I met hydrobiologist Anastasia Miliou, the scientific director of the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation, on the small island of Lipsi in the southeastern Aegean on an August morning. The Archipelagos logo on her T-shirt and an impressive collection of scars on her hands and feet had me intrigued and I couldn't stop asking her questions.
One of the first fascinating things she told me about was the creation of a unique marine life sanctuary in the waters of Lipsi and its surrounding islets.
“Every year, we record dozens of injured marine animals – of various species including dolphins, turtles, etc – but we don't have the infrastructure to treat them,” explains Miliou. “To be precise, there are some very basic facilities but they are in a manmade environment: in a tank, in a city. What we are working on creating here, in an isolated bay on the island's northwestern coast, is a sanctuary that will also serve as a hospital for marine animals and as an experimental area where we will try to reproduce the ecosystem of the Mediterranean as it was before man downgraded it. And, of course, it will also operate as an international research and education center.”
Miliou says the sanctuary has been in partial operation since the start of the summer and that work proper is expected to commence in the winter, despite limited resources.
Archipelagos is a not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization that was founded in 1998 with the aim of conducting research and spearheading conservation campaigns in the Greek seas and the broader northeastern Mediterranean region.
“From the outset we wanted to be as effective as possible in defending and protecting the natural environment of our seas and islands from ever-increasing threats,” says Miliou. “Our greatest investments have been gaining the trust of local communities and conducting research in cooperation with leading scientists and universities in Europe and America so that we can form strong and effective alliances.”
Hundreds of scientists and students from as far away as Canada, India and New Zealand travel to Greece every year thanks to Archipelagos. This year there have already been more than 600 visitors, as the institute attracts scientists from a broad range of disciplines and specialties: from ichthyologists and hydrobiologists to zoologists and ornithologists. It also works with lawyers involved in environmental cases, journalists and even graphic and animation artists.
“This is not the product of public relations; we're not very good at PR, actually. It's the result of the high-quality work we do, which involves completing research by managing in practice the problems of an environment like the Aegean,” says Miliou, adding that the arrival of so many foreign scientists has multiple benefits.
“They bring activity to small island like Lipsi or bigger ones like Samos all year around. Some are here to learn from a specific project for just a few weeks, but there are quite a few who choose the Aegean as the subject of their doctoral theses and stay with us for as long as four years,” stresses Miliou.
The focus of Archipelagos's work is to defend the natural resources of the sea from destructive practices such as illegal fishing (including the use of dynamite), waste dumping and pollution. It also organizes public awareness campaigns on a local, national and international level, using social media, video, animation and print media.
The Aegean, explains Miliou, is particularly important as it “has the greatest biodiversity in Europe.”
“It has the last remaining large seagrass meadows, as well as large and significant coral reefs built by red algae, ecosystems of incredible beauty that in some cases date back 7,000-8,000 years.”
Miliou underscores that traditional forms of fishing such as those practiced on islands like Lipsi are not a threat. “The responsible fisherman is our ally because he knows that if we succeed in our goals, there will be more fish.” She adds, however, that large trawlers are responsible for widespread and “irreversible” destruction, and reported to the authorities whenever spotted operating in areas where they are banned from.
Miliou has known since childhood that protecting the environment was her calling. “My mother grew up in Tanzania and I was fortunate as a child to travel to Africa often and visit environmental research and conservation centers,” she says.
She received a degree in ecology and environmental biology at the University of Essex in the UK in 2000 and joined Archipelagos that same year. She spent six years living on the organization's boat and has lived in the Aegean for 16 years.
“The easiest thing for me would have been to cloister myself in an office or a lab and study the environment from there, without taking any personal risks,” she says. “But if you really want to protect the environment, you need engagement and consistency. It can't be protected just by campaigns and summer research expeditions, which obviously serve some other purpose, which is why they haven't produced any results in Greece after so many years. Everyone talks about the environment, but it is treated as a theoretical issue.”
Her favorite corners of the Aegean are Marathos, a small islet with just three residents in winter and “unique natural attractions,” and Anydros, a rock close to Patmos that is home to a colony of Eleanora's falcons, which spends the winters in Madagascar and comes to the Aegean in spring to mate. Archipelagos, Miliou says, is working with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Oslo to monitor nesting patterns on the islet, which was once a military firing range and was transformed, thanks to the organization's efforts, into a wildlife sanctuary in 2005.
The most impressive sea creature she has seen in Greece's waters, she says, is the sperm whale. “It is a paradox that in the country of Aristotle, who was the first to give us some evidence of the biology of the whales in our seas, there is so much ignorance regarding these giants that live beside us. Most Greek kids know more about dinosaurs than about the Aegean's whales.”
Living in our overfished seas and in the same areas where fishermen are struggling to survive, sperm whales eat about half a ton of food a day, but only of species that man doesn't fish.
“In contrast to humans, whales have been managing their food resources wisely for thousands and thousands of years,” says Miliou. “Not only do they make sure they don't deplete fish stocks, but their constant migration allows the stocks to replenish. We humans, however, scorn the balance of the ecosystem and have managed, within just a few decades, to almost completely deplete the fish stocks of our seas.”
What has Miliou learned so far?
“I have learned that the most passionate protectors of the environment are not people who live in cities and may have an exceptional standard of education, but residents of the islands, people who were born in that environment and have come to understand and feel for it. Some of the most valuable knowledge I have about the sea has not come from books or scientific journals, but from fishermen who take daily samples from our seas,” she says. “They see the problems and are anxious for solutions. Any indignation or grief I feel when I see the destruction of the environment and the damage we continue to bequeath to our children, they feel to a much greater degree because the Aegean is their home. I may leave one day, but they won't.”