and the

The role of mass tourism in the decline and possible future extinction
of Europe’s most endangered marine mammal, Monachus monachus

William M. Johnson & David M. Lavigne
International Marine Mammal Association
1474 Gordon Street, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1L 1C8


Mass tourism has been implicated in the decline of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) since the 1970s, when scientists first began reviewing the global status of the species. Since then, the scientific literature, recognising the inexorable process of disturbance and loss of habitat that this economic and social activity has produced along extensive stretches of Mediterranean coastline, has consistently identified tourism as among the most significant causes of decline affecting this critically-endangered species. Despite apparent consensus on this point, no serious attempt has been made to assess the tourist industry’s role, or to acknowledge and discuss its moral and financial responsibility, in the continuing decline and possible future extinction of M. monachus. In view of this, we undertook a review of existing literature to identify specific areas in which tourism has impacted the Mediterranean monk seal. Our results provide compelling evidence that mass tourism has indeed played a major role in the extirpation of the monk seal in several European countries, that it continues to act as a significant force of extinction in the last Mediterranean strongholds of the species, and that the industry exerts a generally negative influence on the design and operation of protected areas in coastal marine habitats. There are compelling reasons to conclude that unless the tourist industry can be persuaded to become an active and constructive partner in monk seal conservation initiatives, it will eventually ensure the extinction of the remaining monk seals in the Mediterranean.


The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus, Hermann 1779) is Europe’s most endangered marine mammal (Johnson & Lavigne 1998). It was identified as one of the twelve most endangered animals in the world in 1984 (IUCN 1984). Fewer than 500 individuals are thought to survive. Eradicated from most of its former range, the species is now mainly confined to two surviving populations, one occupying the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa, and the other, the eastern Mediterranean (Brasseur et al. 1997, Johnson & Lavigne 1999).

Historically, a variety of factors have been implicated in its decline, including direct killing by hunters and fishers, entanglement in fishing gear, human disturbance, deterioration and loss of habitat (Johnson & Lavigne 1999) and reduced breeding success (Texel 1990, Johnson & Lavigne 1998). Rather more recently, the risk of disease has also been recognised as a threat, particularly on the Côte des Phoques in the Western Sahara, where the largest remaining colony survives (Harwood et al. 1998).

While most scientific papers have ranked direct killing by fishers as the single most important mortality factor affecting the species, it is important to distinguish between the causes of adult mortality and causes of species decline. Although the two are interrelated, field research is better able to record specific instances of direct killing than to quantify decline due to factors such as disturbance, habitat deterioration and unsuccessful breeding (Berkes et al. 1979). As a result, direct killing (mortality) often has been mistakenly cited as – or implied to be – the major threat to the species, regardless of the fact that the limited available data do not allow a comparative evaluation between this and other causes of species decline (e.g. UNEP/MAP 1987, Dendrinos 1998).

Arguably, this deceptive quirk in data collection and analysis has also had its effect upon conservation strategies, persuading governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to focus primarily on coastal fisheries and other threats while largely neglecting the potentially far more substantial problems posed by mass tourism (e.g. UNEP/MAP 1988). Nonetheless, a few researchers have recognised the distinction between factors of mortality and decline, seeing fit to categorise habitat destruction and disturbance, primarily by tourism, as the overriding threat to the species (e.g. Ronald & Healey 1976, Panou et al. 1993, Scoullos et al. 1994).

There can be little doubt that trends in coastal urbanization have played a significant role in depriving the monk seal of habitat during the 20th century (Ronald & Duguy 1979). Driven by a burgeoning human population, expanding coastal settlements, and the construction of harbour facilities, military installations and road networks, urbanization has eaten into significant portions of seaside real estate formerly occupied by monk seals and other threatened and endangered species (Sergeant et al. 1979, Berkes et al. 1979), including sea turtles Caretta caretta and Chelonia mydas (Yerli & Demirayak 1996).

A major incentive for much of the urbanization along the Mediterranean coastline is mass tourism. This lucrative industry has been the driving force of economic development in the Mediterranean since at least the 1960s and, in many areas, it is also the engine that spurs demand in other relevant sectors of the economy, such as the construction and fishing industries (Holdsworth 1993, Karavellas 1994). Tourism has also been cited as the cause of a dramatic increase in human pressure on the Mediterranean monk seal since the 1950s (Ronald & Duguy 1979, Berkes et al. 1979, Sergeant et al. 1979). Today, the Mediterranean is one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world, its shores attracting over 110 million people every year, mostly in the high season summer months of July and August (Fig. 1) (Johnson 1988, Anon. 1995, WTO 1997).

