Protected areas in the Mediterranean

Research and Expeditions Director Ricardo Aguilar of Oceana explains how their marine scientists are involved in discovering and documenting remote areas of our oceans

Mare Nostrum, or the Mediterranean Sea as it is known to most of us, is one of the world’s most important seas, serving as a route for transport, trade and cultural exchange between Europe, Africa and Asia for millennia. Its rich waters, stretching 2.9 million km2 across 21 countries and home to 17,000 recorded species, have also made its fisheries a key provider of food and jobs, with over 300,000 people employed today in the fishing sector.

Despite now being the world’s most overfished sea, the Mediterranean is the second largest Global Biodiversity hotspot on the planet, behind the Tropical Andes in South America, according to Conservation International.

It is home to a variety of habitats such as seamounts, submarine canyons, seagrass meadows, maërl beds and corals. It holds around 25% of marine species that can be found nowhere else in the world and is a home to threatened, endangered and critically-endangered species, including 136 sea anemones and corals registered under the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Yet much of the Mediterranean’s deep-sea areas, which go as far down as 5,300 metres, have never been explored or documented, let alone protected. This is despite calls from the United Nations for at least 10% of coastal and marine areas to be protected by 2020. As climate and ocean change becomes more visible and tangible to life on land and below water, scientists say at least 30% of our oceans and seas should be protected.

Current marine protection in the Mediterranean Sea stands at just over 7%. To better identify areas that need safeguarding, Oceana has carried out 17 at-sea research expeditions in the region. Oceana’s research catamaran is equipped with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), allowing our marine scientists to gather first-hand data and survey in real time zones that need protection from human activity. The findings are later presented to the relevant authorities to work towards the designation of a marine protected area.

Last summer, Oceana deployed its catarmaran -‘the Ranger’ – as well as scientists and crew to Italy’s Aeolian Islands, a volcanic archipelago northeast of Sicily. The team spent 4 weeks documenting 7 areas of ecological interest, where deep-sea areas remain mostly unexplored.

The research voyage uncovered a spectacular forest of bamboo coral, one of the densest and largest forests found to date in the Mediterranean Sea. It is considered Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, a global list of species categorised according to their extinction risk, and is protected under UN Environment’s Barcelona Convention. Of the 902 species identified during the expedition, 16 species are considered threatened and included on the Red List.

Oceana researchers also discovered tree corals, and black corals that were full of shark eggs, as well as many other habitats hosting an abundance of species.

Over the coming months, Oceana together with project leader Blue Marine Foundation and the Aeolian Islands Preservation Fund will present the findings to the relevant Italian authorities to work towards the designation of an MPA in the Aeolian Islands, a site Italy first identified for protection back in 1982 and supported again as recently as 2016.

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