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OceanCare has been working hard to protect whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean for many years. It is an ambitious struggle, a mixture of success and setbacks. It’s a huge challenge to protect life in a marine habitat which is under massive pressure from human activities. However, we are currently facing yet another problem: the world’s best cetacean conservation agreement – the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Mediterranean and Black Seas (ACCOBAMS) – is increasingly turning out to be a fig leaf. If adopted measures lack implementation, Member States will have to put up with the question of whether the agreement in reality serves to cover up the actual failure.

Conference on cetacean conservation in Istanbul in November

The seventh ACCOBAMS Meeting of the Parties will take place from 5 to 8 November 2019 in Istanbul, Turkey. OceanCare will be represented by ocean policy experts Nicolas Entrup and Johannes Müller. Here is a brief overview of the topics and the situation of cetaceans in the Mediterranean.

Overfishing and plastic littering

The Mediterranean Sea is very rich in biodiversity. As a small sea, which accounts for less than 1% of the planet’s ocean surface and has a very low water exchange rate due to its narrow connection to the Atlantic Ocean, it is also a highly endangered sea. Whatever man releases into the Mediterranean remains there. It is therefore little wonder that it is regarded as the sixth global garbage patch. Overfishing by industrial fishing fleets as well as illegal and unregulated fishing is another huge problem. A report published in 2018 by the General Fisheries Commission of the Mediterranean (GFCM) confirms that 78% of known fish stocks in the Mediterranean are overfished. This also impacts on marine mammals. Several years ago, an OceanCare project showed that the highly endangered common dolphins suffer from food shortages in the Ionian Sea and have almost completely disappeared in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea.

No sightings of striped dolphins

Marine biologist Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, supported by OceanCare, sounded the alarm. In parts of his study area in Greece no striped dolphins were seen this summer and only very few animals in other parts. There is currently only speculation about the causes.

This development must be given top priority by the Mediterranean cetacean conservation forum.

War also prevails under water

Underwater noise: War is raging in the eastern Mediterranean. Not only above the water level, but also beneath. Navies hunt the enemy submarines with high-power sonar systems, which have been proven to be responsible for atypical cetacean strandings in various regions of the world, particularly in the Mediterranean. But the strandings we see are only the tip of the iceberg, as we have to assume that we never see the true extent of the consequences of these noise activities. Mediterranean countries have already agreed on several measures to minimise the impact of military activities on cetaceans. OceanCare intensified its efforts to enter into dialogue with the military. As a first step, military officials from three states participated in a workshop. However, concrete measures are still a long way off.

Intensified oil search despite Paris Agreement

Intensive search for oil in the central and eastern Mediterranean Sea: In 2015, governments in Paris agreed on concrete climate protection targets and a transformation of the energy sector – by turning away from the age of fossil fuels. OceanCare welcomed France’s subsequent decision not to grant any further permits for the exploration of oil deposits in the seabed. In Spain, OceanCare together with local partner organizations, obtained a rejection of applications from the oil industry to search for oil off the Balearic Islands. But in the central and eastern Mediterranean and along the North African coast, the oil industry is intensifying its search for the black gold. This takes place in sensitive habitats and great depths, such as the Hellenic Trench, which is up to 5000 meters deep. This region is a key habitat for highly endangered species such as sperm whales, beaked whales and monk seals, and for many other species of the Mediterranean. It is also recognized as an Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA). Together with WWF Greece and other organizations, we demand the Hellenic Trench to be designated a protected area and call for a binding end to oil exploration in the Mediterranean.

In February 2019, OceanCare, together with the General Fisheries Commission of the Mediterranean (GFCM), held a workshop to highlight the negative impacts of underwater noise on fish stocks and the resulting social and economic consequences for fishermen. What is particularly sensitive is that the recovery of fish stocks in zones closed to fishing is slowed down or even prevented by other human activities, including the search for oil. The findings and recommendations of this workshop were presented to the riparian states so that urgent action could be taken. In a workshop held in 2017 by OceanCare in cooperation with NRDC and the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt (DBU), recommendations were also developed that explicitly address the dangers of oil exploration in Southeast European waters.

SaveMoby – protecting sperm whales from collisions

Cargo shipping as a challenge to conservation: The Mediterranean is one of the most intensively used shipping regions in the world. Cargo shipping is responsible for about 3% of global CO2 emissions, but also for the steady increase in noise pollution of the oceans. If shipping routes cross the habitat of large whale species, e.g. fin whales or sperm whales, there is also a high risk of collisions, which usually cause fatal wounds. For the sperm whales threatened with extinction in the eastern Mediterranean, ship collisions are the main cause of population decline. In the relevant committees, OceanCare therefore campaigns for a speed reduction in transport shipping. This measure would reduce emissions and noise as well as the risk of collisions with whales. In addition, with the SaveMoby project we have launched an innovative, solution-oriented program – one of the last chances to save sperm whales from extinction in the eastern Mediterranean.

OceanCare also achieved the highest conservation status for Cuvier’s beaked whales under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species, as well as guidelines for conducting environmental impact assessments (EIAs) for noise-generating activities. We are also actively involved in preparing species-specific action plans for concrete conservation measures.

A fig leaf for failure?

Our conclusion: If governments were to implement the decisions taken and to follow the recommendations and guidelines, the Mediterranean Sea, the eleven whale and dolphin species living in it, and other marine wildlife would be in a far better state. Lacking implementation of decisions does not happen by accident and in many cases leads to failure. In order to counter this weak point, ACCOBAMS set up a so-called Follow-Up Committee at the 5th Meeting of the Parties. OceanCare has already submitted five complaints, but is not yet allowed to report transparently on them. We doubt, however, that the Committee will lead to a significant improvement in the implementation of decisions. OceanCare is therefore calling on the Mediterranean and Black Sea countries to implement the conservation measures to which they have committed themselves. These include in particular the establishment and management of marine protected areas e.g. those identified as IMMAs), but also a range of other concrete measures. If they continue to fail on this, we have to raise the question whether this agreement makes sense or merely serves as a fig leaf.

For OceanCare, the 7th Meeting of the Parties to ACCOBAMS will set the course for cetacean conservation in the Mediterranean. “Walk the talk” is the highest priority. Only measurable results count.