Fig. 1. August tourism on the Greek island of Kos.

To fill what we saw as a void in the available literature, we undertook to review and synthesise the available information relating to tourism’s effects upon M. monachus. To facilitate this review, we relied on international conference resolutions and action plans spanning more than 20 years of field research and informed debate. In addition, we used various working papers (many of them presented to international conferences and symposia) to compile regional assessments, providing information on how tourism has affected monk seal populations in various countries within the historical range of the species. Finally, we drew upon these and many other secondary sources to analyse the tourism industry’s historical threat to the monk seal, its current impact, and its ramifications for the future survival of the species.


Rhodes, 1978

At the First International Conference on the Mediterranean monk seal, convened in Rhodes, Greece, by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), disturbance and habitat loss were identified as the overriding threats to the species. Noting that "uncontrolled tourism is a significant factor" in the decline of the Mediterranean monk seal, the conference concluded that, without undisturbed habitats for breeding and feeding, the species would soon become extinct. Recognising this, conference delegates agreed that the establishment of a network of marine sanctuaries was urgently required. Among its listing of priorities, the conference’s detailed Plan of Action called for "prevention of specific activities likely to cause irreversible damage to the species, including abortions, or its habitats." In this respect, it was necessary to "regulate tourism, including diving and visits to caves or other areas where monk seals exist or have recently existed, regulate tourist development to safeguard habitats critical to the seal and prevent easy access to such habitats." In establishing a network of inter-connecting marine reserves for the species free from human disturbance and surrounded by buffer zones, the conference recognised a need to "increase awareness of people living near these areas and of tourists and fishermen visiting these areas" (Ronald & Duguy 1979).

La Rochelle, 1984

Five years later, with little tangible progress to show in creating marine protected areas for the species, the Second International Conference on the Mediterranean monk seal, held in La Rochelle, France, largely reiterated the priorities established at Rhodes, and indeed, reproduced its Plan of Action verbatim.

In addition, the conference heard that "the estimated 400 monk seals that exist within the Mediterranean are under direct threat from the increased pressures of tourism. Tourists may offer direct competition for the beaches used previously by the seals as breeding sites. They may further compete with the seal by their transportation and accommodation requirements" (Ronald & Duguy 1984, Ronald & Yeroulanos 1984).

Strasbourg, 1986

In 1986, the Council of Europe convened the first meeting of its Group of Experts on the Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus), under the auspices of the Bern Convention (Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats). Again, the establishment of marine reserves was considered the overriding priority for action. The meeting report states that: "Uncontrolled tourism [is] a cause of frequent seal disturbance, especially the disappearance of suitable breeding areas and direct harassment of animals." It was also stated that, within the core zones of monk seal sanctuaries, no tourism or boat movements should be permitted.

Recognising that conservation priorities remained fundamentally unchanged since previous conferences, the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention (based on the findings of the Group of Experts) simply co-opted the priorities set by the 1984 La Rochelle conference for its Recommendation to the Contracting Parties (Council of Europe 1986b). The Recommendation was prefaced with a statement portraying the monk seal as a species in grave danger of extinction, and called upon the Contracting Parties (among other proposed measures) to establish, within two years, marine and coastal habitat protection programmes which would recognise the species as being of critical importance (Council of Europe 1986a).

Genoa, 1985

Under the auspices of the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published an Action Plan for the Management of the Mediterranean monk seal in 1987. This was in response to its obligations under the Barcelona Convention (Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution), whose signatory governments, in their Genoa meeting of September 1985, agreed that "among their priority targets to be achieved by 1995 [was] the protection of the Mediterranean monk seal" (UNEP/MAP 1987, 1988). This document, reprising many of the measures deemed vital to save the species from extinction nine years earlier at the Rhodes conference, noted that "populations of the Mediterranean monk seal have declined rapidly and drastically." As such, "concerted and effective action by all countries of the Mediterranean concerned is required in order to reverse this trend." The two major threats to the species were listed as "deliberate or accidental killings of adults mostly by fishermen, and human disturbance of breeding areas." These threats were both intensifying "as men and seals compete for increasingly scarce resources." In its list of proposed conservation measures, the Action Plan states that:

Athens, 1988

The Joint Expert Consultation on the Conservation of the Mediterranean Monk Seal, a meeting convened in Athens in January 1988 by the United Nations Environment Programme (in association with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources – IUCN), attempted to further define conservation priorities. The report of the meeting, while recording a continuing decline in population numbers in all areas except Mauritania, notes that there was general agreement among participants that "disturbance by tourism" was one of the "major threats to the continued survival of the Mediterranean Monk Seal" (UNEP 1988). As part of an intensive and international public awareness campaign to prevent the extinction of the species and promote its recovery, the meeting recommended that the monk seal be adopted as the symbol of Mediterranean conservation; that (multimedia) information packages "be developed quickly" to target specific sectors of society, including tourists, and that financial support for such measures be solicited from the business community (UNEP/MAP 1988).

