Preserving Mediterranean biodiversity

Nicosia – The state of the environment does not feature very highly on the political agenda of most European Union and Mediterranean countries and generally receives little media coverage (unless there is a major power station explosion or fuel leak at sea), but the damage being sustained by our seas and coasts – due to pollution and natural menaces – is irreversible and must be stopped, reporters were told during a recent press briefing in Nicosia by the United Nations Environment Program Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP MAP). The constant threat of a possible terrorist attack has shifted attention away from long-term threats to our environment, reporters from 10 different countries in the region agreed. But, in 20 years, global warming could constitute a greater security threat than terrorism if the world is thrown into turmoil by unmanageable weather conditions and scant natural resources, according to a Pentagon report which came to light last month and was discussed during the Nicosia briefing. And climate change is just one of a host of menaces upsetting the crucial natural balance of our environment which UNEP aims to preserve. UNEP MAP has achieved much since the 1976 «Barcelona Convention,» when EU and Mediterranean countries agreed to establish the legal framework for a plan to reduce pollution in the Mediterranean region – a plan developed over two decades with a series of protocols including one drawn up in 1995 which aims to protect the Mediterranean’s biodiversity (the crucial interrelationship of living organisms, aquatic life and the ecosystems of which they form a part). Multiple threats But despite the efforts of the plan, the threats to this critical biological balance are now greater than ever, due to the unchecked pace of trade and development, marine biologist and director of a UNEP MAP regional activity center in Tunisia, Zeineb Belkhir, told reporters. These threats include climate change; eutrophication (the green mossy algae that forms on coastline rocks); industrial and urban pollution; trade and shipping traffic (as well as maritime accidents and illegal discharges from ships); population increases; tourism and uncontrolled coastal urbanization; overfishing; and «invasion» by non-indigenous species (which change the natural dynamics of ecosystems). Climate change and eutrophication were highlighted as the most significant threats by Belkhir, who conceded that there was little we can do about the first. The second is caused by agriculture and the discharge of sewage and can be reduced by advising governments on cost-efficient, environmentally friendly waste-dumping techniques, she said. Currently, nearly half (48 percent) of urban centers in the Mediterranean region do not have sewage treatment facilities – implying that waste gets dumped directly into the sea, according to Chedly Rais, a marine biodiversity conservation expert also based in Tunisia. Further, 70-85 percent of waste waters are disposed of untreated, and petrol refineries dump 20,000 tons of petrol into the sea every year, Rais added. Chemical pollution is another serious concern. Compounds including DDTs and PCBs (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethanes and polychlorinated biphenyls) can provoke reproductive anomalies in fish, according to Rais, who claimed that tests on the central Mediterranean male swordfish show a 14 percent sex inversion, a trend which would result in the eventual extinction of male fish were it to continue. (In human beings, PCBs can produce changes in the immune system, impaired reproduction, but the most common symptoms are skin irritations.) Maritime traffic is another constant threat to biodiversity, Rais said, stressing that 50 percent of all goods carried at sea are dangerous to some degree, and noting that 28 percent of the world’s seaborne oil traffic crosses the Mediterranean (some 200,000 ships cross the Mediterranean every year). Good work is being done by the Regional Marine Pollution Emergency Response Center for the Mediterranean (REMPEC) – which was set up in 1976 following a series of massive oil spills in the late 1960s and early 1970s – but much more needs to be done to ensure that major disasters are avoided, Rais said. The destructive role played by tourism and uncontrolled coastal urbanization in the Mediterranean is well known. «We should not stop tourism, as it is a main source of income for Mediterranean countries, but the way in which tourism has been developed has been damaging,» Baher Kamal, information officer of UNEP MAP’s Athens office, remarked. The sprawling development of the tourism sector – along with the population increase – has resulted in more non-biodegradable garbage ending up in the sea, Kamal noted. To give us an idea of the pollution in the Mediterranean, Kamal cited an example involving the daily use of plastic bags. «If the average Egyptian disposes of three plastic bags every day, the amount of plastic disposed of daily by 70 million Egyptians – and which generally ends up in the sea – would form a 30-centimeter-thick layer of pure plastic across the Mediterranean seabed,» he remarked. The Mediterranean Sea All the abovementioned threats form a compound menace to the Mediterranean Sea, whose natural characteristics alone (such as a low concentration of nutrients like phosphates and nitrates) suggest that it is fragile and that we should protect it, Rais said. Compared to the Atlantic, Mediterranean marine communities are rich in species, accommodating smaller individuals with shorter life cycles, Rais said. The Mediterranean is also known for its high proportion of endemic species, he added, noting that we must protect these species and the ecosystems on which they depend if the natural balance in the Mediterranean is to be preserved. The Posidonia Meadow, a species of marine vegetation, constitutes the most important Mediterranean marine ecosystem. It is a reservoir of biodiversity, providing a habitat for several species and stabilizing the seabed. But it is extremely endangered in the Mediterranean where trawling scrapes it from the seabed, Rais noted. The Mediterranean also accommodates several endangered species – such as turtles (Caretta-caretta, loggerhead and green turtles) and the Mediterranean monk seal – whose existence is threatened by overfishing and the occupation of sandy shores, Myroula Hadjichristoforou, senior fisheries and marine research officer at the Cypriot Department of Fisheries and Marine Research, told reporters. Turtles need to come to the beach to reproduce but the availability of turtle nesting sites is steadily decreasing due to tourism development, as can be witnessed in popular resorts such as the Ionian island of Zakynthos, she noted. And it is not only the well-known species such as turtles that are at risk. Experts say there are more than 100 endangered marine species in the Mediterranean alone. The health of the world’s seas and oceans – and the species and ecosystems they accommodate – is to be the focus of World Environment Day on June 5, when international experts will convene in Mauritius to discuss preservation strategies.