To Save the Mediterranean Sea, Its People are Uniting

The White Sea, the Great Sea, the Middle Sea. Earth’s largest enclosed waterbody has been known by many names since the first settlements in 9000 BC. The Mediterranean Sea is bordered by over 20 countries across three continents and is home to more than 15,000 islands.

For millennia its serene turquoise waters have seen the exchange of both goods and traditions, fusing together cultures and shaping civilizations throughout history.

It is also one of the largest marine biodiversity hotspots on earth, hosting up to 18 percent of all identified marine species. An astonishing feat considering that the Mediterranean Sea represents less than one percent of the global ocean surface area.

The types of habitats found on the seabed are richly diverse. Mediterranean seascapes range from vast seagrass meadows and vibrant reefs of coralline algae to deep-sea ecosystems reaching as far down as 5,267 meters (or 17,280 feet) in an area known as the Calypso Deep.

Dating back to the times of ancient Greece, prosperous sea trade and thriving fishing communities lured large crowds to the swelling coastal cities. And over the ages, fishing activities continued to intensify with the advancement of navigation systems and improved maritime infrastructure.

Even today, the ocean is intertwined into the very fabric of Mediterranean life. Fishing, in particular, remains at the heart of Mediterranean traditions, providing a livelihood for around 785,000 people in an industry estimated to be worth $9.4 billion. But just as the Mediterranean Sea has influenced civilizations over the centuries, 4,000 years of maritime and fishing activity have altered the ecology of the region. As a result, a once-abundant reservoir of marine life is now in crisis.

Marine habitats and species in the Mediterranean were and still are impacted by overfishing, says Charlène Minster, manager for the Mediterranean Programme and Impact & Sustainability Unit at the MAVA Foundation.

Modern-day challenges have made things increasingly more difficult for a once-prosperous fishing empire. The spread of invasive species, climate change, and recent rising fuel costs are taking their toll on the Mediterranean fishing communities. Surpassing these threats are the effects of centuries of overexploitation.

For decades, fishers have been hauling up increasingly smaller catches on average, forcing them to abandon historic fishing grounds in search of new, richer pastures. The movement of activity is jeopardizing some of the Mediterranean’s most critical marine habitats, and, as a result, its once-celebrated marine biodiversity is at risk.

According to the State of Mediterranean and Black Sea fisheries report, published in 2020 by the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, 75 percent of assessed fish stocks are still fished outside sustainable limits.

More difficulties come with the rising numbers of vulnerable species, such as sea turtles, being captured by accident (known as bycatch). And then there is the increase in conflicts between fishers and marine mammals, mostly due to dolphins preying on fish from nets and damaging fishing gear (known as depredation). In fact, populations of marine mammals have taken a serious hit, falling by 41 percent. And more than 53 percent of sharks in the Mediterranean are at risk of extinction due to overfishing. Not only is this a major challenge for marine conservation, but these events often result in substantial losses of income for fishers already struggling in the current economic climate.

“If we want to make a positive impact in the Mediterranean, we must first decrease fishing efforts on high-trophic species such as swordfish, mitigate impacts of fisheries on seagrass and other habitats, and reduce negative interactions between fishers and vulnerable marine species,” explains Minster.

This can only be achieved by developing strategies and technical solutions that strengthen no-take zones and marine protected areas (MPAs) and by tackling the complex issues around bycatch and dolphin depredation, she adds. It was in response to these urgent needs that Together for the Med (TGFM) was born.

Launched in 2017, the TGFM initiative is perhaps one of the most ambitious in the region’s history. Funded by the MAVA Foundation and co-led by the IUCN Mediterranean and BlueSeeds, TGFM has successfully mobilized almost 50 partners on a joint mission to connect the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. “Only by working together can we restore marine biodiversity and benefit the region’s fishing communities,” says Yaprak Arda, marine program officer at the IUCN Med.

Building Bridges

History has often shown civilizations using the Mediterranean Sea as a platform for conflict. The Romans, in particular, benefited from their proximity to the sea in the 1st century, conquering much of Europe and many coastal nations in North Africa and Western Asia.

Fortunately, things are quite different now, adds Arda. “Mediterranean nations all have a common goal, which is focused on the sea and how we can ensure sustainability, economic health, and food security for the future. We can’t achieve this alone; we must work together.”

Situated in various locations across the Mediterranean, TGFM has brought together a dynamic group of local NGOs, regional associations, international organizations, private companies, research centers, and national representatives.

As a collective, they have launched 16 high-impact projects that aim to prevent bycatch, mitigate conflicts between marine mammals and fishers, monitor marine life and fish stocks, share scientific knowledge, help design marine protected areas, promote sustainable seafood consumption, and foster responsible marine entrepreneurship.

Each organization is benefiting by being part of the TGFM network, says Auriane Petit, project officer at BlueSeeds. “It can be a real struggle for smaller organizations to find funding, build up resources, and connect with experts willing to support their work over the long term. This is where the TGFM comes in. We help partners avoid duplication of efforts, provide opportunities to engage in new projects, and increase their ability to expand their work into new locations and communities that need help.”


