Island wants fish sanctuary

Three years ago, a municipal councilor from the Dodecanese island of Kastelorizo turned up at the offices of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Greece with a request from the island’s fishermen to help them set up a 1.5-square-kilometer fish sanctuary in the waters off the island. Initially, Dimitris Karavellas, WWF director, thought it was a joke. Usually, when the WWF undertakes initiatives such as these, they run up against stiff opposition on the part of local authorities. Thus it was virtually inconceivable that local authorities themselves would come looking for help with such an innovative idea. Since then the WWF, with the help of the island’s residents, has done what the State has failed to do: planned a research program for the region, funded it with its own resources, and done something which has been accomplished everywhere else in the Mediterranean and in 1,000 other places around the world. However, like it or not, the State’s contribution is mandatory. In Greece, there is no institutional framework to allow such a sanctuary to be set up. Now that all the work has already been done, the State, in this case the Agriculture Ministry’s General Directorate of Fisheries, has only one obligation: to pass a legislative amendment enabling the plan to go ahead. But why would the fishermen want to have an area where, for a certain length of time, they would be forbidden to fish? The reduction in fish populations in Greek waters has affected Kastelorizo, where catches, particularly of the most profitable fish such as grouper and sea bream, have been drastically reduced, as has been confirmed by the WWF’s research since 2000. It is even more worrying given that the 20 professional fishermen on the island (which has a permanent population of 250) depend exclusively on the sea for their livelihood. So while seeking solutions to their problem, they heard about the existence of fish sanctuaries, an international, scientifically proven, modern method of managing fishing resources. The region off Kastelorizo, which the fishermen suggested to the WWF as the most suitable, actually fulfills the scientific criteria. According to the WWF’s research, it is an important breeding and feeding ground for valuable species of fish. The seven rocky islets included in the area form a unique environment for the protection and growth of fish species. The organization suggests that the site be closed off for at least three years. «We believe that by the second year, the results will be noticeable,» said Giorgos Payiatas, head of the WWF program. First of all, however, there has to be the appropriate legislative framework. An application to the Agriculture Ministry has been pending for 17 months, but is now becoming more urgent, as there is a European Union proposal to set up a fish sanctuary within the framework of the new Common Fisheries Policy, and a possibility of funding from the Operational Fishing Program in the Third Community Support Framework. Moreover, Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys has recently expressed support for the idea of fish sanctuaries. The most significant factor of all, however, is the fact that the initiative came from the local residents themselves. With regard to the boundaries of the site, the areas where samples are to be taken and the planning of the project itself, there was prior official agreement between WWF Hellas with Kastelorizo’s professional fishermen, and the island’s municipal council has officially declared its support for the project. «Greece has a unique opportunity here to exploit the new Common Fisheries Policy to benefit a considerable sector of the fishing industry, which is small-scale coastal fishing,» Karavellas told Kathimerini. «We could set up many of these sanctuaries as an investment for the future, for both the fish and fishermen. But in order to do that, both the cooperation of the fishermen and a clear political will is needed.» Benefits for the entire region A closed sanctuary is an area with particular natural features ideal for the breeding, growth, feeding and protection of fish populations, and where any excavation of the seabed or disposal of material is banned, as well as the use of certain fishing equipment – although in the case of Kastelorizo, there would be a ban on all types of fishing. These areas are usually open for activities such as swimming and observation, and scientific research related to management. The idea is to revive fish populations, particularly of economically valuable species, and to restore ecosystems despoiled by human activities. They have proved to be extremely successful. Fish sanctuaries have raised the density of fish populations as well as the average body weight of the fish, resulting in better fishing even outside the immediate area.