A green hero

Tunisian conservationist Yassine Ramzi Sghaier took on a momentous challenge: saving the Mediterranean's secret green weapon by working with countries to create vital cross-border marine protected areas. On the islands of Kuriat, he reveals the intricate challenge of building sustainable multinational MPAs that avoid the fate of the notorious paper parks and can ensure the survival of humanity.

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

A cool sea breeze provides a momentary reprieve from the mid-morning sun, already intense on the dingy anchored just off the Kuriat Islands, 20 kilometres from Tunisia’s mainland. A small orange buoy flaps energetically on the Mediterranean Sea, signalling the diver’s sub-surface passage.  A moment later, Yassine Ramzi Sghaier emerges from the grey-blue depths, looking about to get his bearings before enthusiastically waving a green mass in the air. “This is it,” he calls. “This is what will save the Mediterranean!”

Yassine tosses the prized bundle into the dinghy, followed by a pair of shiny black fins, before heaving himself over the side in a spray of salt water. It was a type of seagrass, Posidonia oceanica to be precise, also commonly known as Neptune grass.

Seagrass is often referred to as the “lungs of the sea”, but lacking the charisma of coral reefs, their value within the marine environment has been largely under-appreciated until relatively recently. “It really is a very important ecosystem. Its role is invaluable and without Posidonia the Mediterranean Sea would be without life,” says Yassine. “More than that, without it, we will not be able to ensure the survival of humanity.”

Growing up in Tunisia’s coastal city, Sousse, Yassine has spent most of his life swimming, fishing, snorkelling, and watching Jacques Cousteau on television. “When I was seven, I realised that superheroes didn’t wear capes, they wore red caps,” he said, reaching for his red beanie, placing it on his head with a wry smile. Yassine was so inspired by Cousteau that when his father gave him 200 Tunisian dinars to buy a mobile phone, he spent it learning how to dive. “And now, I’m lucky to be doing the same thing my hero did.”

Today, Yassine works for the United Nation Environment Programme/Mediterranean Action Plan’s Specially Protected Areas Regional Activity Center (SPA/RAC). He was a project manager for the MedKeyHabitats and the Kuriat Projects, two of 15 projects under the Together for the Med programme, an initiative that brings together 46 organisations to reduce fishing pressure on marine biodiversity in the region. Yassine’s team has been mapping marine habitats in 14 locations and assessing their sensitivity to human activity. The data they collate will support the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs), safeguarding the valuable marine habitats that sustain life throughout the Mediterranean Sea. One location, in particular, is close to Yassine’s heart.

The motor begins to rumble, causing startled shrieks from the nearby gulls idly bobbing in the gentle swells. We’re soon racing towards the nearest beach, cruising over an expansive green-black-beige patchwork silhouetting the island’s iconic seagrass meadows below. For the past ten years, Yassine has been collecting data on bird diversity, sea turtle nesting grounds, and mapping the seagrass surrounding the Kuriat Islands–one of the 12 planned Marine and Coastal Protected Areas (MCPAs) in Tunisia. The islands are composed of two flat land masses sheltering rich biodiversity in the Gulf of Monastir, acting as a migratory stopover for up to 100 different species of birds, and one of the main nesting sites of the loggerhead turtle in the south Mediterranean. “The coast here is rich in diversity and that, in part, is thanks to the Posidonia surrounding the island,” says Yassine.

Posidonia meadows are one of the most important marine habitats in the region, hosting around 20 percent of marine life in the Mediterranean. It is also one of the plants that absorbs the most carbon, produces vast amounts of oxygen, and offers coastal protection through the entrapment of sediment. In fact, seagrass is widely considered to be the third most valuable ecosystem in the world, estimated to be worth over USD $19,000 per hectare per year.

“It’s a real emblem of the Mediterranean,” says Yassine. “But today, we’ve reached the limit of what’s tolerable and now all life in the Med is suffering.” Years of irregular anchorages, smothering by material from coastal construction; pollution; improper fishing with seiners, trawlers and bottom-dragging tools; and the spread of invasive species have damaged the fragile marine prairies. A recent analysis shows a 34 per cent decline in Posidonia coverage in the past 50 years in the Mediterranean Sea.

Walking around the Kuriat Islands, you don’t have to go far to find signs of human impacts. Plastic bottles and lost fishing gear litter the beach close to nesting sites of turtles. The islands are also subject to illegal fishing, excess nutrients from nearby aquaculture facilities, and sewage from the mainland. Because the islands and the surrounding Posidonia meadows are so important to maintaining the high level of biodiversity, in 2017 the National Council for Marine and Coastal Protected Areas decided to create an MCPA.

