Bonded by hope

On remote islands in Greece, small-scale fishing communities have come together to protect the seas they depend on.

Words by Kira Coley
Photographs courtesy of Sentinels of the Mediterranean Documentary

Nicole Godsil emerges from the murky pre-dawn light and strolls down the dimly lit jetty. As she approaches the small wooden fishing vessel, Markos and his son, Nikos, welcome her with a broad smile while preparing the boat for another long day at sea. The engine’s sudden rumble breaks the morning’s silence. “Kalimera. Are you ready?” asks Markos, the fisherman. “Let’s go.”

It’s 5am in Keri Lake, a small fishing town on the southwest side of Zakynthos (also known as Zante) island, Greece, and the pitch-black water is streaked with silvery-blue hues reflecting the changing light of a new day.

Godsil is a marine environmentalist collaborating with Greek fishers to protect biodiversity. She has been working alongside Markos for almost a year. And today, she is accompanying him and Nikos as they head out to haul the nets at the west side of the island.

Markos has been fishing in these waters for 34 years, but every year he brings home less fish. “Fishing is my whole life; I was raised and grew up with fishing. But the situation isn’t good for the industry as fish populations have declined by 70 percent in this region alone, and every year it decreases,” he says.

Fishing is woven into the very fabric of Mediterranean life, and small-scale fishers like Markos –those with boats less than 12 metres in length, fishing close to the shore – have significant social importance, especially in rural areas along Greece’s extensive coastline. In these parts, fisheries are often molded around family, and the profession is passed down through the generations. But the spread of invasive species, climate change, centuries of overexploitation, and recent rising fuel costs are all taking their toll on these long-standing fishing communities. As a result, the size of Greece’s infamous fishing fleet – the largest in Europe – is in decline, down by 13 percent since 2008.

“I want my son to follow in my footsteps, but I’m worried for the future,” says Markos.

Markos steers the boat towards their first fishing spot of the day, hugging the rocky, tree-encrusted coastline as gulls inquisitively circle nearby close to the sea surface. By now, the sun has risen, and the morning light shrouds the vessel in a pale-yellow haze as it gently pitches and rolls on the now clear, turquoise waters. The fishers get to work setting their nets while Godsil scans the horizon, describing what she sees into a small black Dictaphone. She is looking for marine megafauna – seals, sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, and seabirds – that have been preying on the fisher’s catch or bait, often resulting in entanglement or damaging fishing gear.

“Look! Over there!” she exclaims, pointing to a glossy silver-grey mass rolling in the glass-like waters in the shadow of the imposing cliff face, black-pearl eyes peering interestedly back at Godsil. It was a Mediterranean monk seal, one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in Europe.

With monk seals nearby, Markos begins hauling in the fishing net, quickly examining it for holes and tears as he skilfully folds the gear on deck. When they get back to the port, Godsil will inspect the nets and record any damages. In Greece, the damages to fishing gears caused by marine megafauna costs fishers around €3,000 each year and it takes about 100 days of personal work to fix the tools, says Markos.

Like in other parts of the Mediterranean, fishers here are growing concerned about the rising number of cases where marine wildlife are competing for the dwindling fish resources and taking the catch directly from the nets, an act known as depredation.

Since 2020, Godsil has been studying the interactions between small-scale fishers and marine megafauna to better understand the severity of the problem so solutions can be found that will limit the interaction and mitigate its impacts. “As an environmental scientist, it’s really important to me that I can wake up every morning and do something to contribute to the protection of both marine biodiversity and help with the sustainability of the small-scale fishing sector,” say Godsil, who is a marine programme associate for WWF-Greece. In the past two years, she has visited more than 100 ports and has spoken with over 200 fishers throughout the Peloponnese and western Greece.

Until the 1990’s, research investigating animal-fisheries interactions focused mainly on the impacts to marine species, such as injuries or incidental captures, and the reduction of prey availability. But some of the consequences less often mentioned are the damages caused to the fishers themselves, namely the destruction of fishing gear, the reduction in catches, and the decrease of fishers’ income which causes wider social-economic issues within coastal communities.

Although these encounters have been reported globally, the depredation problem is becoming increasingly severe throughout the Mediterranean and conflicts between marine mammals and fishers are on the rise.

In Morocco,  the presence of bottlenose dolphin during purse seine operations is so frequent that the fishers were forced to leave their traditional waters to find new fishing grounds in the Atlantic, says Célia Le Ravallec, programme and project officer for the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS). She adds: “You can imagine the social impact these events are having on fishers as it often means leaving their families for several months at a time.”

“Fishers tell us ‘We don’t want to hurt dolphins, but maybe that’s the only solution’. We’ve found dolphins with bullet wounds on the beach, although fortunately that is a rare event. But fishers are being pushed to the limit, and we need to find a solution now before things get worse,” says Le Ravallec.

Since April 2017, Moroccan fishers have been working with onboard observers to collect data for a monthly monitoring program in the two main ports. The M’diq and Al Hoceima regions experience the most dolphin depredations on purse seine fisheries along Morocco’s Mediterranean coast. Given the high levels of interactions during purse seine operations in the region, a new prototype seine has been made from pure nylon polyamide, Initial tests have shown it to be especially resistant to dolphin attacks and may even increase the size of the catch compared to the traditional nets.

