18 December 2006

Working with artisanal fishermen to protect the Amvrakikos Gulf

I first joined the Tethys team in 1999. In 2004 Giovanni Bearzi, President of Tethys, suggested that I moved to a village on the coast of the Amvrakikos Gulf and I settled there to start a year-round study of local dolphins. My decision to move from my home town Barcelona, Spain, to the village of Vonitsa, Greece, was a difficult one. However, I soon realized that this could open the door to significant developments, which were unlikely to occur as long as we operated in Greece as “visitors”. Soon after I settled there, a friendly relationships developed with the local community, especially with artisanal fishermen.

Since the beginning, local fishermen were curious about the presence of biologists from abroad and started inquiring about our work. When we told them about our interest in dolphins, comments were ironic and sometimes slightly aggressive. Some fishermen claimed that dolphins had to be all killed because of their habits of damaging and depredating fishing gear. However, in the end even those attitudes evolved towards a genuine appreciation of our work. Fishermen started to ask questions about the methods we use, our past experiences in this field, our findings and, at a more personal level, they wanted to know the reasons and motivations that led me to choose this profession and way of life.

Establishing a good personal relationship with them and being introduced to the problems they face offered insight that would be difficult to obtain otherwise. While sitting at seaside bars drinking our “café frappé” (ice coffee, a favourite refreshing beverage in Greece), they told me about ever-decreasing landings caused by human impact, illegal fishing taking place in the area, and the actual hardships of dolphin-fisheries interactions.

Their interest in collaborating became even clearer when fishermen started to report dolphin sighting or stranding events. Fishermen who had found a dead animal offered the possibility of taking us there with their boat. They even waited patiently under heavy rain while we were measuring the animal and taking photos.

An understanding of the factors threatening the Amvrakikos Gulf is somewhat complicated as a variety of problems - including chemical pollution, eutrophication and illegal fishing - are contributing to ecosystem damage. Still, local fishermen have come to a good understanding just out of their own experience, without knowing about the conclusions of many scientific articles focusing on this area. Many fishermen, for instance, do not think twice when asked about the problems of the Gulf. And - surprise - the main problems do not include dolphins.

Fishermen maintain that the progressive reduction of the narrow channel that links the Gulf to the open sea (resulting from a project to enlarge the port of Preveza) has had a major impact on water balance and the ecosystem. Water exchange was reduced and this contributed to increasing eutrophication. Changes in freshwater input from rivers due to hydroelectric and other dams also added to the problem. Another serious problem reported by local fishermen is that of illegal trawling (a fishing method that is forbidden in the Gulf since 1975) - reportedly one of the main factors behind the steady decline of fish captures.

The local fishing community also shows signs of the phenomenon known as “shifting baselines”, described by fishery scientist Daniel Pauly in 1995. As one generation replaces another, people's perceptions of what is natural change to the extent that they no longer believe historical anecdotes of past abundance or size of species. The environment changes dramatically, but due to loss of information and memories across generations most people do not realize the extent of change. Therefore, recording fishermen’s present and past experiences represents an important opportunity to document the history of the Gulf’s ecosystem.

For instance, young fishermen admit that a few years ago their catches of sardines, red mullets and shrimps were much larger. Old fishermen tell an even more interesting story. Barba Yannis, who is 74 (the prefix “barba” is used in Greece to express respect for the elder), and Barba Mihalis, 75, have been fishing in the Amvrakikos Gulf for more than 50 years. Both of them recall a time when large tuna were frequent in the Gulf, and tell stories of amazing biodiversity and plentiful catches. Younger fishermen, on the contrary, have never seen a single tuna in the Gulf.

At dusk, while walking along the sea side of Vonitsa with the dolphins seen just a few hours earlier still on my mind, I watch the silhouette of Barba Yannis setting his nets while hand-rowing his kaїki in the magnificent sunset. Not so long ago, this was a common sight in the Mediterranean. Today, artisanal fishermen are yet another “species” struggling to survive in an ecosystem that has been depleted by commercial and illegal fishing. I again realize that Barba Yannis, Barba Mihalis and their sustainable fishing means deserve to be protected as much as the dolphins.

Joan Gonzalvo Villegas

09 December 2006

Coastal Dolphins of the Mediterranean

Coastal Dolphins is a short QuickTime video featuring the decline of dolphins in Mediterranean coastal waters. To see the video please visit:

05 December 2006

The decline of common dolphins around the island of Kalamos, Greece

Seeing common dolphins bowriding and surrounding our research boat from all sides was a frequent event around the island of Kalamos. When I first moved to study dolphins in western Greece, back in 1996, these magnificent marine mammals were so abundant that one could frequently spot them from the coast, or even from the patio of our field station.