MCPAs (or MPAs) are an important tool for the protection of marine habitats, biodiversity and restoring commercially important fish stocks. A study by the University of Plymouth in 2021 found that well-managed sites can result in a four-fold increase in the abundance and diversity of fish populations. But, as it stands today, only 9.68 percent of the Mediterranean Sea is protected.

“Even though MPAs and no-take zones (NTZs) are some of the best tools we have to help the recovery of marine life, in the past decade, most countries have made no effort to designate additional areas,” says Anna Barbanti, Regional Coordinator for Marine Protected Areas at WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative. A large part of the minimal increase in MPA cover is due to France and Spain with a small contribution from Albania, Croatia, Greece and Malta. A very small area of new MPAs was designated in Egypt, Italy, Slovenia, and Turkey. But most of the Mediterranean is left unprotected.

International negotiations recently took place in an attempt to increase global marine coverage of MPAs to 30 percent by 2030. While the expansion of MPAs is crucial, without adequate human resources and funding, there is a real risk of these new sites becoming so-called ‘paper parks.’ A report by Oceana in 2020 found that an astonishing 96 percent of Europe’s MPAs allowed destructive activities within its borders, and some sites were left unmanaged for up to 11 years.

“Effective management and enforcement of MPAs is still a challenge in most Mediterranean countries. Only 2.48 percent of the Mediterranean is covered by MPAs with a management plan, only 1.27 percent by MPAs that effectively implement their management plans, and a tiny 0.03 percent is covered by fully protected areas,” says Barbanti. By the end of 2022, EU countries should have submitted pledges to the European Commission, “but it is still unclear how the Commission will enforce the pledges. Considering the state of the Med’, what is being done at the moment is not enough.”

A 2015 report calculated a financing gap of € 700 million per year to reach the Aichi target of 10 percent of Mediterranean coastal areas protected by 2020 by effectively managed MPAs, with current financial resources covering only 12 percent of the needs to reach this objective. Unfortunately, if anything, the funding gap keeps getting wider. Anna is working with the Together for the Med partners to boost financial investment and resources to better manage existing and future MPAs in the Mediterranean.

If we don’t find a way to resolve this funding crisis, training and equipping staff and effective enforcement will be a challenge for any country, said Yassine. “Not only do we need more well-managed and well-financed MPAs, but there also needs to be a good balance between the north and south.” Around 90 percent of the MPAs in the Mediterranean are found in the EU countries, and less than 10 percent are in the south. “But almost all the nesting areas for sea turtles are found in the south and east. So, if we want to protect them, we need to help these countries protect them. This transfer of knowledge and experience between the north and south is really the main issue when it comes to protecting the Mediterranean Sea.”

As well as a lack of training, funding, and resources, many countries in the south Mediterranean have a lot of other challenges, including struggling economies, climate-induced food shortages, and terrorism, says Yassine. “It’s very difficult for governments to make the environment a top priority. Fortunately, we are seeing more new NGOs and civil societies becoming active in these regions and engaging with conservation. And that’s why it’s so important to work closely with local NGOs who know the country, culture and people.”

In July 2017, the Kuriat Project was launched as a pilot initiative to support the effective management of the Marine and Coastal Protected Area of the Kuriat Islands in Tunisia. “It is often the case that the administration doesn’t have enough human resource to manage the site making enforcement a real challenge” says Yassine. “But on the Kuriat Islands, the local NGO (Notre Grand Bleu NGO) knows the fishers and have people on the ground already so they can act quickly when there is a need.”

It was decided that a co-management approach should be adopted between the administration and NGO. And, for the last few years, Yassine’s team has been training both organisations on management and conservation, organising meetings with local stakeholders, establishing a communication and outreach plan, and implementing and strengthening monitoring programmes. The success of the project has meant that now the islands will become the first MCPA in Tunisia with a Co-management Unit bringing together a national agency, namely the Coastal Protection and Management Agency (APAL), and a civil society organisation (Notre Grand Bleu NGO).

Yassine and Anna are now trying to replicate this work in the south Mediterranean, but no MPA is the same. While an equal co-management approach works in Tunisia, other regions may require more power to be given to the administration or to the NGOs, for example.

“The main issue is how to make all the stakeholders – the administration, NGOs, local fishers, tourism sector – and countries across the north and south work together to protect the Med’,” says Yassine. “Working together is not always easy, sometimes you have different manners, culture, point of view and this is also the challenge. I would like my girls to also enjoy this biodiversity in the future. But we need to work together to make this happen. Alone, we go fast, but together, we can go far, and that’s the goal.”

Photographs courtesy of Sentinels of the Mediterranean Documentary

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