In other parts of the Mediterranean, researchers are teaming up with fishers to test various acoustic deterrents and even low-cost systems such as CD’s or glass bottles tied to fishing gears. It was hoped that the CD’s aluminium coat would reflect the sound of dolphin echolocation and act as a visual scarecrow, but trials off Spain’s southern coast have yet to determine its effectiveness.

In Sicily, a new automatic alert system (AAS) is being trialled as a possible answer to the rising levels of dolphin depredation in the region – which has increased by 25 percent in the last two years alone. The AAS listens for dolphin clicks and whistles and alerts fishers whenever dolphins are nearby so they can haul up the net to avoid further damage.

Researchers have had some success with the AAS device in preventing dolphin encounters, but more work is needed to make the alert system more robust – and even then, this issue is so complex, it might not have the same success elsewhere. “In the case of depredation by dolphins, each dolphin population behaves differently. Some dolphins interact with purse seines, others with gillnets, and some don’t interact at all. It is a learnt behaviour that is different within each group and this behaviour can change over time as they adapt,” says Le Ravallec. “Meaning, we will always be looking for new solutions.”

It’s not just the damage to fisheries that worries Godsil. Since surveys began in Greece, two monk seals, three dolphins and around forty loggerhead turtles have been caught in nets as bycatch, she says. Adding: “And that is just the times when I’ve been onboard, think about how many more might be accidentally caught when we’re not here,” says Godsil. “We need to protect marine species populations from declining, and that requires adequate and robust data.”

Bycatch refers to the incidental capture of non-target species, and populations of endangered marine megafauna are in decline in many areas throughout the Mediterranean as a result.

“It is an important conservation issue and one of the main threats to a number of vulnerable marine species,” says Daniel Mitchell, European Marine Coordinator at BirdLife Europe and Central Asia. In the Mediterranean, there are over 132,000 captures of sea turtles and over 44,000 incidental deaths every year. Bycatch is also the main threat to the Balearic shearwater – Europe’s most threatened seabird – which is endemic to the Mediterranean.

WWF-Greece, ACCOBAMS, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM) and BirdLife are working alongside 45 other partners on the Together for the Med programme, a Mediterranean-wide initiative working to reduce the impacts of fisheries on marine biodiversity and improve the sustainability of the fishing industry.

For the past five years, Mitchell has been leading a project that has been collecting data to understand the bycatch problem in Morocco, Tunisia, Croatia, Italy, and Turkey and a separate project following a similar approach in Cyprus. The project partners have been working with fishers to identify possible solutions to reduce bycatch while not losing any of the target fish.

“A big challenge is that there is rarely a perfect solution to these problems,” says Mitchell. “Each fishery is different, not just in terms of location but also in terms of the types of fishing gears they operate and what species they target, among others. The specificities of different fisheries often require mitigation measures to be tailored, and this requires time and money.”

So, there is no magical silver bullet. Fortunately, what there is, is a strong desire in the Mediterranean fishing community, including managers and decision-makers, to work with scientists to find solutions.

When it comes to solving this complex problem, fishers have a critical role to play, but they “need support with things such as species identification, safe handling and release of bycaught individuals, and on identifying and applying mitigation measures,” says Mitchell. Adding: “Many of the fishers we have worked with really understand the importance of taking care of the marine environment, and we’re witnessing a change in attitude following their engagement in the project and as a result of the outreach and communication activities.”

Mitchell found that as the project went on, more and more fishers were willing, and even actively asking, to take part in the research. The quality of the data also improved as the relationships and trust grew between the fishers and bycatch observers – who were, like Godsil, going to the ports armed with questionnaires and joining fishers on their vessels to record data.

They have even seen fishers who were engaging with the project go on to become members of the bycatch observer teams. “The project has not only taken a big step forward for addressing the problem of bycatch in the Mediterranean, it has created a family of practitioners, scientists, fishers, bycatch observers, and government officials working together on this issue within the region. This is something that will remain long beyond the end of the project,” says Mitchell.

In Zakynthos island, Godsil is meeting with the local fishers and relevant stakeholders to discuss the results of her surveys and propose several technical, management, and financial solutions. For example, a technical solution is leaving their gear underwater for shorter periods of time or avoiding interaction hotspots identified through the surveys. A management solution might involve the implementation of national monitoring programs. As a financial solution, Godsil is hoping they can develop a compensatory system for the loss of income, to help small-scale fishers deal with the damages or avoid the interactions altogether.

“Fishers are part of the solution, and we cannot save the Mediterranean without their help, as they also play an important role in growing our understanding towards protecting key marine species,” says Godsil. “By working together, I believe it is possible to improve the situation we find ourselves in, although we have limited time to change things and make a difference. We might be the last ones able to actually do something, and that is why we need to act now in order to ensure the protection of the Mediterranean and its resources for future generations.”

Photographs courtesy of Sentinels of the Mediterranean Documentary

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