How marine parks can help Greece

Greeks should improve the protection of the marine park in the Northern Sporades and create more protected marine areas, stretching from the islands of Santorini to Giaros. Fishermen, tourism operators, local communities, environmental organizations and local authorities should collaborate without expecting any support from the government. In this way, the country will see fish populations multiply and incomes grow. This will prove to be one more weapon in the hands of a country fighting off its financial woes.

These are, more or less, the messages that Enric Sala sends from his office in Washington DC to our tormented country. He knows best. A marine biologist and adventurous diver for National Geographic, the 42-year-old Spanish explorer is devoted to the protection of the seas, and a persuader of leaders — he is after all the person who convinced Chilean President Sebastian Pinera to establish a protected marine area of 58,000 square miles around Sala Y Giomez, off Easter Island.

So what does Greece stand to gain? If not the 55,000 job opportunities and more than 5.5 billion dollars of annual income produced by the natural wonder of the Great Coral Reef off Australia, then certainly much more than the 6 million euros per annum created by the tiny marine park of the Medes Islands off the coast of Spain?s Catalonia, with an area of no more than 1 square kilometer. That?s what Sala told me when we first met a few months back in Monaco, for the world premiere of his revealing documentary ?Secrets of the Mediterranean,? which he produced with Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the son and heir of the legendary Jacques-Yves. That?s what he wrote in an article for Kathimerini newspaper published last September, inspired by an unfortunate experience he had while diving south of Samos during his summer vacation. And, he repeats now, while the issue of illegal fishing causes protests in Athens and Brussels, fish stocks are rapidly disappearing due to overfishing while small-scale coastal fishermen are threatened with unemployment. The question is, are we going to do something about it?

In your recent article, which was published in Kathimerini, you described a very dramatic picture you encountered while diving south of Samos this summer. Can you be more specific on the details?

I jumped in the water with my scuba tanks, and when I got to the bottom, at a depth of 10 meters, I saw about 25 dead little fish on the seabed. The fish did not seem to have any parasites or external lesions. The rock around them was bare. It was very likely the result of dynamite fishing which I have seen several other times in Greece. The explosion destroys their inner organs, especially the swim bladder. Some fish float to the surface, but others sink to the bottom. It is the most stupid way of fishing.

During our meeting in Monaco, both you and Pierre-Yves Cousteau explicitly warned that underwater life in Greece is on the brink of extinction. Is this dire forecast based on personal experience and research?

This is based on both personal experience and scientific data. I have dived throughout the Mediterranean for 25 years and conducted scientific research in Greece between 2005 and 2008. Greece and Turkey have the lowest coastal fish populations registered in the Mediterranean and almost anywhere in coastal waters. This is caused mostly by overexploiting the Greek seas taking fish at a rate faster than they can reproduce for too long. My colleague Dr Sylvaine Giakoumi is conducting similar studies in the Aegean that confirm the sorry state of Greek coastal waters.

The Archipelagos sea protection institute in Greece recently estimated that there was a drop of 51 percent in the catch during the January-May 2011 period compared to the same period in 2010. It also said the most common fish species in the eastern Aegean have dropped 60 percent and that commercial species? populations have fallen by almost 90 percent. Do these numbers sound accurate to you?

We should not draw conclusions from changes that take place from one year to the next, but from long-term trends. And long-term trends tell us that fisheries keep collapsing, and that 90 percent of large predatory fish sharks, tuna, groupers have been eliminated by excessive exploitation.

Are there any particular areas you would propose for the creation of protected marine zones in Greece? And on which criteria should these areas be chosen?

The priority areas are those where there are viable reproductive colonies of the Mediterranean monk seal. The Greek conservation organization MOm [Hellenic Society for the Study and the Protection of the Mediterranean Monk Seal] has conducted excellent research and showed that there are four hotspots in the Aegean that should be protected as soon as possible. But there are also areas where marine reserves and the subsequent recovery of marine life would attract diving tourism, thus creating jobs and bringing more revenue to the local economy. Santorini would be a good target for that.

Practically, how could protected marine zones work when you have so many interests involved?

As simple as this: You prohibit fishing by law in one area, and the fish come back spectacularly, with clear increases in three to five years. This helps to replenish the fish populations around the reserves, and also attracts tourism. This brings jobs, money and better fishing. We have seen this around the world and also in the Mediterranean (Spain, France and Italy). Enforcing the law may not be easy; the best way for a reserve to work is if all local stakeholders (fishermen, tourism operators, diving centers, local authorities) agree on the creation of the reserve and realize that the reserve is not a sacrifice but a way to improve their livelihoods.