Texel, 1990

A meeting of a more specialised nature was convened in Texel, the Netherlands in 1990 to consider the risks and merits of captive breeding and other ex situ conservation measures for Mediterranean monk seals. Recognising disturbance and loss of habitat as a major factor in the species’ continuing decline, the meeting concluded that "the establishment of protected areas which include monk seal pupping sites is undoubtedly the most effective way to preserve the species in the wild." The report of the meeting goes on to caution that detailed management plans, and a long-term commitment of funds and other resources are required in order to establish such areas effectively. Without such commitments, "there is a risk that the publicity associated with the establishment of a protected area may actually increase disturbance to the seals in the area" (Texel 1990).

Rabat, 1994

The next international conference on the species (the Meeting of Experts on the Evaluation of the Implementation of the Action Plan for the Management of the Mediterranean Monk Seal) took place in Rabat, Morocco in October 1994, again under the auspices of UNEP’s Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP) and its Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas (RAC/SPA) in Tunis. As in all UNEP/MAP meetings on the species, the 1987 Action Plan was appended in conference documentation as a road map towards achieving internationally agreed conservation aims. In addition, the Rabat conference, in its Recommendations, called upon the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention to ensure the effective implementation of adopted conservation measures, "in particular the strict control of potentially dangerous tourism activities" (UNEP/MAP 1994a).

Arta, 1998

UNEP/MAP convened its follow-up conference in Arta, Greece, in October/November 1998 (Meeting of Experts on the Implementation of the Action Plans for Marine Mammals (Monk Seals and Cetaceans) Adopted Within the Mediterranean Action Plan). Despite the fact that four years had elapsed since the Rabat gathering, the Recommendations of the Arta meeting largely reiterate previously identified priorities. For the most part, the tendency towards such repetition is largely due to unfulfilled commitments on the part of governments and inter-governmental organisations (Johnson & Lavigne 1998, Johnson1998d). Among listed priorities was the establishment of a network of marine reserves: the meeting recommended that "already identified sites important for the conservation of the species [to] be urgently protected and appropriately managed." In parallel, "Protected sites should be extended to include all valuable habitats for monk seals, aiming at the creation of a network of protected areas." The meeting also heard that on the island of Zakynthos there was strong pressure from tourism, especially around breeding caves (UNEP/MAP 1998a).




Prior to the establishment of a Nature Reserve in 1990, which severely curtailed public access, the monk seal colony around the Desertas Islands of Madeira was considered to be on the verge of extinction, its drastic decline attributed both to fisheries interactions and "disturbances caused by tourists" (Reiner & dos Santos 1984). Threats posed by tourism were regarded as being particularly acute. Scuba diving was gaining popularity and intrusion into caves was becoming a regular occurrence. Severe impacts on breeding success were suspected (van Haaften & Reiner 1984). Only strict enforcement of regulations has since eliminated tourism pressures as a threat to the monk seal population in the Desertas (Rosa Pires, pers. comm. 1999).

Western Mediterranean


Tourism development expanding into remote stretches of Morocco’s Mediterranean coastline, traditionally a preserve of small-scale local fishers and monk seals, has been cited as a potential threat to surviving, remnant colonies (UNEP/MAP 1988).

France & Corsica

Tourism played a major role in the ultimate extinction of the monk seal in French waters in the early 1970s. Along the continental coastline, tourism and industrial development brought irreversible changes to monk seal habitat (Marchessaux 1988a,UNEP/MAP 1994b). "Explosive development" of tourism in Corsica and human demands for coastal real estate followed the same pattern. The last two monk seals were reportedly killed off Corsica only some months before a Regional National Park was established (Duguy & Cheylan 1979). With coastal development and human pressure on former monk seal habitat unabated, recolonization is unlikely, and reintroduction is generally regarded as futile (Ronald & Duguy 1979).


