Conserving the Mediterranean Sea

Promoting an interconnected network of highly protected marine areas

Damsea via Shutterstock

The Mediterranean Sea covers less than 1% of the global ocean, yet it is one of the planet’s greatest sources of marine and coastal biodiversity.

More than half a billion people live in the 21 countries that make up the Mediterranean region, which is home to more than 10,000 plant and animal species—nearly 30% of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Like the rest of the ocean, the Mediterranean Sea faces a host of dire threats, including overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change, ocean acidification, and marine debris. On top of these marine ecosystem pressures, the Mediterranean Sea is already warming 20% faster than the global ocean average due to climate change.

Fortunately, policymakers can help limit and possibly reverse some of this damage. Studies consistently show that large, fully protected marine areas protect biodiversity, safeguard traditional cultures closely linked to the sea, and allow plant and animal species to recover from many stressors. Scientists have also proved that those benefits extend far beyond the boundaries of marine protected areas (MPAs).

MPAs are the most effective tool for conserving marine ecosystems, safeguarding biodiversity, and helping build resilience against the impacts of climate change. These areas—particularly when highly or fully protected—can also help boost fisheries and the economies that depend on them.

Yet today, only 0.23% of the Mediterranean’s waters are designated as fully or highly protected MPAs, compared with 2.9% of the global ocean. That’s still largely insufficient.

In 2022, to help improve marine protections in the Mediterranean, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy (PBOL) Project initiated a collaborative effort to help promote a network of highly and fully protected MPAs by fostering the creation of newly safeguarded areas, strengthening existing protections, and advancing connectivity between protected areas.

To protect threatened marine life and habitats, Italy designated the waters surrounding the volcanic Aeolian Islands in the Mediterranean Sea as a marine protected area in 2016.
Spooh Getty Images

New MPAs: Promoting the designation of more highly protected zones

For the Mediterranean region to significantly contribute to the worldwide goal of protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030, governments will need to ramp up MPA designations. PBOL will work with governments, environmental groups, scientists, communities, and maritime economy stakeholders to help identify and protect key habitats, species, and ecosystems through an inclusive and rigorous science-based process. As a first step, PBOL has initiated a scoping study with marine conservation groups BlueSeeds and Blue Pangolin under the supervision of an advisory board composed of several key Mediterranean stakeholders. The objective is to identify meaningful opportunities for designating highly protected areas in the region through an analysis of the ecological hot spots, key political commitments, and the capacities on the ground.

In parallel, PBOL supports WWF and other partners to implement an ambitious transboundary project aimed at protecting 46,000 square kilometers (17,760 square miles) in the Strait of Sicily, an area facing significant ecological challenges. Similar efforts are underway to protect other key biological hot spots across the Mediterranean.

Red Anthias swim through Gorgonian corals off the coast of Medes Islands, Spain.
Reinhard Dirscherl ullstein bild via Getty Images

More effective MPAs: Fostering a higher level of protection of existing areas

Although 9.6% of the Mediterranean Sea is legally designated as protected, 95% of these areas are no more protected than the waters outside the MPAs because they are either only lightly protected or poorly enforced—or, in some cases, both. By expanding protection and improving the management of more than 1,000 existing MPAs in the Mediterranean—spanning over 150,000 square kilometers (58,000 square miles)— governments could produce measurable benefits to marine ecosystems, biodiversity, people, and economies.

In partnership with MedPAN (the Mediterranean Protected Areas Network), a nonprofit network of MPA managers, PBOL has launched a grant initiative to support and strengthen MPAs’ protection levels. PBOL is also collaborating with MedFund on its Highly Protected Mediterranean Initiative to promote meaningful protections in the southern and eastern areas of the Mediterranean Sea. Also, in partnership with the French Committee of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and a coalition of French nongovernmental organizations, PBOL is supporting efforts to deliver on the ambitious French commitment to highly protect at least 5% of its Mediterranean waters by 2027.

Connectivity: Promoting a coherent network of protected areas

Science continues to show that strong, effective conservation has benefits that transcend the protected area’s boundaries, and that connected networks of MPAs are the best way to ensure the broadest benefits.

PBOL is supporting efforts to promote connectivity between protected areas and conserve biological resources and habitats beyond MPAs. In partnership with Mediterranean Recovery Action (MedReAct), PBOL is supporting the creation of a network of fisheries restricted areas in the region and spatial management measures adopted under the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean. PBOL is also promoting the improvement of fishing practices and the elimination of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

A fisherman pulls a net in the Mediterranean Sea off Albania, where small-scale fisheries have played an important role in coastal communities for centuries. Claudia Amico
A fisherman pulls a net in the Mediterranean Sea off Albania, where small-scale fisheries have played an important role in coastal communities for centuries.
Claudia Amico

Coalitions: Connecting people to foster protection

One of the most effective ways to ensure lasting and effective conservation of the Mediterranean Sea is through strong collaboration among all stakeholders and rights holders. These groups include governments, communities, artisanal and industrial fishers, actors from the tourism industry, scientists, and environmental groups—all of whom must share information and best practices and work together to identify solutions that benefit both people and nature.

Based on the best available science, PBOL and environmental groups will support the development of a regional initiative aimed at making significant advancements toward reaching the 30% protection target for the Mediterranean Sea by 2030. In addition, PBOL will support efforts to achieve the European Union’s target of strictly protecting at least 10% of EU waters by 2030 in alliance with leading European nongovernmental organizations coordinated by Seas at Risk and Oceana.

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