Overfishing and development turning the Mediterranean into a marine graveyard

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The Mediterranean, once a playground for a vast array of species, is turning into a graveyard of natural life with more than 40 per cent of its shark and stingray population under threat.

The Mediterranean has the highest numbers of threatened sharks and rays in the world, according to a report published yesterday by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The study blamed the dramatic threat to these indigenous species on a combination of over-fishing (including accidental by-catches), degradation of habitat and human disturbances.

"From devil rays to angel sharks, Mediterranean populations of these vulnerable species are in serious trouble," said Claudine Gibson, Programme Officer for the IUCN Shark Specialist Group (SSG) and co-author of the report.

"Our analyses reveal the Mediterranean as one of the world's most dangerous places on Earth for sharks and rays. Bottom-dwelling species appear to be at greatest risk in this region, due mainly to intense fishing of the seabed."

In all, 71 species of sharks, rays and chimaeras (cartilaginous fishes) were assessed in the study, that showed 30 species threatened with extinction. Of those, 13 were classified as critically endangered, eight as endangered and nine as vulnerable.

Another 13 species were classified as near threatened, while a lack of information led to 18 species being classified as data deficient. There were only 10 species in the whole investigation deemed to be of least concern.

The report is the third in a series of regional assessments of the Mediterranean by IUCN.

At present, there are no catch limits for fished species of Mediterranean sharks and rays.

The Maltese skate is one of the species under greatest threat. Found only in the Mediterranean, it has seen population declines of 80 per cent, largely because of bottom trawl fisheries. The angular roughshark and three species of angel shark have also been termed critically endangered. The porbeagle and shortfin mako also fell into the category of critically endangered, predominantly because their meat and fins are prized delicacies.

This week will also see an opportunity for solutions to be put forward for the over-fishing of such species, as international fisheries managers meet in Turkey to discuss putting limits on the fishing of porbeagle and shortfin mako. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas is an annual meeting that guides Mediterranean rules for species taken in tuna fisheries.

"Never before have Mediterranean countries had more reason or opportunity to safeguard the region's beleaguered sharks and rays," said Sonja Fordham, deputy chair of the SSG and policy director for the Shark Alliance. "Country officials should heed the dire warnings of this report and act to protect threatened sharks and rays through regional fisheries agreements, international wildlife conventions, and national legislation. Such action is necessary to change the current course toward extinction of these remarkable ocean animals."

The IUCN is calling for better enforcement measures to give shark and ray populations a chance to recover but those species are not the only casualties of over-development and over-fishing in the Mediterranean.

"The main concern is not only for each individual species – as important as they are – but for the cumulative impact of this loss of biodiversity," said Annabelle Cuttelod, Mediterranean Red List co-ordinator at the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation. "We are observing serious changes which will have major consequences over time on all animal life and, ultimately, on the livelihoods of people around the Mediterranean."

Over 100 million tourists flock to the Med, known as the "cradle of civilisation", each year – and the figure is expected to double by 2025. The effect it has had on both the coastline and marine life has been devastating.

Modern resorts created for high-intensity tourism have replaced natural habitats, with disturbances such as the anchoring of pleasure boats on seabeds upsetting the ecosystems.

This latest news on the effect of man's intervention comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its definitive report on the science of climate change today. The panel met to put together the dossier in Valencia in Spain, a city where the effects of climate change and development on the Mediterranean are abundantly clear.

Ironically, the two elements that most attracted tourists in the first place: the fine sandy beaches and clear water, are now two of the most threatened aspects of its scenery.

Dead in the water

* Waste

Pollution has all but wiped out species such as the Mediterranean monk seal and the loggerhead sea turtle. According to the UN Environment Programme, every year 650 million tons of sewage, 129,000 tons of mineral oil, 60,000 tons of mercury, 3,800 tons of lead and 36,000 tons of phosphates are dumped into the sea.

* Water

Water extraction is said by scientists to be among the most serious threats to dryer parts of the Med, made worse by climate change and leading to rivers drying in the summer months. According to the Handbook of European Freshwater Fishes, this is leading to life in freshwater ecosystems being threatened and a range of fish heading for extinction.

* Oil

Major and frequent oil spills into the Mediterranean, such as those from a ship off the Spanish coast in January and a war-damaged Lebanese power station last year, kill thousands of marine mammals. They are present long-term dangers to the natural habitats of plant and animal species.

* Tourism

The Mediterranean's flora are under threat from pleasure boats, whose anchors drag on the sea-beds and upset the ecosystems. The Posidonia sea-grass meadows, which are the reproductive site for hundreds of species, are torn apart by tourist vessels' heavy anchors.

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