Marine mammal conservation in Greece becomes the focus of attention of the global scientific community

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ICMMPA5 ©A. Zamplakos-WWF Greece

Key outcomes of the 5th International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas that took place in Greece, in April 2019

More than 250 scientists, experts, representatives of both governmental and non-governmental agencies, and private sector representatives (maritime and fishing sectors) from a total of 35 countries around the world participated in the 5th International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas (ICMMPA5). The conference was held for the first time in the Mediterranean and was co-hosted by WWF Greece and the International Committee on Marine Mammal Protected Areas. The sessions focused on the overall threats faced by marine mammals in Greece, the Mediterranean and globally, as well as the need to take concrete and tangible measures for the effective conservation of marine mammal populations.

In particular, ICMMPA5 focused extensively on the case of the Hellenic Trench, which arches from the Ionian Sea to the island of Rhodes. This is one of the most important areas for sperm whales and Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Mediterranean. The Hellenic Trench is the permanent home for four additional rare cetacean species (bottlenose, Risso’s, striped and common dolphins) and six ‘vagrant’ species (fin whales, rough-toothed dolphins, humpback whales, common minke whales, false killer whales and mesoplodont whales).

However, a part of this important habitat, and more specifically a total surface of approximately 60,000 square kilometres of the offshore area, has already been granted by the Greek government to concession for hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation by the oil and gas industry. In this context, the participants of the conference called for the immediate protection of the area from the impact of exploration and exploitation operations, which constitute a direct risk to the survival of these endangered species in the wider region. 

Furthermore, with the endorsement of dozens of ICMMPA5 participants, up to 100 scientific bodies and individuals, NGOs from Greece and globally have jointly signed a call to the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, urging him to cancel the hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation plans in the Hellenic Trench. The resolution text is an initiative of WWF Greece supported by Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute, and was presented at ICMMPA5.

In another session, WWF Greece presented the attempts made over the last years to protect the islet of Gyaros, whose beaches and caves host approximately 12% of the global population of the endangered Mediterranean monk seal, Monachus monachus, which breeds in the area. The participants highlighted the need for the Greek government to issue a Presidential Decree, which will formally designate Gyaros as a Marine Protected Area.

At the same time, the important step of the Greek government to triple its marine Natura 2000 network in mostly coastal areas of Greece was highlighted and acknowledged, while emphasis was given to the need for enforcing and consolidating efforts for the protection of marine mammals. Experts highlighted the need for the Greek government to immediately issue and implement management plans for these areas, as well as to undertake similar initiatives for offshore areas, where significant marine mammal populations are found.

The issue of the interaction between cetaceans and shipping (ship strikes) in the Mediterranean was also discussed extensively. The Mediterranean is one of the seas with the highest marine traffic worldwide — at any given time, approximately 2,000 merchant ships weighing over 100 tonnes are crossing it. However, the passage of large ships and the noise they make have significant effects to cetacean populations, especially to fin whales and sperm whales. This special session was joined, among others by representatives of the government and the maritime sector. In the case of the Hellenic Trench, where this issue is prominent, participants jointly concluded that it is imperative that the consultation process between the competent Ministries and relevant stakeholders on the submission of a formal proposal to the International Maritime Organisation should be initiated immediately. The goal is to develop and implement measures which will mitigate the risk of large ship collisions with sperm whales in the area.

In addition, in the context of developing the Maritime Spatial Planning in Greece similar to all other countries in the Mediterranean, participants highlighted the need for considering and integrating in such planning the requirements of marine mammal conservation.

A dedicated session focused on Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs), as a spatial design and management tool, and the possibilities and challenges encountered in using them for the designation and enforcement of marine protected areas and other conservation tools. Another point of discussion involved existing and new initiatives needed for the protection of significant populations in the Mediterranean, such as in the wider region of the “Pelagos Sanctuary”, as well as the need for planning, establishing and implementing a functional network of MPAs in critical and particularly fragile marine regions, such as the Arctic Circle.

Finally, a session that attracted great interest involved the most critically endangered marine mammal in the world, the vaquita. The “little cow” (ed.: translated from Spanish) lives in the Gulf of California in Mexico, with a population size estimated at between 6 and 22 individuals. The vaquita is the collateral victim of illegal fishing. The entire scientific community urged the governments of Mexico, USA and China to combat illegal trade of wild fauna and to step up their efforts on monitoring vaquita protected area. The lessons learned from the case of the vaquita, in which protection measures were taken belatedly, should serve as an example to be avoided in cases of other endangered species in other areas of the world and as a wake-up call for governments to take appropriate management and conservation measures in time.