Corals, gorgonias, maërl and seagrass should be protected by the Habitats Directive.
The research catamaran of the international organisation for marine conservation, Oceana, is at this moment sailing in the Gulf of Genoa, where it is filming the ecosystems of the sea bottom. The aim is to document the state of conservation of a number of habitats which the organisation would like to see included in the corresponding European Union Directive, which is due to be revised in 2007.
On board the Oceana Ranger, a team of marine biologists, with the support of cameramen and photographers, is diving in areas specially selected for their marine biodiversity. Here there are well-conserved specimens of the habitats, the conservation of which throughout the Mediterranean, particularly via European legislation, Oceana is arguing for.
These ecosystems are threatened by the practice of certain kinds of fishing, such as bottom trawling. This system devastates all the living organisms in the area by means of a net that is fitted with heavy pieces of metal and chains. Not only are fish of any size and species caught in this way but also invertebrates are affected such as crustaceans, molluscs, corals, gorgonias and even seaweed and the marine fanerogamous plants. The entire ecosystem can be destroyed with the passage of a trawl net.
Some of these habitats have already been reduced by 50% to 80% and their recovery is unlikely or practically impossible as some of them have taken centuries or even millennia to take on their current form. This is the reason for the importance of their immediate protection, which might also prevent the disappearance of a number of species in grave danger of extinction in the Mediterranean, such as Gerardia savaglia.
One of the places that is currently safe from this kind of fishing is the Portofino Marine Reserve, in Italy, with a size of 372 hectares. Oceana is working with the Fondazione Ermenegildo Zegna, the University of Padua and the ICRAM (Central Institute for Marine Scientific and Technological Research ) to carry out a range of different programmes of study and graphic documentation of the species which are preserved here. The corals in the reserve although they are relatively safe from fishing activity have nevertheless been affected by another phenomenon caused indirectly by man. Climatic change has led to episodes of whitening and death of many corals over the last few years due to the increase in the temperature of the Mediterranean at certain times.
“European marine biodiversity must be the object of protection through the revision of the European Union Habitats Directive and the inclusion in it of all species of corals and gorgonias, seagrass and maërl seabeds”, the oceanographer, Xavier Pastor, the coordinator of the Ranger campaign and Head of Oceana for Europe, has said.
According to the conservation organisation, this protection would make the recovery of large areas of the Mediterranean, which are currently degraded, possible in the medium term. This would contribute to the improvement of the situation regarding fish stocks that are currently exhausted and which, after the implementation of conservation measures, might again be the object of sustainable levels of fishing by selective methods used by local traditional fleets.
The Spanish government has taken the lead in Europe in the protection of these ecosystems in the Mediterranean, prohibiting the use of trawling methods, purse seine and dredgers in all the waters under Spanish control where any of these habitats exists, and also on sea bottoms that are at a greater depth than 1000 metres.
“If a country with a long fishing tradition, such as Spain, takes the initiative in protecting the corals, the superior marine plants and the seabed of calcareous seaweeds, this is a clear indication to the rest of the European Union that these measures are necessary and positive for the recovery of the fishing grounds”, Xavier Pastor has argued.