The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is the most iconic species of the Mediterranean Sea. Yet also, it is one of the most endangered marine mammals on earth. According to the IUCN Red List (2015) it is considered as “endangered”. Persecution throughout the centuries has led to its disappearance from the biggest part of its range. The pupping and resting habitat (i.e. marine caves) is threatened by human activities such as tourism development and urbanization, resulting in habitat deterioration, destruction and fragmentation. This forces the species to occupy marine caves which are not suitable for breeding, leading to low pup survival rates. Deliberate killing by fishermen and drowning due to accidental entanglement in fishing gear are additional problems. These threats are forcing the Mediterranean monk seal to the brink of extinction. Consequently, the species is in urgent need of immediate and effective conservation and management measures. Habitats must be identified and protected, people need to be informed and sensitised.
Greece, with more than 16,000 kilometres of coastline, offers an ideal habitat. A small population has survived here, which is now gradually recovering and expanding thanks to years of protection. To secure also the long-term survival of this animal and its habitats, we must go further and help the species to spread and build a healthy population. On the coasts north of Greece – in Albania, Montenegro and Croatia – seals are currently seen only sporadically at most. But it is only a matter of time before the animals begin to rediscover and return to this part of their former range. However, the intensive use by humans has dramatically changed the face of the coastal landscape in the long period of the seal´s absence. Identifying and effectively protecting the last remaining suitable habitats for monk seals is of utmost importance for the overall survival of the species. Thus, it is one of the major conservation priorities. Beyond that, raising awareness for monk seals, their ecology and specific protection needs is of crucial importance. Cooperation between conservationists, the coastal population, tourist operators and fishermen is indispensable and most valuable for the protection of the species.
The Eastern Adriatic monk seal project has been developed to meet the challenges of creating circumstances that enable the return of the monk seal to the Eastern Adriatic.
The project started in April 2017 with the German organization EuroNatur Foundation supporting the Greek organization Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of Monk Seal (MOm) in conducting a coastline survey around Corfu Island in the North Ionian as well as adjacent smaller islands and mainland coasts. For the first time, the overall conservation status of the Mediterranean monk seal was surveyed in this area. The North Ionian is important as it can be considered as source population for the re-population of the Adriatic Sea bordering to the north. The results of the survey confirmed that there is a potential for the distribution of monk seals to the north.
Thus, in the next phase of the project, the focus shifted northwards to the coasts of Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. As a first step, the project team was expanded through cooperation with national NGOs from each of the three countries.
Jointly, a number of activities are now carried out to facilitate and promote the natural return of the monk seal to its former area of distribution.
Capacity building in the area
In cooperation with the monk seal specialists from Greece, the national NGOs gather experience and knowledge for implementing measures for the long-term protection of marine caves and monk seals on national and international level. Thus a spread of monk seals in the project area can be professionally accompanied from the beginning. This prepares the ground for the reintroduction of monk seals and creates the best possible conditions for their long-term protection.
Setting up national Rescue and Information Networks (RINT)
The establishment of RINTs is one of the most important aspects of the project. The objectives are to inform about monk seals and – on the part of the project team – to receive information if a seal is seen or found. Anyone can become a member of the network, whether they live on the coast, work in fishing or are simply interested in the species. The concept is based on the Greek RINT, which has been started in 1991. The network has proven to be a valuable source of information on sightings of monk seals, including reports of orphaned pups and injured seals in need of human care.
To learn more about the RINTs please send us an email.
Educating and Informing
Meeting stakeholders and informing them about the importance of their support for the success of the conservation efforts is a major aspect of the project. Thus, the project foresees a variety of information events, especially for target groups as local people, tourism operators, fishermen and scuba divers.
Identification of Suitable Habitats
The first step to protect the remaining suitable marine caves for resting and pupping (EU priority habitat type 8330) is to find out where theses crucial habitats are located. To do so, the coastlines are monitored via remote sensing technology and on-site assessments. Next step is the evaluation of the conservation status and potential threats of the suitable caves. Based on these assessments, a list of recommendations for protection measures of the critical habitat will be created.
Creating an action plan for the conservation of the species in the project area
Based on of the results of the fieldwork, the knowledge about people´s attitude and the regulatory framework in the riparian states , an action plan for the conservation of the Mediterranean monk seal and its habitats in the Eastern Adriatic will be drafted.
In addition, threats and challenges that could impede the species from spreading and re-colonizing are identified to present a road map for research and conservation related activities in the Eastern Adriatic.
Where do we want to be at the end of the project…
By the end of the three-year project the status of the monk seal population in the Eastern Adriatic will be known and suitable habitats for pupping and resting will be mapped. Recommendations for conservation measures will be drafted and national NGOs will possess the capacities to implement a monitoring of species and habitats as well as to implement respective conservation measures with the support of experts.
With a good picture of the situation, the problems and the challenges that need to be overcome to enable the growth of a healthy seal population in the Adriatic, the project will hopefully continue in 2021 and the conservation recommendations will be further implemented.