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9th April, 2015

The conservation workshop that wasn’t

COMMENT

“Mediterranean monk seal biologists and managers are jetting across oceans to Hawaii to attend the International Collaboration for the Conservation of Monk Seals. The HMSRP and our international colleagues will be spending the next two weeks sharing science, outreach and management experiences to help both species of monk seal. We will be sharing news, updates and interesting facts over the next 2 weeks.” — NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program

Some — including The Monachus Guardian — have questioned the wisdom of convening a “closed door” workshop of this type at a time of severe funding shortages, urgent conservation challenges at the grassroots level, and lack of stakeholder participation in both Hawaii and the Mediterranean. [See comments on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program Facebook page for a brief overview of the debate — or rather, the debate that should be.]

While the 12-day event in Hawaii is now hastily being described as a “technical workshop” only (— one wonders why, then, it is billed as “International Collaboration for the Conservation of Monk Seals”), it is a fallacy to contend that discussions on such issues as human-seal interactions and translocation will have no direct bearing on practical management choices for the species and its habitats. With many monk seal conservationists not participating in the workshop, both from Hawaii and the Mediterranean, one wonders when the usual “top down” conservation management habits of the past will be seen for what they are: counter-productive. While it may be unrealistic or impractical for every interested party to attend such a workshop, one cannot help but ask why even the most rudimentary details have not been provided to other interested parties and the public at large — such as a workshop agenda and a list of participants.

“The usual top down approaches have failed monk seals everywhere. We need a new paradigm of collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders, not simply a few singular entities. A true international collaboration and discussion could be tremendously helpful.” — Monk Seal Foundation

“An event where they announce they’ll be ‘sharing science, outreach and management experiences’ but yet aren’t even inviting the NOAA Recovery Program that is responsible for a great deal of outreach and management? smh There are many organizations in Hawaii and Europe (been in touch with a few this weekend) that could have potentially benefited from attending even if it was simply to learn. At a time when Federal Funding isn’t even remotely close to what is needed to save the species, it’s imperative that opportunities not be wasted.” — Pat Wardell

18th December, 2014

Seal breeding season in the Desertas Islands, Madeira

Rosa Pires, Parque Natural da Madeira
Two females and one pup interacting at the entrance of the Bufador cave.

Two females and one pup interacting at the entrance of the Bufador cave.

As a result of the campaign to monitor the monk seal breeding season in Madeira’s Desertas islands, we could confirm already the birth of two pups, a female and a male. These two, born in September/October, were monitored over 2 weeks at the entrance of Bufador cave, where a concealed lookout post was established. From here it was possible to identify the group of seals using the cave and observe their behaviour without disturbing them or influencing their natural behaviour.

With an estimated age of 1 month, the pups used to come out of the cave very frequently, but always staying near the entrance and being followed by their mothers “Tria” and “Manchada”, or by the other three females identified in the area. In total ten different seals were identified using this cave – two pups, five females, one adult male and two juveniles. On one day it was possible to observe nine of these seals.

Three females and one male at the entrance of the Bufador cave.

Three females and one male at the entrance of the Bufador cave.

A dead seal was also found at the entrance of Bufador cave – one of the juveniles. The body was already in a state of advanced decomposition, and the cause of death could not be established. However, the presence of this dead seal resulted in interesting observations of the behaviour of one of the pups. Several times we were almost on the point of entering the water to save the pup, which had invented a “nice” game in “playing dead” by being completely inactive for long moments. In fact, when we first detected the dead juvenile, this pup was following the body, which was moving with the sea current, trying to interact with her.

Additionally a pup and a female were detected in another cave, Vermelhas, suggesting a third birth. However, sea conditions did not allow us to confirm this information.

Mother with pup from the 2014 breeding season at the Desertas.

Mother with pup from the 2014 breeding season at the Desertas.

To date, four births have been detected during 2014, including two occurring before the typical breeding season, and two deaths – the juvenile mentioned above and an adult male found in Madeira.

As part of  the new EU LIFE Project [see New EU LIFE project for Madeira’s monk seals], several surveillance cameras were placed in the most important caves around the Desertas. It is hoped that these will be an important tool in monitoring the monk seal breeding season more effectively, achieving a more accurate number of births and deaths, identifying reproducing females and gaining a better understanding of the seals’ behaviour in the caves.

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12th December, 2014

New EU LIFE project for Madeira’s monk seals

LIFE Madeira Monk Seal – Mediterranean monk seal conservation in Madeira and development of a conservation status surveillance system
Duration: 01-JUN-2014 to 30-MAY-2018

LIFE13_NAT_ES_000974_MAPThe project LIFE Madeira Monk Seal aims to resolve known threats to the monk seal and improve its long-term conservation in the Madiera region. It specifically seeks to address conflict between the habitat needs of the seal and human activities in coastal areas.

The project plans to draft and have formally adopted a new Monk Seal Regional Conservation Plan in the Madeira archipelago. It aims to increase the intervention capacity of Madeira’s Natural Park Service, as the competent authority, to tackle threats or risk situations for the species. It will also directly intervene to restore and protect habitats used by the seal for reproduction and rest, including beaches and submerged or partially submerged sea caves.

