Nineteen percent of the Aegean needs to be slated for protection in order to safeguard the marine environment and biodiversity, a joint Greek-Norwegian research program has concluded after studying human activity in the archipelago and its impact on important ecosystems and endangered species.
Greece currently has just two protected marine parks off the coasts of Alonisos and Zakynthos, representing just 2.16 percent of territorial waters (extending 6 nautical miles offshore), and a number of marine zones protected under the Natura convention, representing 4.91 percent. In the Aegean Sea, Natura areas cover 2.27 percent of national and international waters, and marine parks 1.02 percent.
“Our seas are starting to get in a tight spot. Human activities such as coastal shipping, tourism and fishing are expanding, while new ones are also being created, such as offshore wind farms and hydrocarbon exploration,” warns Stelios Katsanevakis, associate professor at the University of the Aegean’s Department of Marine Sciences. “The clash between the different activities is therefore becoming more intense, while the need to protect biodiversity is becoming even more urgent.”
The program, titled Maritime Spatial Planning for the Protection and Conservation of the Biodiversity in the Aegean Sea – or MARISCA for short – mapped the ecological features of the Aegean in 2016 (habitats and high-priority species) and analyzed human activities and the pressure these were exerting on the marine environment. The project was conducted by a consortium of the University of the Aegean, the Hellenic Center for Marine Research (HCMR) and Norway’s Institute of Marine Research (IMR), coordinated by Katsanevakis. The European Environmental Area Financial Mechanism (EEA FM 2009-14) provided 85 percent of the funding and Greece’s Public Investment Program (PIP) 15 percent.
“We recorded the Aegean’s seagrass meadows, as well as the main habitats and priority species. Using this information, we designed a network of protected marine areas that we believe should cover around 19 percent of the archipelago. In cases where human activity is less intensive these areas could be in the form of national parks and other simple protected zones,” says Katsanevakis. “The fact is that what really matters at the end of the day is the measures you take. The act of delineating a zone means nothing in and of itself.”
The experts have recommended a number of alternatives. “There are certain areas that we consider irreplaceable, such as that around the islands of Gyaros, Aghios Efstratios and Kimolos, among a few others. We believe that all activities save the mildest forms should be completely banned in these areas,” says the project coordinator. “For the rest of the Aegean, we have recommended certain alternatives so that we can achieve the protection targets set by European Community directives while reducing the cost of non-utilization of resources as much as possible. What happens next, of course, is up to the politicians.”
Delineating marine zones for protection is not just imperative under community directives on environmental protection, but also under Greek law, which recently adopted the directives. According to the new legislation, EU countries have until 2021 to draw up zoning plans that will regulate human activities at sea. Katsanevakis explains that zoning for human activities has been in effect for decades, delineating, for example, fishing grounds or zones where extraction of raw materials is allowed.
“However, management of these areas has traditionally been done from a sectoral approach, where every sector of human activity is developed independently of the others,” he says. “Today, management by sector and planning that is not comprehensive is considered inadequate for ensuring sustainable growth. The modern approach to marine management requires coordinated planning of all human activities, aimed, among others, at protecting biodiversity.”