Mediterranean Sea

Background - 20 March, 2014
It only adds up to 1% of the world’s oceans, but the Mediterranean sea is one of the most international waters on our planet. Nineteen nations border it, more than 10,000 species live in it and millions of people get food, work and pleasure from it. It is the feeding and breeding ground for many endangered species. Protecting this 1% could make a world of difference.

Common Dolphin in the Mediterranean. 06/24/2010 © Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

Because it is so enclosed by land, the warm waters of the Mediterranean take more than a 100 years to clean and renew themselves – it doesn’t easily or quickly recover from pollution, damage or exploitation. Scientists say that up to 50% of it should be off limits to any kind of destructive activity – including fishing.

Rainbow Wrasse in the Mediterranean Sea. 09/15/2009 © Greenpeace / Gavin Parsons

With nineteen nations to support, the Mediterranean is a vital source of food and income, but it is already severely over-fished.  Official bodies like the European Environment Agency and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation admit that more than 65% of all fish stocks in the region are in trouble. Bluefin tuna numbers are so low that many environmental organisations, including Greenpeace, have repeatedly called for bluefin fishing to be banned.

Action Inside Tuna Ranch in Spain. 08/30/2006 © Greenpeace / Pedro Armestre

Overfishing isn’t the only problem for the Mediterranean. A growing industry on the sea is tuna ranching – a special kind of madness when fish stocks are low. Juvenile tuna are caught and put into special cages, which are dragged around the Med, while the tuna are fatten up with other wild caught fish. It takes up to 20 kilograms of bait to produce just one kilogram of tuna. The bait is made from other fish species, predominantly caught around West Africa, the North Atlantic and US waters.

Tuna Cage in the Mediterranean. 06/07/2010 © Paul Hilton / Greenpeace

Tuna ranching also carries other risks. The 'foreign' bait used can introduce diseases to the local fish populations, as happened in Australian tuna ranches. The spread of disease to important local fish stocks such as anchovy or sardine could be disastrous for local fishermen.

Fish farming – or aquaculture - is another industry that is expanding rapidly - often without proper environmental assessment. It is often – mistakenly – thought that fish farming helps alleviate the problem of overfishing, because fish aren’t being taken in the wild. However, many farmed species are carnivorous, and can eat up to five times their weight in wild fish.

Fish farming also uses large amounts of chemicals, which are fed to the fish or put into the water. These chemicals can do huge damage to the water and can leave them so polluted that nothing else can grow in the area. In the Mediterranean fish farms are being set up near important seagrass areas and there are serious concerns about the impact.

Seagrass in the Mediterranean. 06/03/2010 © Gavin Parsons / Greenpeace

Fishing, farming and ranching are all legal. But drift netting is not. Despite it being a crime to run illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing fleets, Morocco has admitted to operating over 300 drift netting vessels. Other fleets include the Italian fleet of 90-100 vessels, 45-100 Turkish vessels and a French fleet of between 45 and 75 vessels.

Swordfish Caught in Driftnet. 07/01/1989 © Greenpeace / Robin Culley

Driftnets can be up to 17km long and trap anything, especially endangered sea turtles, dolphins and sharks. They have been banned since 2003 because of the huge by-catch rate, but evidence suggests the use in the Mediterranean is actually increasing.

Nineteen countries share the responsibility of looking after the Mediterranean. Only one – Spain – has even adopted a National Plan of Action to combat the problem of IUU fishing. Between them – the Mediterranean states don’t even have a shared register of the fishing vessels on the water, what they are doing and what they are catching.

Barely one percent of the Mediterranean Sea is fully protected - a far cry from the 20%-50% recommended by scientists. There is a serious risk that the Mediterranean is becoming exploited beyond its natural ability to replenish and recover, affecting its health and productivity for future generations. In order to avoid this - the Mediterranean is desperately in need of protection through the establishment of ocean sanctuaries.

With the help of ocean scientists, Greenpeace has produced an oceans sanctuaries map for the Mediterranean. By protecting these areas, we can save “Our Sea” and have healthy oceans for the future.

View Save the Mediterranean in a larger map