Collaboration is Key

On Sardinia, the second-largest island in the Mediterranean, the MedSea Foundation is leading a project to restore Posidonia oceanica seagrass meadows, a priority marine habitat for the island and wider region.

Seagrass is often referred to as the “lungs of the sea”, but their value within the marine environment has been largely under-appreciated until relatively recently. Its often-vast marine meadows are hugely important for supporting commercial fisheries and biodiversity. In fact, seagrass is widely considered to be the third most valuable ecosystem in the world, estimated to be worth over $19,000 per hectare per year.

In the Mediterranean, seagrass meadows host around 20 percent of marine life and protect the coast from erosion. But years of irregular anchorages and trawling have damaged the fragile marine prairies in many areas in the region, including the Sinis MPA located off Sardinia’s central-western coast.

The MedSeaGrass project was hoping to develop environmental engineering solutions to help with the seagrass restoration work inside the Sinis MPA, says Petit. “At the same time, another project was developing a tool to make it easier for MPA managers to collect mooring fees. Together, they co-constructed the BlueMooring tool and raised awareness about the issues among boaters.”

After launching the new platform in January 2022, created in collaboration with BlueSeeds and funded by MAVA, boaters visiting the site can now book their own buoy. Part of the payment will be donated to support the conservation of Sardinia’s seagrass meadows. For the staff of the Sinis MPA, another partner in the MedSeaGrass project, the platform also provides a handy tool for mapping all the activities that take place in the vast marine quadrant.

“This is just one example of the kind of concrete synergies that the pooling of resources and the connections of our network have allowed,” adds Petit.

Initiating Change

The TGFM initiative has achieved much since its launch, but perhaps its greatest outcome is bringing together this diverse group of partners and projects under one umbrella, says Arda.

“Together, our voices are louder, and we can make a real difference to the Mediterranean people and marine life.”

Marine protected areas are an important tool for the protection of marine biodiversity and restoring commercially important fish stocks. A study by the University of Plymouth in 2021 found that well-managed sites can result in a four-fold increase in the abundance and diversity of fish populations.

International negotiations are well underway to increase the global marine coverage of MPAs to 30 percent by 2030. But, as it stands today, only 8.33 percent of the Mediterranean Sea is protected, and 0.04 percent is strictly protected. While the expansion of MPAs is crucial, without adequate human resources and funding, there is a real risk of these new sites becoming so-called ‘paper parks.’ A report by Oceana in 2020 found that an astonishing 96 percent of Europe’s MPAs allowed destructive activities within its borders, and some sites were left unmanaged for up to 11 years.

Recognizing these challenges, most, if not all, of the TGFM projects are dedicated to making real policy changes and advocating for stronger protection measures, says Minster. One of the group’s larger projects is working to create new MPAs and to establish no-take zones in over 25 locations all over the Mediterranean.

Several TGFM projects aim to improve the productivity of the Mediterranean Sea for future generations. By working closely with fishers and other marine stakeholders, partners on the ‘MedPath’ project are helping fishing communities better understand the importance of ocean resource management and promoting sustainable fishing practices. Other projects target fish trades, consumers, and markets at local and national levels to improve practices across environmental, social, and economic aspects.

TGFM partners are also working directly with national governments and regional fishing commissions to reduce overexploitation in fisheries and mitigate bycatch of seabirds, sea turtles, cetaceans, and elasmobranchs (including sharks, rays, and skates). The team behind the ‘MedBycatch’ project—counting 17 international partners—has been promoting synergies and joining resources to tackle incidental catches of vulnerable species in waters off the coast of Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Italy, and Croatia.

It’s been a busy five years, says Arda. “We couldn’t have accomplished so much if we were working in isolation. Each organization understands how best to work with their national governments and local communities, and the unique challenges facing their own region. But by uniting, we are starting to see positive changes that can be felt throughout the Mediterranean.”

Establishing a Blue Legacy

MAVA’s investment in the Mediterranean Basin has been substantial, with over 420 million CHF since 1994. But now, after 28 years as a key funder of conservation, the MAVA Foundation will be closing its doors this December, creating a major funding gap for biodiversity.

The initiative has strategically set the ground for further work in the region. But the Mediterranean will need more engagement from new and existing funders for partnerships like Together for the Med to continue its important work in the future, says Minster. “Together for the Med has shown the importance of working collaboratively over large regions and the impact such partnerships can have on marine conservation.”

The Mediterranean Sea remains one of the world’s most overfished seas, and thus there is a crucial need for initiatives like this to continue beyond MAVA’s existence, she adds. “We are extremely proud of what our partners have achieved collectively, and we truly hope that the legacy we are leaving behind will continue to be built on by further conservation initiatives.”

This initiative doesn’t just offer hope for marine biodiversity in the Mediterranean Sea. By uniting nations and bringing coastal communities together from across the ocean, it opens a historic trade route for the exchange of a new kind of commodity: blue solutions and policies that could help shape new sustainable traditions. And for the 480 million people living in the Mediterranean region, this could mean all the difference in achieving food security and a more prosperous future for generations to come.

By: Together by the Med

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