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Monk Seal Fact Files

Mediterranean Monk Seal

(Monachus monachus)


Marine protected areas and no-fishing zones

A consensus of scientific opinion has long maintained that a network of well-managed and well-guarded reserves is essential to the survival and recovery of the Mediterranean monk seal (Ronald & Duguy eds. 1979, Israëls 1992, Johnson & Lavigne 1998, UNEP/MAP 1987).

There has been little tangible progress, however, in establishing that interconnecting network, whose original formulation took into account the feeding and breeding movements of monk seals between remnant populations (Ronald & Duguy eds. 1979, Berkes 1978, Johnson 1988, Israëls 1992).

To date, marine protected areas for the species have been established at the Desertas Islands in Madeira; in the Northern Sporades Islands and northern Karpathos in Greece; on the Aegean (at Foça and Yalikavak) and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey (on western Mersin coasts), and along the Côte des Phoques (Cabo Blanco) in Mauritania/Western Sahara.

In Turkey, the government has publicly committed itself to establishing five “Species Protection/Management Areas” for the monk seal – including the two existing reserves at Foça and the west Mersin coast (Savas & Kiraç 2002, Kiraç 2004). It remains to be seen, however, what government resources – if any – will be made available for design, management and guarding.

Inadequate management and lack of resources also remain a serious threat to the viability of MPAs elsewhere. In Greece, management of the flagship National Marine Park of Alonissos, Northern Sporades, home to the largest surviving colony of monk seals in the Mediterranean, is in disarray, with no functioning management authority, no strategic action plan and no clear government commitment to long-term funding (Johnson 2001a, 2001b, Johnson, ed. 2004a, 2004b).

Indeed, as of 2005 – more than a quarter of a century after the landmark Rhodes international conference – there was not one fully-functioning monk seal protected area in the Mediterranean basin (Johnson 2004).

Despite such conspicuous setbacks, monk seal births in nominally protected or monitored areas continue to show promising trends in Greece (Dendrinos 2004).

In Turkey, by contrast, entanglement in fishing nets within the Foça MPA and on adjacent coasts has effectively wiped out a new generation of pups, as well as any near term hope for the recovery of the species in this area. Unique zoning complications at Foça have so far precluded any clear solution to the entanglement problem, and fishermen continue to set their nets in critical seal pupping areas (Veryeri et al. 2001). On the adjacent Karaburun peninsula, however, an effort has been made to address the issue by creating a no fishing zone around a crucial breeding cave (Güçlüsoy et al. 2004b).

Along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, in the relatively undeveloped Cilician Basin, monk seals appear to be faring better, with births being recorded on a regular basis. Here, several no-fishing zones have been established, reducing risk of entanglement for newborn pups while increasing fish stocks for the benefit of local artisanal fishermen (Gücü 1999, 2000, 2003, Güçlüsoy et al. 2004b).

Despite early difficulties, the Desertas Islands Nature Reserve of Madeira appears to have benefited both from its geographical isolation as well as a clear commitment to conservation by the Regional Autonomous Government (Reiner & dos Santos 1984, Neves 1991). The monk seal population, once on the brink of extinction, has since shown encouraging signs of recovery, and even dispersion to the main island of Madeira. The recovery has been attributed to various factors, most notable among them the long-standing policy by the Park authorities to eliminate all possible human disturbance. Restrictions are backed-up by a strict guarding regime. In recent years, mothers with pups have been observed returning to open beaches on the Desertas Islands, suggesting that monk seals now feel sufficiently confident to leave the security of their cave shelters for resting and nursing (Pires & Neves 2000, Pires 2004).

At Cabo Blanco, site of the world’s largest surviving monk seal colony, the Moroccan Royal Navy exercises strict controls over a no-fishing area to prevent all types of extractive practices. While effective against commercial interests, the practices of artisanal fishermen have continued to pose a threat to the Cabo Blanco monk seal population. In an effort to solve this problem, a monitored monk seal protection zone has been established with the cooperation of local artisanal fishermen. Community aid, such as the construction of a fish market, and the provision of safety gear to artisanal fishermen, formed an integral part of the conservation initiative, spearheaded by the Madrid-based CBD-Habitat Foundation, with Funds provided by the Spanish government (Fernandez de Larrinoa et al. 2002).

Efforts to find a longer term solution to the protection of the Cabo Blanco area – lying in a politically disputed region north of the Mauritanian border – have recently gained new impetus, with range states Mauritania, Morocco, Spain and Portugal (Madeira) joining in the design and implementation of a regional recovery plan for the species (González et al. 2002, Johnson, ed. 2002, Fernandez de Larrinoa & Cedenilla 2004).

A growing human population in the vicinity and expanding fishing pressures (local and foreign fleets) has given conservation efforts added urgency. Morocco, the de facto, though disputed, controlling power in the Western Sahara, is promoting an initiative to create an MPA at Cabo Blanco, “and to apply a management plan for a future national park in the area” (Fernandez de Larrinoa & Cedenilla 2004). It remains uncertain how long-unresolved political problems in the area will affect such plans.

Protection initiatives in Mauritania, Greece and Turkey have, with varying degrees of success, sought to draw traditional fishermen into the conservation process.

Artisanal fishermen, who traditionally experience the most interactions with monk seals, have shown a greater willingness to become involved in conservation efforts as long as the perceived threats to their livelihoods are also taken into consideration. Of these, industrial trawling is often cited as the worst offender in reduced catches (Karavellas 1994, Gücü 2000). Conservation NGOs have worked successfully with artisanal fishermen in Alonissos (Northern Sporades, Greece), Foça and the Cilician Basin to have trawlers banned from marine protected areas (Gücü 1999 & 2000, Güçlüsoy et al. 2004). Although scientific monitoring of fish stocks has generally been a much-neglected issue in most monk seal protected areas, in the Cilician Basin, test results have shown a dramatic increase in catches of commercially valuable species following the creation of a no-fishing zone (Gücü 2001).

In several key monk seal areas in Turkey, artisanal fishermen’s cooperatives have also been strengthened through NGO financial and training assistance, thereby helping these collectives to better influence the government fisheries policies that affect them. The cooperatives also play a central role in MPA guarding activities in Foça in the Aegean and Aydincik in the Mediterranean (Güçlüsoy et al. 2004b).

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