As in France, tourism was blamed for irrevocably depriving the monk seal of suitable habitat along virtually the whole of the continental coast of Spain (Marchessaux 1988a,UNEP/MAP 1994b). The species appears to have disappeared from Spain’s Balearic islands several years later. Though once frequenting the coasts of the northern islands of the archipelago – Minorca, Majorca and Cabrera – (IUCN/UNEP 1988, Avella 1979), the species is reported to have vanished from the region by the 1960s, due in large part to tourism pressures (Avella 1984,UNEP/MAP 1994b).

Central Mediterranean


Historically, hunting and overfishing pressures have been blamed for the decline of the monk seal in Algeria, although, for various cultural and religious reasons, fishers have traditionally refrained from persecuting the animals (UNEP/MAP 1994b). While recent political upheavals may have impacted economic development, increasing tourism is still cited as a major threat to the habitat of the monk seal and its continued survival (Boutiba 1998).


A boom in tourism is also largely responsible for eradicating the monk seal from the Adriatic coasts of the former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Montenegro). At the 1978 Rhodes conference, explosive growth in tourism and other coastal developments were cited as the primary causes of the species’ dramatic decrease (Gamulin-Brida 1979, Ronald & Duguy 1979) in the area. Surviving seals were suffering increasing harassment by tourist boat traffic, particularly high speed motorboats (Gamulin-Brida 1979). By the early 1990s the monk seal population had dwindled to a handful of individuals, clinging to survival along the most remote coasts and islets. But with boats and yachts invading even these isolated areas, Croatian naturalists reiterated their view that tourism now constituted the main threat to the survival of the species (Draganovic 1994). The species is now considered to be virtually extinct throughout the Adriatic (Antolovic 1998).

Italy & Sardinia

Tourism has also been cited as one of the most important factors in the decline and extinction of the monk seal in Italy (Boitani 1979, Ronald & Duguy 1979, IUCN/UNEP 1988, Ardizzone et al. 1991, Anon. 1994c, Johnson 1998a). In particular, disturbance and destruction of habitat caused by tourism has been implicated in the disappearance of the species (and effectively preventing any possible recolonisation) in several key areas, including the Marettimo Islands off Sicily, Montecristo – where the species was still seen regularly in the late 1970s (Boitani 1979, Ronald & Duguy 1979) – the Tuscany archipelago (Guarrera 1999) and the east coast of Sardinia, particularly the Gulf of Orosei (Johnson 1998a). Following a familiar pattern, growth in high-intensity tourism, including pleasure boating and sports fishing, was responsible for bringing human harassment and disturbance into the last refuges of the species (Ardizzone et al. 1991). Warnings that summer boat traffic was causing potentially lethal disturbance to seals during the August-September pupping season largely fell on deaf ears (Ronald 1982). Notwithstanding rare sightings (possibly of animals dispersing from other geographical regions) the species now appears to be effectively extinct in Italian waters (Johnson 1998a).


Concerns over tourism’s impact on the monk seals of Tunisia were first heard in the mid-1970s. Ronald & Healey (1976) warned that increased disturbance by pleasure boats and skin divers were causing a reduction in the population that survived, mainly in the Galite archipelago. By the 1980s, the monk seal in Tunisia had been virtually eradicated and was considered effectively extinct (Brasseur et al. 1997, UNEP/MAP 1998b).

Eastern Mediterranean


The monk seal population in Cyprus has also suffered a rapid decline in recent decades and was described as being on the verge of extinction in 1988. The cause was attributed mainly to rapid tourist development along the coasts of the island (Anon. 1988b). In particular, tourism and recreational activities have long been considered a threat to existing breeding areas (Hadjichristophorou 1991, Hadjichristophorou & Demetropoulos 1994, Dendrinos & Demetropoulos 1997, Panos Dendrinos, pers. comm. 1999). Efforts to establish a marine park in one of these breeding sites (Akamas-Latchi) have been subject to long bureaucratic delays and political controversy (Hadjichristophorou 1991, UNEP/MAP 1998a). Due to tourism pressures, extinction of the species around Cyprus may be imminent.


Despite lingering uncertainties about actual numbers, the scientific consensus is that the surviving monk seal population in Greece has declined to perilously low levels. Aside from the traditional hostility of fishers, mass tourism, destruction of habitat by tourist developments and increasing pleasure boat activity are regarded as a significant factor in the species’ decline (Marchessaux & Duguy 1977, IUCN/UNEP 1988, Kouroutos 1991, Dendrinos 1994, Scoullos et al. 1994, UNEP/MAP 1994b, Jacobs & Panou 1996).

In some areas, high-intensity tourism may have displaced the monk seal entirely. In others, it is likely to have had a severe impact on regional populations. Epitomising this phenomenon is the case of Kos, an Eastern Aegean island that embarked upon intensive tourism development in the 1970s. The island lies adjacent to the Bodrum Peninsula in Turkey, an area also marked by intensive tourism development in monk seal habitat (Kiraç & Veryeri 1996). Ronald & Healey (1974) estimated that as many as 20 seals frequented the southwest coasts of Kos in 1971/72. Kumerloeve (1976) warned that tourism was increasing in this once remote corner of the island, its scenic beauty already marred by hotel and road construction. A plea for a protected area to be established before the population was entirely exterminated went unheeded (Kumerloeve 1976, Sergeant et al. 1979). Within a decade, the coasts of Kos were dominated by high-capacity resort complexes, effectively depriving the monk seal of habitat (Fig. 2). Unfortunately, survivors are unlikely to have found refuge on the adjacent Bodrum Peninsula (once considered part of a regional, interacting population), where the species has also been brought to the verge of extinction. Indeed, a 1996 survey found only a few seals still inhabiting a region now dominated by urbanisation, summer house construction and tourism (Kiraç & Veryeri 1996).

Fig. 2. The southwest coast of Kos, now dominated by mass tourism.


A sharp decline and fragmentation of the monk seal population in Turkey was recorded during the 1970s (Berkes et al. 1979, Ronald & Duguy 1979). Because of the traditional reluctance of certain fishers to kill or injure the animal, it was considered likely that the Aegean and Mediterranean population was declining in direct proportion to coastline and tourism development and coastal overfishing (Sergeant 1984, Mursaloglu 1991,UNEP/MAP 1994b). True to general trends throughout the region, the increasing popularity of pleasure boating, diving and other water sports was considered a primary culprit in depriving the monk seal of adequate habitat (Berkes et al. 1979). Today, although Turkish coasts remain one of the last refuges of the species, research suggests that tourism and habitat destruction represent the single greatest threat to its survival in the region (Kiraç et al. 1998).


The destruction of critical monk seal breeding sites by expanding tourism continues despite obligations under international treaties. The Bern Convention (Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats), for example, calls upon each contracting party to take appropriate and necessary legislative and administrative measures to ensure the special protection of the Mediterranean monk seal (as a species of wild fauna listed under its Appendix II). Specifically, the Convention prohibits "the deliberate damage to or destruction of breeding or resting sites" and also "the deliberate disturbance of wild fauna, particularly during the period of breeding, rearing and hibernation, insofar as disturbance would be significant in relation to the objectives of this Convention" (Bern Convention 1979).

Under the 1976 Barcelona Convention (Convention for the protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution), the Mediterranean monk seal is recognised as a priority species (UNEP/MAP 1994b). The 1982 Geneva Protocol requires Contracting Parties to take all appropriate measures to establish marine protected areas in order to safeguard "...the genetic diversity, as well as satisfactory population levels, of species, and their breeding grounds and habitats..." (Art. 3, 2a). In 1985, the Genoa Declaration produced by the contracting parties identified the protection of the Mediterranean monk seal as among its priority targets to be achieved by 1995. The efficiency of the Convention and its various protocols in meeting its declared aims has, therefore, been the focus of criticism (Anon. 1995, Johnson 1998d).

The monk seal is also listed in the annexes of the 1979 Bonn Convention (Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals – also known as CMS). The Convention calls on contracting parties to enter into bilateral or multilateral agreements to safeguard migratory species, and to take whatever measures are required for the conservation of habitat (UNEP/MAP 1994b). While the monk seal may not be regarded as a migratory species as strictly understood by modern biological science, the species, because of regular feeding and seasonal movements, may often cross national boundaries. The Convention, however, has had little discernible effect in encouraging respective governments to cooperate in implementing practical conservation measures that recognise these movements.

Finally, the monk seal is listed as a priority species within the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and Wild Flora and Fauna (Directive 9243 of 21 May 1992). The Directive requires relevant member states to establish special conservation areas for the species within 12 years of the date of notification of the Directive (UNEP/MAP 1994b). Greece is currently in the process of establishing several monk seal sanctuaries as part of this Natura 2000 initiative (Johnson1998b, 1998c, 1999).



Copyright © 1999 William M. Johnson & David M. Lavigne, The Monachus Guardian. All Rights Reserved