The Mediterranean Monk Seal

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Monk Seal – Being shipped out?

Back in the third century BC Aristotle penned a description of the Monk Seal (Monarchus monarchus). It was the first ever description of any pinniped (a group of marine creatures that includes seals, sea lions and walruses). When the first coins appeared about 500BC it was the Monk Seal that appeared on their face. These curious, intelligent creatures were well known to everyone in those days as they were abundant in the seas and oceans of the world, they called them the people of the sea.

Fast forward 2,000 years to 1500 AD and they were still plentiful enough to be commercially harvested. Another 450 years to 1950 and there are only three isolated groups left, so isolated in fact that they are now treated as three distinct species: The Hawaiian; the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Monk Seal. Up another 10 years to 1960. Only the Hawaiian and Mediterranean Monk Seals remain. The last recorded Caribbean Monk Seal died in the early 1950s.

And now? There are around 1,300 Hawaiian Monk Seals and less than 500 Mediterranean Monk Seals, the IUCN Red List puts them as “Critically Endangered”.

Mediterranean Monk Seal

They are the largest of the seals at around 1.8m in length and weighing between 150 and 200kg. The female is larger than the male. They have brown or grey coats and are lighter on the underside with a white patch on the belly. The reproduction cycle lasts for a full year and the female only gives birth to a single pup once every two years at best. So what has happened to take this once abundant species to the brink of extinction? Originally it seems to be seal hunting combined with their low birth rate that put pressure on them but in these environmentally conscious days we don’t hunt them – we’re systematically killing them in less obvious ways.

The main problem is pollution. In the more industrialised western Mediterranean the Monk Seal has already been eradicated. The few remaining seals (and 500 is a small few when you’re talking about a species) have fled for sanctuary down to this end of the Med. where they carve out a precarious existence in isolated pockets off the east end of Crete and in the Ionian and Aegean seas. But even here they are not safe. Despite clean-up efforts in recent years hundreds of tons of untreated sewage as well as industrial effluent still pour into the Eastern Mediterranean destroying their food sources (and ours for that matter) and leaving the seals prey to pathogens and parasites.

The good news is that this clean-up is on-going, albeit more out of concern for human health but it will help the Mediterranean Monk Seal as well. But pollution, pathogens and parasites aside there is another problem that affects all animals that exist in low numbers and that is “restricted genetic diversity” – or inbreeding to you and me. Any animal, humans included, that breeds solely within a close family group runs the risk of genetic defects and high infant mortality. It is therefore vitally important that isolated groups have free access to each other. Seals swim long distances in their search for food which obviously gives them the chance to meet with members of the opposite sex from other groups. So, as long as no-one decides to run the equivalent of a six-lane motorway through the Eastern Mediterranean there is some (slender) hope for these animals.

In a European Commission White Paper of 2001 just such an idea was born. Revised in 2004 the Commission undertook to provide EU funding for 4 Motorways of the Sea stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean by 2010:

  • M1 crosses the Baltic
  • M2 extends the route through the North and Irish Seas down the Atlantic coasts of France, Spain and Portugal
  • M3 runs through the Western Mediterranean, and the
  • M4 into the Eastern Mediterranean, round the south and east coasts of Crete where it splits into two, one part going off towards Cyprus, the other going up into the Aegean, right through the middle of the remaining Mediterranean Monk Seal territory. A further addition in December 2005 plans to extend the M4 to join up with the Black Sea and the Suez canal.

Now the European Union has an obligation to protect endangered species which it does under its Natura 2000 program that allocates funds to protect species and their habitats so presumably they have thoroughly researched the effect of the Motorway of the Sea on the Monk Seal’s habitat. I haven’t been able to find any evidence of such a study and a recent report by the World Wildlife Fund concerning two other endangered species in Europe has sent a shiver down my spine.

Allow me to give a little background here if I may. I run an Internet company called Little Lemur Publishing which publishes and sells electronic books on-line with the intention of raising money for the protection of a limited number of endangered species. These include the Mediterranean Monk Seal, the Spanish or Iberian Lynx and the “European” Brown Bear. Consequently anything that is happening concerning these species lands on my desk sooner or later. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet this is more often sooner than later. The WWF report concerned EU funding for infrastructure projects that directly contradicted their EU conservation funding. Specifically they are funding the new Toledo to Cordoba highway which runs straight through the last remaining habitat of the Iberian Lynx (of which there are only 100 left with only 25 breeding females) and the Egnatia highway through the Pindos mountains in Greece, one of the last remaining habitats of the Brown Bear in Europe. Given this as a track record you can understand my concern and until the EU comes up with a department called GOAT (Getting Our Act Together) I shall continue to be of the opinion that the EU’s right hand isn’t even aware of the existence of its left hand, let alone have a clue what it’s up to. In fairness, I did contact the EU to ask what studies were undertaken regarding Monk seal habitat before the routes were decided upon and what the results of those studies were. I eventually received a reply giving chapter and verse on how species were protected by the EU but there was nothing to say that the department responsible for the “Motorways of the Sea” project had taken notice of the relevant rules, guidelines and appendices. I questioned this further but two weeks later no reply has been received.

So, that’s the problem but what’s the solution? Things are being done. For instance there is a National Marine Park off the island of Alonnisos in the Aegean where, with the co-operation of local fishermen, the seals are actively protected and monitored (details at www.alonissos.com). There has also been some discussion on the subject of captive breeding but apparently Monk Seals are very difficult to keep in captivity and have yet to be successfully bred. As for things that the individual can do, readers within the EU could write to their MEP and ask how the Motorways of the Sea will affect the Mediterranean Monk Seal and all of us could change our buying strategies and try to buy less imported goods and more local produce. If we’re not buying then they’re not shipping.

Steve Daniels is a writer and amateur naturalist living near Ierapetra on the south east coast. His books: The Eggs of Saramova and Not Just For Women are published by Little Lemur Publishing which he runs with his wife, Christina.

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