“Santorini’s underwater landscape is like a wonderful theater stage. The set is unique: underwater caves, Posidonia oceanica seagrass meadows, dramatic cliffs and an incredible clarity. However, it is a theater without actors or an audience. Do you know what the local fishermen tell me? ‘We got a sea full of fish from our parents, but are delivering a desert to our children.’”
At the age of 36, Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the youngest son of renowned oceanographer and explorer Jacques-Yves (1910-97), is a frequent visitor to the southeastern Aegean island and knows what he’s talking about. He has built friendships and developed a long-lasting relationship with the islanders, after first spending some significant time here nine years ago while training to be a scuba-diving instructor. He has visited almost yearly ever since, not just to enjoy the natural landscape but also to participate in efforts for its protection. Cousteau has teamed up with a group of locals and friends of Santorini to push for the creation of the first marine park in the Cyclades – in the absence of government support. As a citizen of the world (who says, “I live from a suitcase between Paris and the rest of the planet”), Cousteau fervently supports a transition to a more sustainable model of development, which harnesses the strengths of the local economy.
How did your relationship with Santorini start?
I first came in 2009 to train as a scuba diving instructor. I worked all season, and finally took my exams in Thessaloniki [in northern Greece]. Since then I have been visiting regularly, at least once a year.
What is so special about the sea around Santorini?
From an environmental perspective, the area has the highest biodiversity in the Cyclades. Ironically, however, there are no longer any fish in the sea. This may be due to the complex topography of the seabed, as it provides shelter for many types of fish. The area is also unique due to its interaction with island life. Burgeoning tourism development is both a threat and an opportunity for the well-being of marine life here.
What is the problem?
Santorini’s underwater landscape is like a wonderful theater stage. The set is unique: underwater caves, Posidonia oceanica seagrass meadows, dramatic cliffs and an incredible clarity. However, it is a theater without actors or an audience. Do you know what the local fishermen tell me? “We got a sea full of fish from our parents, but are delivering a desert to our children.” The area has been overfished for decades.
How can listing it as a protected area change the situation?
For the past 30 years, the international community, advised by leading scientific research, has recognized the importance of protected marine areas. It is an intuitive solution: When you injure your leg, what do you do? You need to rest and recover. The same applies to the sea. If we let the marine life rest for a while, biodiversity will recover. A study was conducted recently in 120 underwater protected areas, 17 of which were in the Mediterranean Sea. The study indicated that within five years, protected areas displayed a 450 percent increase in fish stocks and 20 percent in biodiversity.
What do you suggest for Santorini?
The Hellenic Center of Marine Research, with funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, was able to conduct a study on the current state of marine life in Santorini. We [the Santorini team campaigning for a marine park] suggested two areas, the first between Perissa and Kamari, and the second, which fishermen will probably want more, around Akrotiri, at the tip of Santorini. Unfortunately, the sea of Santorini no longer has fish and fishermen need to travel further, expending more time at sea to capture less fish. When we explained the benefits of protecting marine areas, the fishermen allied with our cause and unanimously supported our proposal. The whole island supports it.
So why hasn’t the initiative moved forward?
I am not a politician, I do not understand how Greek politics works… although sometimes I don’t think anyone does either. What I do know is that things move very slowly. The Ministry of Agricultural Development had the opportunity to step up and adopt the project, setting a positive example for others. You see, the restriction of fishing does not mean that all activity must cease. Protecting a marine area still allows for mild activity such as ecotourism. For example, the sea surrounding the Medes Islands in Spain has been protected for 20 years. People from all over the world visit and pay to dive and see the fish. The tourism development of Santorini offers a huge opportunity for financing a protected area.
The European Union has put the problem of marine pollution from plastic much higher up its agenda the past couple of years. Why?
It occurred because, unfortunately, the problem is becoming increasingly visible. Plastics are oil. When we throw plastics into the sea, they disintegrate and enter our food chain, poisoning us. However, it is an issue which requires action across all levels. Consumers must make mindful purchases in order to pressure industries to improve their designs and invest in new, biodegradable materials. Governments must also forbid the use of certain plastics, such as the appalling circulation of single-use plastics.
The industry claims that plastic is a cheap and “clever” material that has improved our quality of life.
In order to produce a plastic straw, we have to extract oil from across the world. It must then be refined, transported to production units and then transported to the consumer… to have for free! This process is only financially viable because of government subsidies to mining companies, which annually exceed $500 billion worldwide. If we paid the true value of that plastic, these products would not be as cheap. However, companies externalize the cost, as they do not calculate the human cost, to our health, and environmental cost of treating waste and recycling. I think a good first step is to determine the true cost of plastic.
What is your opinion about the planned drilling for hydrocarbon deposits in Greece?
Greece has the largest amount of sunlight and wind in the Mediterranean. As a nation, Greece could not only be energy efficient, but export energy to surrounding areas. Giving the go-ahead to mining operations does not create solutions but an array of new problems. For example, sound pollution from mining causes tremendous harm to marine mammals. Let alone the huge risk for the country’s economy in the eventuality of a pipe leak. The risks from mining far outweigh the profits it would generate.
Have you got any other projects in the pipeline?
I am working on a project promoting the transition to a more sustainable model of development by harnessing the strength of the economy. As part of this objective, I am forming a private investment company which supports innovation, such as companies that are making substitutes to plastic, biodegradable materials. I am also working on a project in Santorini named Hermes, in which we are developing a new device that measures sea temperatures. We want to make this device accessible to members of the Cousteau Divers Society, so that individuals from all over the world can collect data every time they dive and share it on an open database. The temperature of the ocean, which we know very little about, is a critical parameter to marine natural processes.