Mediterranean monk seal

By | Monk seal | No Comments

The Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) is the rarest seal species in the world and the most endangered marine mammal of the European Union. In older times, the monk seal´s habitat extended all over the coasts of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and NW Africa up to Madeira and the Azores islands. Today, these charming animals have disappeared from the Black Sea and, in most Mediterranean areas, only a handful still exist. The total world population is estimated to consist of approximately 700 individuals. A large population with a colony-structure lives in Cabo Blanco/Mauritania with 330 individuals and a small population in Madeira/Portugal with 18 seals. Half of the remaining world population – about 350 individuals – lives and breeds in Greek waters.

[For details see Activities, monk seal, tab Distribution]

Biology and ecology:

The monk seal is a marine mammal and, like all mammals, it breaths with lungs. Monk seals needs to come out onto the shore to sleep and give birth to their offspring.

Today, man’s disturbing presence and activities have driven monk seals away from the open beaches – they resort to quiet, inaccessible sea caves with a patch of beach.

[For details see Activities, monk seal, tab Biology]

Main threats:

Marine pollution, Over-exploitation of marine resources, disturbance through human activities, interaction with fisheries, loss of habitat.

[For details see Activities, monk seal, tab Threats]

Status: the species is protected by several international Conventions and the EU Habitats Directive along with the national legislation of each Mediterranean country. [For details see Activities, monk seal, tab Legal status]

What we have done:

Our general aim is the co-existence of man and the monk seal as a symbol of the rich marine resources in the Mediterranean as a whole. Thus, we implemented a holistic approach from the very beginning of our activities back in 1985 and for the first time ever at the international level.

[For details see Activities, monk seal, tab What we have done]

Distribution

The total population of the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) that remains today is estimated to consist of approximately 700 individuals, of which about 400 live in the Mediterranean basin.

Its former distribution range extended throughout the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Atlantic coasts of NW Africa including the Canary islands, Madeira and the Azores. Homer describes vast herds of seals lying on the beaches, while Proteus, a sea god, would daily come out of the sea counting them in groups.

When thro’ the Zone of heav’n the mounted sun1-FOKIA_Homer_Tina_scan0035

Hath journeye’d half, and half remains to run;

The Seer, while Zephyrus curl the swelling deep,

Basks on the breezy shore, in grateful sleep,

His oozy limbs. Emerging from the wave,

The Phocae swift surround his rocky cave,

Frequent and full…

Odyssey, Book IV, 404-409

 

Today, however, these charming animals have disappeared from 1-Teti_15_Mapsextensive regions of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

In some Mediterranean areas only a handful still exist.

Actively reproducing monk seal populations are found mainly in Greece and Turkey (approximately 350) as also in Mauritania (330 photo-identified animals) and Madeira (ca. 40).

Apart of these well-known populations, the species is considered extinct or of unknown status in large parts of its former range.

 

Unless effective measures are taken promptly in the entire Mediterranean, the monk seal will disappear altogether in the next couple of decades, and our sole reminder of them will be legends and fairy tales.

Why is the Mediterranean monk seal disappearing?

During the Roman Empire, when seals were shown even in circus games, monk seal numbers were significantly reduced through massive hunting. Heavy hunting continued in the Atlantic Ocean by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15thand 16th centuries,FOKIA_Hunting_Tina_scan0040_700x262 mainly for commercial reasons.

 

In the Mediterranean Basin, the monk seal was hunted for its skin (belts and shoes) and its fat (lighting and soap) up to the ´50s. Its fur, however, was never used on a large scale for commercial purposes.

In most Mediterranean countries, fishermen have always regarded seals as enemies and deliberately killed them because of damage incurred to their fishing gear and catch, as the seals ate the fish caught in their nets (and, of course, still do). The damage done by seals is not negligible.

Yet, so many centuries of seal hunting and deliberate killings did not drive the species to extinction. The decline in their population rapidly increased after World War II.

 

What is to blame? 1-FOKIA_Actual_main_distribution_TETI_Valeria_COZZARINI_360_attuale_B1000x637

From the map showing the monk seal’s present distribution

it can be seen that seals have disappeared from the

particularly densely populated areas of the northwestern

and southeastern Mediterranean: that is where man’s impact

has been massive…

 

 

 

Marine pollution: oil spills ruin marine caves, various toxic substances (heavy metals, pesticides, sewage from harbours, towns and industry, etc.)1-FOKIA_Pollution_Tina_scan0024 poison the fish – the seal’s food and ours too.

The impact (impaired functioning of the immune, reproductive, nervous systems, etc.) is not immediately obvious since it takes years for the effects to appear.

And they will also manifest themselves in us humans if only later because we eat less fish.

 

 

Over-fishing both by professionals and amateurs with ultra modern means that scour the sea, often illegally with poisons and dynamite1-FOKIA_Overfishing_Tina_scan0022-001 or simply by leaving the nets in the sea for days.

Eventually, both fishers and seals will be looking into the same empty net.

Thus, slowly but surely, as the monk seal disappears so does the occupation of the traditional coastal fishermen which have always respected the sea. We then wonder why fish is so expensive…

 

 

 

The ever increasing disturbance by man: Yachts, ships, boats and jet skis approach even the most remote islands and the most isolated sea caves: monk seals are driven away from their last resorts. 1-FOKIA_Habitat_loss_Tina_scan0039Mothers may miscarry if frightened, or may abandon their helpless pups.

And, finally, the continual and irreversible destruction of the monk seal’s habitats: factories, ports, streets, hotels and taverns right at the seaside appear everywhere without any planning. Where should the monk seals go?

 

 

This is indeed the most severe threat in the long run: even if persecution is immediately stopped throughout the monk seal’s range –and measures to curtail it are already well under way– the monk seal will not survive without safe refuges for resting and reproduction.

What we have done:

In the Ionian Sea, western Greece, we implemented a holistic approach from the very beginning of our conservation activities back in 1985 and for the first time ever at international level: in addition to basic parameters such as the study of the seal population and its habitats, environmental education and public awareness, etc., we took into consideration additional parameters that had never been studied before:

For the first time ever, the seal damage to gear and catch was systematically recorded with the help and co-operation of our friends, the fishermen, and the degree of this damage was established scientifically. The interaction between seals and fishermen (which always led to the killing of seals in earlier years) was studied, and proposals for mitigating this crucial problem were elaborated. Based on our results, interaction with fisheries was identified as one main threat to the species in Greece.

For the first time ever, a network with the participation of local people and tourists for the collection and evaluation of seal sightings was created, which has been operating since 1985 without interruption.

For the first time ever, chemical analyses were conducted of seawater pollution and contamination of fish, which are food for both seals and humans. We concluded that pollution is not an acute threat to the monk seals here. [see Marine Pollution]

We also promoted the establishment of Marine Protected Areas wherever and whenever possible: in 2000-2002, we provided the scientific documentation for an additional marine NATURA 2000 site in the central Ionian Sea. As a result, a third marine NATURA site was included in the National Catalogue of NATURA sites in Greece.

This integrated strategy, elaborated to a full document with the co-operation of the NGO MOm in 1994, was later adopted by the Greek Ministry of the Environment and the EU, and its most important points are now the basis for all conservation activities for the monk seal in Greece.

Later, and especially after the establishment of Archipelagos Italia, we expanded our monk seal activities: we studied habitat availability in Israel, Montenegro and Apulia/Southern Italy; we reviewed reported sightings throughout the species´ former distribution throughout the Mediterranean Sea; we studied the monk seal’s diet; and we carried out photo-identification projects in Croatia and Israel.