The project plans to develop a new monitoring protocol and surveillance system for the monk seal. It will take non-invasive methodologies developed for monitoring high-density populations and adapt them for use with the scattered and low-density seal population. It will also establish well-defined indicators and base-line values for the monk seal´s demographic status and the different influences affecting it.

Expected results:

  • An official Monk Seal Regional Conservation Plan in Madeira;
  • Increased capacity of the Natural Park of Madeira to intervene along the coastline to tackle threats or emergency situations for monk seal individuals;
  • Surveillance systems, indicators and baseline values for monitoring of the monk seal and its habitat;
  • Demonstration of the success and potential transferability of non-invasive monitoring methods for such scattered and low density populations;
  • Improved protection and increased availability of high-quality terrestrial habitats used by monk seals;
  • Better implementation of regional legislation for the protection of marine vertebrates;
  • Improved attitudes and engagement towards monk seal conservation;
  • Reduced threats and disturbances from fishermen, tourism operators, tourists and local inhabitants, including reduction of accidents and entanglements in marine debris and abandoned fishing gear; and
  • Contribution to the International Action Plan for the Recovery of the monk seal in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic that is being developed by Portugal, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania in the framework of the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS/UNEP).

Further information

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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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20th July, 2013

Sketchy details provided of new EU life project for Giaros

WWF Greece, MOm and its Greek and international partners announced the launch of a new protected area management project centred around the uninhabited island of Giaros in the Cyclades islands this week. Although long on PR and short on detail, the press release is keen to stress the perceived benefits of the MPA to neighbouring island development (Syros and Andros in particular), in tourism and fisheries management, by taking a “holistic” approach to conservation and economic opportunity. Giaros, a former military zone and prison island, has since become a Natura 2000 protected area, and is an important Mediterranean monk seal colony. The project, “Cyclades LIFE”, is funded by the European Commission’s LIFE funding mechanism, and by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation.

The island of Giaros, as seen from Syros.

The island of Giaros, as seen from Syros.

Further information

WWF Greece. Cyclades LIFE: A ground-breaking initiative for sustainable growth and the conservation of nature in the Cyclades. Press Release, 15 July 2013.

Konstantinos Mentzelopoulos. Our Sea, Our Life. The Monachus Guardian 12 (1): June 2009.

3rd February, 2013

Park expresses disgust over shooting

In a press release posted on its Facebook page, the Management Body of the National Marine Park of Alonnisos Northern Sporades (NMPANS), has expressed its disgust and regret over an incident which saw a Coast Guard officer spray automatic gunfire at semi-wild goats at Planitis in the internationally-recognised monk seal protected area. The President of the Management Body has stated that the Park will now determine what course of action to take against those responsible for the incident.

The NMPANS is regarded as one of the most important monk seal breeding habitats in the Mediterranean.

Originally posted on YouTube — apparently by the perpetrators themselves — video of the shooting spree provoked widespread condemnation. Although the video has since been removed by the user from YouTube, it is still available on other channels.

Conservationists are now left to wonder whether this was a “one-off” incident — or whether other offences may have been committed, possibly within the Core Zone of the Park. As TMG has reported on many previous occasions, with chronic funding shortages facing the NMPANS Management Body, effective guarding and monitoring remains essentially non-existent. Annual monk seal pup counts have not been taken for years, rendering any reliable assessment of the population or conservation measures, impossible.

Please check The Monachus Guardian Facebook page for updates.


katsikopolemos 2 di CDemo83

29th September, 2012

Madeira monk seal book available online

Recent Publications

Book cover: Lobos-Marinhos do Arquipélago da Madeira. Monk Seals of the Archipelago of Madeira.

Courtesy of the Parque Natural da Madeira Service, TMG is happy to make available the PDF version of Rosa Pires’ new illustrated book, Monk Seals of the Archipelago of Madeira (bilingual, English and Portuguese).

The book features sections on the biology and conservation of the species, and with monk seals recovering sufficiently to recolonise the main island of Madeira, steps members of the public can take to record and report their sightings.

Rosa Pires, a field biologist for the Parque Natural da Madeira Service, has been instrumental in the monk seal’s recovery in the Madeira archipelago.

Pires, R. 2011. Lobos-Marinhos do Arquipélago da Madeira. Monk Seals of the Archipelago of Madeira. Servicço do Parque Natural da Madeira, Funchal: 1-60. [PDF 7.7 MB]

10th December, 2011

Workshop report from Martinique

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Tethys Research Institute, Milano

Photo: Georges Gavanas

A workshop on monk seal conservation issues was organised within the framework of the second International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas, held in Martinique from 7-11 November 2011.  Nine experts on both extant monk seal species, from eight countries, contributed to the workshop, which I had the honour of coordinating.

The purpose of this workshop was to gather updated information on the status of both the Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals within their respective ranges, but in particular to explore ways in which marine protected areas (MPAs) can be used to protect these critically endangered mammals. The conditions under which monk seals survive vary greatly not only between Hawaii and the Mediterranean/North Atlantic, but also in the different localities within each species’ range. Accordingly, the tools to address the different pressures affecting monk seal status include, but are not limited to, the establishment of protected areas, and the application of these tools varies greatly between programmes.

→ Continue reading Workshop report from Martinique