean, or Barcelona Convention for short) to keep all major pollutants at or below these standard levels. Since that time, the pollution levels in the Mediterranean have been greatly reduced. In addition, the Barcelona Convention has provided the framework for other forms of international cooperation to manage and restore the sea, including through its Protocol on Specially Protected Areas.

The Mediterranean has been the site of some of the most innovative and successful marine protected area initiatives in the world. Spain leads the other countries of the Mediterranean in unilaterally designated MPAs, but there are successful marine and coastal protected areas in virtually every other country that borders the Sea. These range from small protected areas like the hugely popular and successful Port Cros Marine Park in southern France, to the large wetland/shoreline complexes of El Kala National Park in Algeria. Some of the protected areas are zoned to allow segregation of uses and to provide reference sites for better ecological understanding. Italy has taken the zoning one step further than most countries around the world: one of its MPAs has zonation that includes a "commercial fishing only" zone.

The great interest in preserving the Mediterranean and restoring its health has also led to some landmark multi-lateral efforts. The Mediterranean's first transboundary MPA, which is also the world's first MPA designed to protect cetaceans on the high seas, is the vast Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals. This MPA is located in the Ligurian Sea, and is the product of cooperation and coordination by the three countries that share its resources: France, Monaco and Italy.

The international efforts to conserve the Mediterranean have also led to some innovative regional efforts, including the formation of a network of MPAs known as Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI). The SPAMI List is being designed under the auspices of the Regional Coordinating Unit of the Specially Protected Areas Protocol (of the Barcelona Convention), located in Tunis. In addition, Italy has set the stage for a standardized scientific research agenda for Mediterranean MPAs, through itsSistema Afrodite program.

Thus the Mediterranean remains a symbol of both hope and despair for those interested in marine conservation. For many, the Mediterranean represents livelihood - indeed life itself. For the rest of us, the Mediterranean provides a sense of wonder, a place that still today we call, as the Romans did two thousand years ago, the Mare Nostrum - "Our Sea". With so much interest in protecting the Mediterranean, the reasons for hope far outweigh causes for despair - but only if that interest is kept alive and backed up by further MPAs, cooperative science, and meaningful international environmental agreements.

Written: August 2003

For more information: Tundi Agardy, Sound Seas, 6620 Broad Street, Bethesda, MD 20816, USA. Tel: +1 301 229 9105; E-mail: tundiagardy [at]