16 September 2007

Tethys in Greek mythology

In Greek mythology, Tethys (Greek Τηθύς), daughter of Uranus and Gaia, was a Titaness and sea goddess who was both sister and wife of Oceanus.

She was mother of the chief rivers of the world known to the Greeks, such as the Nile, the Alpheus, the Maeander, and about three thousand daughters called the Oceanids.

Considered as an embodiment of the waters of the world she may be seen as a counterpart of Thalassa, embodiment of the sea.

(adapted from Wikipedia)

15 September 2007

What does the common dolphin (and of course other dolphins) mean to you personally?

(one of a series of questions posed to the Tethys president during a recent interview)

Common dolphins are quintessential expressions of beauty and grace in the marine environment. They are elegant and highly-evolved marine mammals that are tightly interconnected with their habitat. As long as they are there, and they are doing well, you know that the sea is alive and you can expect to find a number of other marine creatures all around. Tuna and swordfish, and of course their main prey: anchovies and sardines.

When I started studying common dolphins at Kalamos, these animals would surround our boat every day and swim in its wake. It was the marine equivalent of the Garden of Eden. Today, after the apple was stolen, we see common dolphins once a month. Their formerly healthy population has been reduced by one order of magnitude in only ten years. Common dolphins have become a symbol of how the most beautiful marine environment can be quickly devastated and corrupted by human activities, in the interest of a handful of commercial fishermen.

Giovanni Bearzi

14 September 2007

What has been the greatest success of your engagement?

(one of a series of questions posed to the Tethys president during a recent interview)

I wish I could say actual protection of the animals I have been studying, but this would be far too optimistic.

A Marine Protected Area has been created recently with the intention of protecting bottlenose dolphins around Losinj, 16 years after our initial proposal. But I wonder if the animals there have noticed.

Kalamos has become an Area of Community Importance (Natura 2000) and common dolphins living there make the theoretical conservation targets of international agreements and recommendations. But the dolphins certainly haven’t noticed.

I did my best to promote dolphin conservation in several Mediterranean areas, but has anything happened? At best, I may have contributed to a microscopic increase in public and institutional awareness. Maybe.

So, perhaps the greatest success of my engagement has been influencing the choices of a number of young people and students, who eventually decided to devote their life to cetacean research and conservation. Several excellent people around me claim to have been inspired by my own work (as much as I myself have been - and still am - inspired by the work of my mentors). This makes me proud, and gives a meaning to what I am doing.

In addition, I’m happy to have been working with the Tehys Research Institute for two decades, giving my share to let this ship navigate over troubled waters in a rather hostile Italian reality.

Giovanni Bearzi

06 September 2007

What do the volunteers do, why do they come and help, and what touches them the most?

At Tethys, we have been welcoming volunteers at our field stations and on board our research boats since 1990. These people support our projects financially by participating in 7-9 day courses, and this allows us to work over long periods of time and remain independent. Their contribution is essential. In addition, volunteers engage in field data collection, help us process the data, and provide the researchers with motivation and moral support.

Most volunteers come because they want to see whales and dolphins in the wild, but many eventually realize the implications and challenges of a research project, learn about the problems faced by the animals, and eventually become supporters and advocates of conservation efforts.

Many volunteers joining our field courses see their experience as a special one. Getting close to cetaceans in their natural environment is nothing like watching them on TV. Volunteers are touched by their elegance, beauty and behavioural complexity. They realize how ‘special’ these animals are, and (sometimes) get to understand the link that ties them to their environment. They start seeing them as enormous, and yet fragile creatures exposed to a range of threats caused by human activities. They can also spend much time talking with the researchers and understand their motivations and the reasons behind their unusual choice.

I have been working in the field with hundreds of volunteers, and although there may be personal likes and dislikes, it has been an amazing and enriching human experience. Many of them have become good friends, and even colleagues.

Giovanni Bearzi

02 September 2007

What can and has to be done, so that common dolphins will survive?

I could name a number of management actions likely to benefit dolphins and the marine environment: Marine Protected Areas, fishery reserves (areas closed to fishing), strict enforcement of the existing laws (much of the fishing out there is illegal), and so on. But we should avoid just blaming the governments and seeing ecosystem destruction as the result of somebody else’s choices and activities.

We are responsible, too. As voters, in the first place. At the last political elections have we voted ‘with our wallet’, or have we attempted to shift the centre of gravity towards a more sensible environmental policy? Have we ever tried to reduce our own consumption rates, recycle, and make our lives a little more sustainable? Ultimately, the ongoing lack of respect towards the marine environment results from our own desires and demands. People sitting in their comfortable car and never considering taking a train instead of an airplane should consider that a link might exist between their own behaviour and air pollution, or even climate change. Those who enjoy eating swordfish and tuna at the restaurant may want to think about the implications for the marine environment.

Whilst there are practical and feasible actions that can at least stop the decline of common dolphins in some areas (at Kalamos this would include an immediate ban of the most detrimental fishing activities), I think that we should realize that damage to the marine environment is also a result of our life styles and collective habits. Changing our own behaviour and giving up something felt as desirable can be as pleasant, and even more fulfilling, than increasing our consumption rates. The reward consists in knowing that we are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. We do not only blame others for declining biodiversity and beauty all around us. We are actually doing our best to protect the things we treasure, and we enact consistent behaviour. Our choices might even influence those of others and eventually turn into new behavioural trends.

Giovanni Bearzi

01 September 2007

What future for Mediterranean common dolphins?

The future for Mediterranean common dolphins is grim. They have declined greatly during the past 40 years, and their chances of recovery are shadowed by ongoing mortality in fishing gear and overfishing of their key prey.

Common dolphins need a healthy marine environment to survive, but few people in the region seem to be interested in their conservation. Development and exploitation are by far more attractive. Ever-increasing consumption rates and short-term economic benefits bear a cost, and most of the times this cost is paid by the environment.

People everywhere want to eat more fish, spend their holidays in hotels with seaside pools and parking lots, have a second or third house with sea view (where they may live for one or two weeks every year). This results in increasing pressures on the coastal marine ecosystems. Fish stocks get depleted, coastal development increases pollution and disturbance at sea, and the animals there find it difficult to survive in habitats exposed to continuous degradation.

We have been studying common dolphins in the costal waters of Greece for almost two decades, around the island of Kalamos. Initially, there was plenty of these animals and the area was almost pristine. Today, fish stocks have been depleted by overfishing and the area is being ruined by a kind of development that does not take into account the need to preserve the environment. As a result, only a few common dolphins are left, and their chances to survive are linked to an unlikely political determination of including fishery and ecosystem management actions in ongoing development plans.

This kind of things are happening everywhere in the Mediterranean, and common dolphins must bend to short-sighted economic interests. Local human communities are equally impacted, as they see their traditions and cultures being wiped out by companies building immense and ugly hotels near beautiful beaches and villages, while a few large commercial fishing boats take most of the fish away, and little is left for the artisanal fishermen (and the dolphins).

Giovanni Bearzi