Pushing forward the Pelagos Sanctuary and the conservation of marine mammals in the Mediterranean Sea

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By Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Tethys Research Institute, giuseppe [at] disciara.net

More than 20 years ago (1991), under the impetus of the highest concern for the survival of cetacean populations in the Mediterranean, strongly impacted by human activities (most notably bycatch in pelagic driftnets), with colleagues I lobbied for the establishment of a large (87,000 km2) marine mammal sanctuary in the region’s NW portion, covering an area containing critical habitat of several cetacean species. Subsequently (1999), the Pelagos Sanctuary was formally established by a treaty among France, Italy and Monaco, and was later included in the list of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMIs) under the purview of the Barcelona Convention. As the world’s first MPA established in the high seas, Pelagos has served significantly the purpose of attracting attention to the need of protecting Areas Beyond Natural Jurisdiction (ABNJ).

Today, however, 13 years after its designation, I cannot state that the Pelagos Sanctuary has been doing much for the local populations of whales and dolphins. It has never been properly managed — in fact there is no management body. Trying to overcome the sense of frustration caused by this condition, I think that this impasse needs to be overcome through some lateral thinking.

The situation of marine protection of the Mediterranean is different today from when the idea of Pelagos was first conceived, in the early ‘90s. First, driftnets are no longer the main threat to cetaceans, having been made illegal (although some pockets of illegal use still persist in southern Italy, Morocco and Turkey, which are causing cetacean mortality). Second, in the frame of a process that will eventually cause international waters to become extinct in the Mediterranean, Pelagos lies no longer in ABNJ, being now within France’s Mediterranean EEZ and Italy’s Ecological Protection Zone. Third, the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic (ACCOBAMS), under the Convention on Migratory Species, has come into force since 2002, with a wide regional membership and the mandate of protecting cetaceans everywhere in the Mediterranean, not just inside the borders of Pelagos.

So, has Pelagos served its function, and should it now be sent to retirement? I don’t think so, particularly because of the local sense of pride that it has generated during the years (more that 40 coastal municipalities in France and Italy have deliberated to be partners of the Pelagos Sanctuary). However, I think that its nature could be modified to best meet the current and future challenges.

A proposal: reduce and enlarge Pelagos

This could perhaps be achieved by simultaneously reducing and enlarging Pelagos. Let me clarify. I would first reduce it by limiting its purview over areas that really contain cetacean critical habitat, thereby leaving outside wide portions of marine surface, currently included inside Pelagos’ perimeter, that have little or no significance for cetacean conservation. At the same time, I would include within Pelagos other areas containing cetacean critical habitat throughout the Western Mediterranean – from Gibraltar all the way to the Sicily Strait - thereby transforming Pelagos into a Western Mediterranean network of marine mammal core conservation areas. We now have the ecological information needed to accomplish this task. In turn, this network would contribute to strengthen the bases for the identification of EBSAs (CBD’s Ecologically or Biologically Significant Areas) in the region. In addition, it would serve as an introduction to the implementation of a Marine Spatial Planning scheme whereby all human activities in the Mediterranean that are currently impairing or threatening marine mammal conservation – such as navigation, military, oil exploration, fishing – will be made to coexist with environmental protection.

Perhaps by going in this direction it will be easier to give the Pelagos Sanctuary a more meaningful and manageable character. I admit that the idea is still pretty raw, and will need quite more tinkering to make its implementation possible, or even desirable, within the current Mediterranean governance complexity. This is the reason why I am posting it on OpenChannels: to seek comments and suggestions which will help to understand whether the idea has potential, and eventually make progress with it.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara is an ecologist and conservationist who has bridged the worlds of marine science, conservation and policy over a 40-year career. He is president of the Tethys Research Institute (www.tethys.org) and publishes the Wave Action blog (www.disciara.net).


Hi, I'm a naturalist and conservationist, and I think this is a good idea, because must do utmost for the Salvaguardian of this Safeguard!! Let's defend this place!! My opinion is a little opinion, but together We will do great things!! Finally I would say thanks to you, because you are dedicated your life to the istitution and to the safeguard of this wonderful place!!! I'm sorry because my English is not good, but I hope to be useful for the Planet safeguard, one day in the future. Good lucky!!!!

Giuseppe N.diSciara has a sound point and he knows what he is talking about. But while his proposal is more than a good starting point to the discussion, if his model is approached, it will face the same challenge as Pelagos in his current form. Are States willing to implement conservation measures? A lot of scientific bodies and institutions, as well as NGOs, but also governmental departments, have developed maps of critical habitat for cetaceans in the MedSea, but those sites exist predominantly on paper. So, the key challenge to me is to join forces making pressure on decision makers and stakeholders to use the available scientific knowledge and intelligent conservation action concepts and implement and enforce those measures. In this respect Europe is far behind the initiatives of other regions.

Niki, I fully agree with you. Lack of implementation is a continuous source of frustration here in the Med. The proposal in my post tries to present to decision-makers a development of the idea of Pelagos which - while still providing protection to cetaceans in the area, further extended in the W Med - can be more easily integrated into the current "EU-politically correct" marine conservation and management policies. I am hoping that one of the idea's drawbacks - the diminished "sense of place" that the transformation of Pelagos into a W Med network will entail for the human communities living along the shores of the current Sanctuary - will be more than compensated by the concrete possibility that the network will be used for more effective cetacean protection.

In a way, I like the idea because it transfers Pelagos from a format whereby it needs to be managed as if it were a humongous Portofino MPA - something nobody wants to do and neither knows how to, and is in part inappropriate because it contains large portions of sea that in the decades have become useless for cetaceans - into a different format which identifies areas that are really important for cetaceans, throughout the W Med (so, likely to be used by the same cetaceans in different times of the year/life), and which lends itself to be incorporated into a more modern system of managing/protecting the sea (MSP, EBSAs, SPAMIs, etc.). As such, the areas within a new hypothetical "Pelagos Network" wouldn't need to be managed as such - which will make the bureaucrats sigh with relief - but will become components of something much bigger, that encompasses a wider range of management needs, and that will be totally senseless even to the most paleolithic of our decision-makers unless it will be managed. On the other hand, however, by "dematerializing" Pelagos through its explosion into a mosaic of marine surface tesserae scattered across the W Med and loosely connected only by a cetacean-explicit thread, the Sanctuary will lose the sense of place that has inspired many during the past 10 years, such as all the coastal municipalities in France and Italy that recently have declared their intention of being partners of Pelagos and fly its flag in their main squares. A perfect solution would be one that will be able to reconcile both the above concerns without them being mutually destructive, but I haven't found it yet.

Hi Giuseppe, Many of us watching Pelagos have shared your frustration. The issue, as I understand it, is that the management plan never got finalised, and certainly not implemented. Presumably, if it had, then there would have been different management measures proposed for those areas important to cetaceans, versus those areas that are not... So, while I agree that the Med does need to spread the good spirit that started Pelagos, it does not need to spread with that the ill spirit that has delayed proper management. Until that latter issue is addressed, I don't think having more MPAs is going to help much. It could indeed have the opposite effect, making people from other places also skeptical of MPAs. Wishing you the best, Jeff Ardron

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