Tuna and swordfish were equally abundant, and from a distance it was sometimes difficult to tell a school of foraging tuna from a group of foraging common dolphins, as both animals performed a similar behaviour when catching anchovies and sardines near the surface. The sea was full of life, and navigating those waters was an endless source of wonder and excitement for pleasure boaters and researchers alike. The situation was so special that the area, one of the few in the central Mediterranean containing key common dolphin habitat, was declared a EC Site of Community Importance. This designation was expected to result in a commitment to protect the local resources and prevent habitat degradation.

However, only a few years later common dolphins around Kalamos had become a rare sight. Tuna and swordfish also vanished. What caused such a quick decline of high-order marine predators in this portion of the eastern Ionian Sea?

Support provided by OceanCare and WDCS - the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, was essential to answer this question. These organizations offered financial means and much encouragement to work hard and identify the threats affecting dolphins in the area. Was it pollution? Collisions with speedboats? Intentional killings? Interactions with fisheries? Pathogens?

More than a decade of intensive research at sea and much data analyses done by personnel from the Tethys Research Institute suggest that the main cause of common dolphin decline is overfishing of their prey. Purse seine nets, in particular, seem to be responsible for the local overexploitation and depletion of epipelagic stocks of sardines, anchovies and other fish that make the daily diet of common dolphins, tuna and swordfish. Prey depletion has been so intensive and continuous that large marine predators such as common dolphins can no longer find easy prey.

To face scarcity of food, common dolphins started dispersing and roving. Their formerly large groups broke up into smaller units, which became increasingly sparse. Between 1997-2004, common dolphin encounter rates declined 25-fold, possibly as a result of reduced reproductive success and increased mortality in an area that - as far as prey availability was concerned - had turned from paradise to hell.

Problems caused by prey scarcity summed up to entanglement and mortality in fishing gear, as documented by dead dolphins found stranded or adrift and showing amputations. Today, only a few common dolphins can still be found in the area, and this brings a feeling of sadness to those who have seen them thriving until only a few years ago.

The decline of common dolphins in the area of Kalamos flashes a red light for the conservation of the Mediterranean population. Once one of the most common cetacean species in the Mediterranean, common dolphins have declined throughout the region during the last 30-40 years. Conservation problems for the species have been recognised since the 1970s, but at that time there was little information about cause-effect relationships, as few were recording information at sea about population status and threats. After the turn of the century, however, threats affecting the animals became progressively clear. These basically included incidental mortality in fishing gear (also known as “bycatch”), habitat degradation and prey depletion caused by overfishing.

In 2003 the Mediterranean population of common dolphins was classified as Endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals. In 2004, ACCOBAMS - the UNEP's Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic Area - presented a comprehensive 90-page Conservation Plan for Mediterranean common dolphins, providing a detailed description of actions needed to protect the animals. Finally, in 2005 the Mediterranean population of common dolphins was included in Appendix I of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS) as a consequence of their threatened status.

Have all these institutional steps contributed to making life easier for Mediterranean common dolphins? So far, they apparently haven’t. Despite all the expressions of concern, recommendations, strategic planning and scientific background produced, no relevant action has been taken that may result in common dolphin recovery in the region. Sadly, the threats which are thought to be causing decline are continuing to jeopardise the survival of relict groups such as those found around Kalamos, and the Mediterranean population at large.

Scientific research, conservation action plans and declarations of intents by the concerned Governments do not seem to suffice to reverse the present trends. Much public awareness actions, and attempts to define and communicate practical solutions to local problems are also essential.

Giovanni Bearzi

For more information:

Bearzi G., Reeves R.R., Notarbartolo di Sciara G., Politi E., Canadas A., Frantzis A., Mussi B. 2003. Ecology, status and conservation of short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) in the Mediterranean Sea. Mammal Review 33(3):224-252.

Bearzi G., Politi E., Agazzi S., Bruno S., Costa M., Bonizzoni S. 2005. Occurrence and present status of coastal dolphins (Delphinus delphis and Tursiops truncatus) in the eastern Ionian Sea. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 15:243-257.

Bearzi G., Politi E., Agazzi S., Azzellino A. 2006. Prey depletion caused by overfishing and the decline of marine megafauna in eastern Ionian Sea coastal waters (central Mediterranean). Biological Conservation 127(4):373-382.

04 December 2006


The problem of "shifting baselines" and the damage caused by overfishing is featured in the excellent educational slide show posted at: