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26th August, 2016

Amendment of the regulation on disturbance of monk seals in sea caves in Turkey

Cem O. Kıraç and N. Ozan Veryeri, SAD-AFAG

The existing regulation on disturbance of Mediterranean monk seals in caves along the Turkish coast was amended exactly as proposed by SAD-AFAG in January this year and published by the DG Fisheries & Aqua Products in the Official Gazette on 13 August 2016. The amended regulation reads as follows: “It is forbidden to use any light source inside, dive by any means into, enter by swimming or any other way into, wait or anchor in front of either underwater or surface entrances to caves used by Mediterranean monk seals”. The amended version of the related article was published in both, the Professional Aqua Product Fishery Circular No 2016/35 and the Recreational Aqua Products Fishery Circular No 2016/36.

Tourist boats in front of monk seal caves…

Tourist boats in front of monk seal caves…

…a thing of the past?

…a thing of the past?

Although the threats for monk seals along Turkish coasts greatly differ from region to region in the country, disturbance to monk seals in sea caves, their ultimate refuge along the remote coasts, is a real menace for the species. The problem is especially prominent in popular diving locations with cliff and rocky shores, such as in Çeşme, Kuşadası, Bodrum, Fethiye, Dalaman, Marmaris, Kaş, Kekova, Kemer, Antalya and Alanya, where monk seals still breed and are present permanently. Suitable sea caves are the only places within the species’ habitat for reproduction and resting, and therefore play a crucial role for the continued survival of this rare marine mammal.

Diving into monk seal caves, a thing of the past?

Diving into monk seal caves, a thing of the past?

The previous version of the regulation, in force since 1991, simply read “it is forbidden to use any light source inside and diving by any means into caves where monk seals live”, which also has been proposed by SAD-AFAG, in the very first National Monk Seal Committee meeting in Ankara in January 1991. However, over time it has been realized that some of the tourism stakeholders, mainly daily excursions boats and some tourist diving companies, have been diluting the above mentioned article of the Aqua Products Circular and claim that letting their customers enter the monk seal caves by boats or by swimming, is not covered by the previous regulation and for this reason they have the freedom to enter sea caves as they please. Therefore, SAD-AFAG deemed it necessary to prepare an amendment submitted to the DG Fisheries & Aqua Products (under the Ministry of Food, Agriculture & Husbandry) in January 2016 with its official communiqué dated 5th January 2016 and No. SAD-16/03 given below, filling-in the “legal gaps” that were misused by some stakeholders.

In the same proposal to the new Aqua Products Circular, SAD also proposed in cooperation with other relevant NGOs such as the Recreational Underwater Hunters Society (İzmir), the Development of Artisanal Fishery Society (İstanbul) and the Recreational Line Fishery Society (Ankara), the prohibition of fishing of two demersal fish species; Dusky grouper Ephinephelus marginatus and White grouper Ephinephelus aeneus, whose stocks have been heavily depleted in Turkish seas. The DG Fishery and Aqua Products (BSÜ GM) has accepted the proposal and these two demersal fishes are included in the list of species completely banned for fishing in the next 4 years period from 2016 to 2020. It is believed that one of the best ways to suppress the increasing populations of Lessepsian species and invasive aquatic species along the Turkish coasts of the Levant Sea and the Aegean Sea is to help recover populations of originally resident species such as groupers, sea bass, sea bream and dentex. Supporting marine ecosystems in a holistic approach will surely have a positive impact on the conservation of endangered predator species such as monk seals, sea turtles and shark species.

Further information in Turkish:

http://sadafag.org/akdeniz-foku-magaralarina-yasadisi-girisleri-onlemede-ilgili-mevzuat-maddesi-yenilendi/

http://sadafag.org/orfoz-ve-beyaz-lagos-bir-sureligine-nadasa-alindi/

18th August, 2014

Tourism could help save Mediterranean monk seals, but if unmanaged it will only accelerate their demise

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

boat-traffic-1

[…] Unfortunately, the monk seal breeding season happens to coincide in part with the peak of the tourist season, a coincidence likely to result in making the seals even more endangered than they already are, as I had the opportunity of documenting yesterday in an undisclosed location of the Northern Dodecanese, in Greece.

There, sheltered on a small sandy beach at the far end of a large cave carved in the cliff of a small, uninhabited islet, lives today a female monk seal with her small pup. As it happens, the location is also very popular with tourists from nearby islands, who converge there aboard day-trip boats organised by local operators, as well as with their own vessels; and the word has spread that seals can be visited in the cave.

Well-managed, tourism could be a bonus for monk seal conservation because of the high value that visitors attribute to such charismatic animals. This value can be harnessed to the benefit of the local communities, which would then strive to protect the seals or, at a minimum, stop destroying them. However, in the current total absence of management, anyone can imagine the amount of disturbance that this seal pair is subjected to, in a most critical phase of their existence and in a moment in which their quiet and peace should be guaranteed at all costs. […] Full article.

1st June, 2014

Mediterranean monk seal reportedly harassed by drunken tourists in Pula, Croatia

Official Pula Facebook page issues strong warning

The early morning appearance of the monk seal aroused the interest of some drunken tourists, according to a report in Vecernji List, which reported that the tourists tried to force the monk seal back into the sea, before attempting to force it back into the sea by grabbing its tail. Their attempts failed, as local authorities were quickly on the scene to stop the actions of the tourists. [Read more at Digital Journal]

12th May, 2014

Monk seal breeding cave in Turkey threatened by harbour construction

By Middle East Technical University (METU) – Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS)

Harbour construction endangering a known Mediterranean monk seal breeding cave in Yeşilovacik, Mersin, poses great danger to the northeastern population of the species

Online Petition: Please consider signing the online petition against this development at Change.org

The Middle East Technical University Institute of Marine Sciences (IMS-METU) has been studying the Mediterranean monk seal population inhabiting the northeastern Mediterranean since 1994. The cave surveys and subsequent monitoring activities in the area showed that the western rocky shores of Mersin (a county on the south coast of Turkey) holds the largest continuously breeding monk seal colony on the Turkish coast. During the onset of the 1990’s, this group of seals was on the verge of extinction because the social bonds within the colony had been broken by very high deliberate killings and loss of habitat. The fragmented community structure led to almost zero whelping rate. However, until very recently, despite the negative growth of the species elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the number of seals in this area was increasing with steadily improving whelping success. The size of the colony is estimated as 34 individuals as of 2013. Yet, the range of this population was expanded by some members of the colony returning to habitats abandoned in the past and establishing new families.

The plight of the species in the area was probably reversed by two conservation measures enforced since 1997. The first is the ban on an industrial fishery over the seals’ overfished feeding habitats by which the main food source of the growing colony was secured. Secondly, the coastal strips containing essential habitats for seals, such as breeding and resting caves, have been designated as a First Degree Natural Asset, so that further coastal development has been stopped. These regulations enabled re-integration of the dispersed seal community so that social structure within the families was re-established and the breeding success was re-gained.

A pregnant seal requires certain morphological features in a cave in order to use it to give birth and to raise her pup, such as an underwater entrance reaching to a well aerated air chamber; a haul-out platform long and wide enough to protect a new born pup against high waves during storms; a well sheltered inner pool in which the land-born pup can practice swimming. There are more than 50 caves used by the seals within the protected area; however only 8 of these caves fulfil the whelping requirements allowing them to be used by breeding females. This low number clearly underlines the uniqueness of the breeding caves and urges their protection.

One of these breeding caves is located near to Yesilovacık village. The cave has been monitored remotely by infrared cameras and it was documented that a small family of seals composed of 4 individuals use the cave throughout a year. This cave marked the easternmost limit of the seal colony before enforcement of the seal conservation measures mentioned above. Today this cave acts as a bridge between the core colony and the pioneers moving further east. Moreover, it is a very critical cave since there are no other caves in the near vicinity with similar morphology that the inhabitants could move to if they are forced to leave. Very recently the university was contacted to evaluate a modification plan on the borders of one of the Natural Assets mentioned above. The plan involves construction of a new road passing through the protected area on land. Further inspections revealed that the road is just the tip of the iceberg; and that the actual plan is to construct a huge marine terminal just 500 meters away from a breeding cave and the road was intended to provide a shortcut between the new harbor and the main arterial road for the expected lorry traffic of 400 vehicles per day. The local authorities for the protection of the Natural Assets did not permit construction of the new road. However by law, the “Natural assets” conservation status does not cover seaward extension of an ecologically important coastal structure. Such a massive construction in the sea, which involves the transport and dumping of huge quantities of construction material, and the subsequent marine traffic, would inevitably have a detrimental impact on the seal cave and its inhabitants. Moreover, with the impact of a new nuclear power plant, that will be constructed 10 km west of the marine terminal, the entire monk seal population in the north-eastern Mediterranean would be deeply impacted. It is feared that these new constructions will return the seal population to the fragmented ill state experienced in early 1990’s.

As such projects would undoubtedly have detrimental consequences on the seals, a scientific team of experts from IMS-METU, has been extremely concerned about the entire venture and therefore the team initiated a monitoring survey in the cave using photo-traps on 4th April 2010 (ca 900 seal photographs have been obtained to date). Based on the surveys carried out at the site, the national authorities in charge of monk seal conservation were alerted on the importance of this issue. The inevitable consequences of the construction and chiefly the crucial loss of yet another breeding cave for the seal population in the entire eastern Mediterranean has been presented to the authorities concerned by various means including population viability analysis which projects a hopeless future for the colony. Following the reckless reaction by the authorities, a letter of complaint was submitted to the secretariat of the BERN Convention. Additionally as a response to the situation, the NGO Underwater Research Society issued a summons against the ministry responsible for the protection of wildlife in Turkey for reaching a critical decision based on a superficial report and disregarding the environmental significance of the site. Later, the ministry stated that no construction will begin until the National court has reached its final decision.

According to the report submitted by the Turkish government to the Standing Committee of the BERN Convention in October 2013, Turkish authorities halted construction for only five months despite the previous decision that “there will be no construction until the National court has reached a final decision” but meanwhile commencement of the construction operation was tragically witnessed. It was recently stated in the report of the Standing Committee held on 3-6 December 2013, that Turkish authorities will establish a pool of experts to inspect the current situation and that meanwhile building construction be suspended until the possible impact on the morphology of the cave and consequently on the Monk Seal population are assessed.

The research team has visited the area on a regular basis and is in contact with the local village inhabitants at the construction site. They witnessed that the construction activities carried on (with some deceptive slowdowns) in the area even during the breeding season of the monk seal. The efforts to push the authorities to take necessary actions and to stop the construction until the court’s decision have so far proven unsuccessful. It is vitally important to emphasize that, since the huge building construction project is continuing and has recently progressed extremely rapidly then in all probability construction may be finalized before the national court reaches its final decision.

Current Situation

Given that all cameras were active and recording the seal movements in the cave since the very beginning there has been a remarkable and worrying decrease in seal activity in the cave during 2013. More strikingly no single event was recorded during the period from the beginning of July 2013 until the beginning of December 2013. Recordings obtained in December 2013 show one female – presumably the mother – and one new born pup photographed in the same cave. Another cause for much concern has been the disappearance of a pup born in December 2012. Typical to the monk seals in the eastern Mediterranean, a young seal tends to remain in and around the natal cave during the first year of life. Moreover the number of seals that previously used the cave before the initiation of construction has vanished. There are already very few caves in the region suitable for breeding activity which is considered to be a critical factor limiting the breeding success. The lack of seal activity in the cave for the past 6 months (Fig 1) clearly shows that the seals abandoned the cave and most probably the entire area during the heavy construction period. However, the female carrying the pup was forced to return to the cave as there was no other alternative whelping site in the immediate surroundings. The last record obtained from the cameras was a single photograph showing the new born pup in a very undernourished and weak condition.

Unfortunately, the most disturbing event was the death of the said pup born in the cave around 24 November 2013. The carcass of the animal was found on the beach near the construction site by local inhabitants on 28th February 2014. A group from the construction company personnel allegedly attempted to dispose of the carcass as reported by the locals. Due to this threat, the locals hid the carcass with the aim of delivering it to IMS-METU for examination.

The necropsy of the pup was performed on 29th February 2014 at IMS-METU by authorized veterinarians. Examination revealed clear indications of malnutrition such as extremely thin blubber (1.9 cm), an empty gut with a very cachectic appearance and state. Furthermore, inspection of the events recorded by the photo-traps show no signs of the mother visiting the cave, indicating that the mother-pup bond had been broken. In the extensive and uninterrupted series of photographs the pup continually rests on the shore inside the cave, does not leave the cave in search of food and is neither accompanied by his mother nor breastfed.

To help, please sign the petition at Change.org.

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1st August, 2012

Harassment of Croatian monk seal by tourists captured on camera

Disturbance of a beach-loafing Mediterranean monk seal by tourists on the Croatian island of Cres, has been caught on camera and published by local NGO Blue World Institute. The species, once considered effectively extinct along this coast, has been making something of a comeback in recent years. Though some have characterised the incident as ‘minor’, accusing conservationists of exaggeration, it is perhaps worthwhile noting that such disturbance to a resting monk seal would be considered illegal in Hawaii, potentially incurring fines of up to $50,000. The return of the monk seal to Croatia is likely to result in increasing interactions of this kind, both in number and intensity. It is perhaps time for the Croatian authorities and international bodies concerned with the survival of the species — whoever they may be — to map out practical strategies to minimise the impact of such interactions.