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A Grass-Roots Movement to Create Marine Protected Areas

On the Greek isle of Santorini, fishers, divers, scientists, government officials and environmentalists have devised their own plan to preserve the marine ecology of the waters surrounding an island dependent on fishing and tourism.

Written by Erica Cirino Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Sunset in the picturesque village of Oia on Santorini Island.Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images

Santorini, Greece, attracts millions of visitors annually with its brilliant sunshine, soft sand and pristine turquoise waves. But lurking in the depths of the historic Aegean Sea island’s idyllic waters is something ugly: heaps and heaps of lost and discarded fishing gear. This includes large fishing nets, long lines and crab pots, collectively called “ghost gear” because they ensnare marine wildlife long after they’re abandoned.

Both active and derelict fishing gear entangle and kill hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins annually across the globe, according to the United Nations, in addition to sea turtles, fish, invertebrates, seals, sea lions and seabirds. In Santorini, as in many other coastal communities, ghost gear serves as a reminder of the region’s sometimes destructive reliance on fishing to fuel the local economy and feed people.

This Friday, on World Oceans Day, ocean conservationist and diver Pierre-Yves Cousteau will lead a group of tactical divers on an underwater mission to remove deadly ghost gear from Santorini’s waters and recycle it into textiles. Carried out by divers from the Dutch nonprofit Ghost Fishing and co-organized by Healthy Seas, the event, called Save Your Breath, is an awareness-raising effort to make a small dent in a large global problem. It is one of hundreds of events that will mark World Oceans Day.

The activists also want to show support for establishing a marine protected area (MPA) around Santorini that would ban fishing in ecologically important areas and encourage lower-impact fishing in others. As a grassroots effort eight years in the making, the campaign to establish an MPA is representative of a broader movement to build support for marine protection from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

“Santorini is a good pick for several reasons: It has good – although rapidly declining – biodiversity and high tourism,” said Cousteau, founder of the nonprofit marine research organization Cousteau Divers and the youngest son of Jacques Cousteau. “So there is an opportunity to sustain the protection and management of the area with sustainable tourism.”

The Hellenic Marine Research Center performing the baseline survey for the Santorini MPA. (Cousteau Divers)

Cousteau began thinking about the need for a marine protected area in the waters surrounding the heavily fished Greek island after giving diving lessons there in 2009. Marta Fortes Vilaltella, co-owner of local company Atlantis Dive Center, a Save Your Breath partner, said her dive master, Apostolos Stylianopoulos, worked with Cousteau to garner support for the project among local authorities and fishers.

“Local professional fishermen saw every year less fish into their nets,” said Vilaltella. Atlantis Dive Center and Cousteau Divers held a number of local meetings with fishers and the community warmed to the idea of playing a role in building a sea sanctuary, she said, as they became convinced that protecting Santorini’s waters could help sustain larger fish populations.

Divers also documented the biodiversity, biomass and water conditions around Santorini to help establish a scientific baseline to inform the creation and management of a marine protected area. According to a report of the research, the area has a generally high level of biodiversity but low total numbers of fish, with few adult top predators. Invasive species were also present.

Working together, the partners presented the data on Santorini’s ecological strengths and weaknesses to the fishers, said Vilaltella, and then drafted a proposal for marine protection focused mainly on boosting biomass by limiting human activities in ecologically important areas, like reefs.

In March 2014, Cousteau Divers worked with the local fishers union, the Hellenic Marine Research Center and Santorini officials to draft an agreement to support a Santorini marine protected area and create a management framework. The plan would prohibit all types of fishing in some of the most ecologically healthy waters around the island, including those that hug the 2.5-kilometer-long (1.55 miles) Perissa Rock coastline in southeast Santorini and those along a 6.4-kilometer (4 miles) stretch on the Akrotiri Peninsula in southwestern Santorini. The plan would encourage artisanal fishing over commercial fishing and push tourism businesses, such as diving, to focus on sustainability and minimizing impacts on marine wildlife.

By October 2017, after more research, the proposal was sent to the Hellenic Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food, said Jenny Ioannou, communications coordinator of Healthy Seas. The Greek government must now establish a set of standards on how to enforce the the Santorini marine protected area before the MPA can go into effect, she said.

Fishing boats docked in the small village of Akotiri on Santorini Island, Greece. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Cousteau, meanwhile, hopes to grow the movement to build marine protected areas from a grassroots level by engaging with costal communities elsewhere and has created a toolkit for people to use. Since 2009, ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle’s nonprofit Mission Blue has asked the public to identify ecologically unique ocean areas, or “Hope Spots,” deserving of marine protected area status. To date, it has established nearly 100 Hope Spots, supported by communities and endorsed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

But creating an MPA is only the first step. A 2017 study published in the journal Nature suggested marine conservation success is tightly linked to equitable and well-resourced management. “Many marine protected areas failed to meet thresholds for effective and equitable management processes, with widespread shortfalls in staff and financial resources,” the researchers wrote.

Cousteau acknowledged that ensuring the success of marine protected areas isn’t always easy. He said he hopes Save Your Breath – which will be broadcast online as he narrates the gear removal process – can spread awareness about the need to move forward with the Santorini marine protected area.

“Everything is in place at the moment, we just need the go-ahead from the Greek Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries,” said Cousteau. “Then the harder work begins: to effectively manage and enforce the protection.”

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