Returning to your documentary, it takes 20 years for areas to fully recover from overfishing.

Recovery depends on how long local species live. Groupers can live more than 40 years, so it would take at least 40 years to achieve complete recovery. But many species mature faster, and recovery can be seen within three to five years for some of the smallest. The reserve is like a savings account with capital that we set aside and that produces compound interest. As long as we keep protection in place, abundance keeps increasing.

And during that time, what would the fishermen do?

Again, small fish would recover within a few years, and larger species would take longer. But I predict that groupers an emblematic species would increase significantly in five years. Fishermen?s catches are shrinking, and most are not fishermen full-time; the resources are too scarce to support the former numbers. Your question should be reversed: What are fishermen going to do without reserves? After a few years, they could benefit from the abundance of fish. In Corsica, fishermen are now asking for the expansion of the Scandola marine reserve, because they know that more protection means more fish to catch around the reserves.

Greece has many particular characteristics. I am not just talking about the country?s extensive shores and complicated geography. We have thousands of families depending on fishing, 90 percent of them with small boats, fishing near the shores and selling what they catch locally. And we also have owners of larger vessels who strongly oppose the EU ban on fishing within 1.5 miles of the shore? and also poachers, dynamite users, amateur fishermen etc. And it is also common knowledge that Turkish vessels are fishing in Greek waters all year round with total disrespect for both national and European regulations. Is it realistic to make them all stop?

I?d like to know how many fishermen are actually ?legal,? full-time fishermen in Greece. This is the baseline we should consider. Illegal dynamite fishing is the worst, alongside some industrial fishing practices such as trawling, which destroys the seabed. Fishermen tend to blame others for the negative impact of their practices. It?s Greek fishermen that are doing the most damage to the very resource they depend on. There should be much more effective enforcement of Greek and European laws, that?s for sure.

Given the particular characteristics of the Aegean Sea, which model of protected zones would work better? Many small ones? A few large ones?

Probably a few large ones protecting key ecosystems (such as monk seal breeding areas) together with many small ones, which could be co-managed by local communities. That would be more effective than expecting Greek ministries to do it.

Our former Minister of Maritime Affairs Yiannis Diamantidis compared EU regulations in fishing, especially the 1.5-mile ban on large vessels, to a ?death penalty? for thousands of people. How does that sound to you?

This is a demagogic statement. Overfishing is the only ?death penalty? for thousands of people and it?s self-inflicted.

Do you think that overexploitation of the sea, combined with the financial crisis, will eventually lead to some form of self-regulation? For example, we already have many fishermen who stop fishing because the sea cannot support them anymore, and maybe we will face a fall in the consumption of seafood simply because fish will become too expensive for poor families to eat.

I doubt it. Economic crises tend to make people more desperate and have a bigger toll on natural resources. I predict more dynamite fishing if those illegal fishermen can buy dynamite. Marine reserves are a good solution to restore fish populations and help the fishermen. That?s what Greek fishermen and government officials need to understand.

Have you ever discussed your proposal with European Commissioner Maria Damanaki? Have you met with other Greek officials on the matter?

I have not discussed the benefits of marine reserves with Greek officials. I have great respect for the work that Mrs Damanaki is doing with regard to European fisheries. She could and should be a leader in restoring the former riches of the Greek seas.

After so many years of devoting yourself to the cause of sea protection, do you think you?ve had more victories or defeats?

Not enough victories, but the fact that there are solutions that work make me hope that we can scale them up and have a global impact.

What keeps you going?

Diving in a well-enforced marine reserve or a pristine site and seeing what the oceans could be like.

From what I?ve read, they call you ?the Antonio Banderas of marine protection.? Is personal charm and charisma necessary to promote important environmental issues, in this day and age?

Anything that can inspire key leaders and stakeholders is necessary. In the end, it all boils down to people making decisions, so good interpersonal skills are crucial.

Is it more difficult to create awareness of environmental problems, the impact of which lies below sea level, beyond what we usually see?

Absolutely. Out of sight, out of mind.

At the moment Greek people feel betrayed by their own politicians, uncertain about their own future, and fed up with foreign experts telling them what is the right thing to do. The significance of your message is obvious, but what would be your final argument to convince them to listen to you?

Here is the evidence. It works better than continuing overfishing. It?s up to you to decide if you want a healthier environment and better livelihoods, or a perpetual crisis and desperation.

Would I be right to guess that you haven?t tasted any fresh fish on Samos?

I didn?t. I mostly ate vegetables, but they were very tasty.