The Greek seas: an undiscovered hotspot for marine mammals in the eastern Mediterranean basin
Marine mammals, were first recorded in 350 BC in Aristotle’s “Historia Animalum”, who was the first to distinguish them from fish since they breath air, take care of their young ones and breastfeed them. They form an intrinsic part of Greek history, mythology and culture and in ancient times marine mammals, such as the Mediterranean monk seals enjoyed the protection of Poseidon and Apollo.
At present, 14 species of marine mammals (9 are permanent and 5 occur occasionally) swim in Greek waters and can be observed near the coast and all the way out to the open sea. The 9 marine mammals that permanently inhabit Greek seas are: the Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus, fin whale Balaenoptera physalus, sperm whale Physeterer macrocephalus, Cuvier’s beaked whale Ziphius cavirostris, harbour porpoise Phocoena phocoena, and 4 species of dolphins (Risso’s dolphin Grampeus griseus, bottlenose dolphin Tursiops truncatus, striped dolphin Stenella coeruleoalba and common dolphin Delphinus delphis). The 5 species found occasionally are the humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae, northern minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata, false killer whale Pseudorca crassidens, beaked whale Mesoplodon sp. and the rough-toothed dolphin Steno bredanensis.
The presence of marine mammals is an indicator and is related to the overall health of the marine environment. Marine mammals are at the top of the food web acting as “regulators” of the marine environment. However, according to the IUCN red list of endangered species, seven of the nine “resident” marine mammals are threatened with extinction. Human related activities, such as collision with vessels, pollution, overfishing, coastal development related to tourism and the exploitation of seabed wealth, oil and gas extraction, extensive noise pollution caused by hydrocarbon survey exploration, oil spills, chemicals and pesticides from land crops and climate change constitute important threats to the survival of marine mammals.
Marine mammals in Greece are protected by numerous international, European and national legislation. However, the NATURA 2000 Network, the network of ecologically important areas across Europe, established to protect important species and habitats, has been quite limited and until recently proved inadequate in terms of identifying and designating important for marine mammal areas requiring protection. As a result, legally protected NATURA 2000 marine areas constitute just 19,7% of Greek territorial waters, mainly consisting of coastal areas that cetaceans rarely traverse that are not adequately interconnected and do not provide cohesive protection corridors essential for the conservation of marine mammals.
Greek waters host a total of 7 Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs) and a number of areas where more research is required to better assess their importance to marine mammal populations.
For more information on marine mammals in Greece visit: https://www.wwf.gr/index.php/en/endangered-species/marine-mammals