Common dolphins were once abundant throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Today they are declining rapidly, surviving only in portions of their former range. So why are the dolphins disappearing?


Whales of the Mederranean Sea - Part 4     
    "Disappearing Dolphins"

    17 minutes, 27 seconds    Adobe Flash

>> Watch a QUICKTIME Version of "Disappearing Dolphins"
>> Part 1 - "Mediterranean - The Sea in the Middle of the Earth"
>> Part 2 - "The Sperm Whales of Greece - Life in the Trenches"
>> Part 3 - "Fishy Business" - The Illegal Driftnet Fishery

"Disappearing Dolphins" is the fourth program of the documentary series, "Whales of the Mediterranean Sea".

Common dolphins were once abundant throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Today they are declining rapidly, surviving only in portions of their former range. In western Greece, the sea around the island of Kalamos is their last stronghold, or at least it used to be. So why are the dolphins disappearing?

We interview Giovanni Bearzi, the President of the Tethys Research Institute in Italy, and a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation. Giovanni has been studying coastal dolphins in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea for two decades. What began as a study on the ecology and behavior of common dolphins around Kalamos, became a systematic record of their demise.

Only 30 kilometers away from Kalamos is the Amvrakikos Gulf where coastal bottlenose dolphins are thriving. Why is there such a drastic difference in the health of these two dolphin populations?

We meet two local fishermen and discuss their relationship with dolphins and the state of sea around their community. Could what is happening to the common dolphins of Kalamos, also explain why they are disappearing throughout the Mediterranean Sea?

Narrated by Genevieve Johnson - earthOCEAN

Coastal dolphins were once abundant in the Mediterranean Sea.

Today, some survive in portions of their former range.

Others are disappearing altogether.

Amvrakikos Gulf is a semi-enclosed body of water on the west coast of Greece. It supports a population of about 150 bottlenose dolphins, which is one of the highest known densities for this species anywhere in the Mediterranean Sea. The large, grey Bottlenose dolphin is the most widespread and best known of all cetaceans. Living in a range of habitats from open-ocean to shallow coastal areas, it is the only cetacean encountered in the Amvrakikos Gulf.

The Amvrakikos Gulf contains some of Europe's most important wetlands. It's one of the most productive costal areas of Greece, making it a natural laboratory for research. Unlike many coastal areas in the Mediterranean, the population is relatively stable due largely to a ban on commercial fishing. The small-scale artisanal fishery targets sardines. It is sustainable and leaves plenty of food for the dolphins.

Giovanni Bearzi is the President of the Tethy's Research Institute in Italy, and a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation. He has been studying coastal dolphins in the eastern Mediterranean Sea for two decades. His study of bottlenose dolphins in the Amvrakikos Gulf, focuses on dolphin ecology, behavior and interactions with fisheries.

Giovanni Bearzi, PhD. - President Tethys Research Institute, Italy.

"In the Amvrakikos Gulf, bottlenose dolphins seem to benefit from abundant prey resources. This is quite surprising for a Mediterranean area where most of the time resources have been over exploited. Here, there are still lots of sardines, and sardines are the main prey of local bottlenose dolphins. So they seem to be thriving because of this large abundance of prey."

Giovanni's team includes researchers Joan Gonzalvo, and Silvia Bonizzoni. Joan leads daily surveys with volunteers from the Earthwatch Institute. Participants in the program collect scientific data in the field, with a focus on photo-identification. The volunteers effectively live the life of a researcher, gaining an appreciation for the role of dolphins in the ecosystem.

Back at the field station, volunteers download data and process digital images. This group included a number of teachers from the UK and Greece. The information they gather will be taken back for use in their classrooms and local communities.

Sofia Bekerithou - Teacher & Earthwatch Volunteer, Vonitsa, Greece.

"This was a very important experience, because in Greece, we do not have the opportunity to participate in such programs and to see large animals from so close. After having lived this experience and having all this material in my hands it is much easier for all those who participated in the program to show to the children how much we need these animals, how lucky we are that they live close to us, and how we can protect them, because I think that we are a little bit behind regarding conservation issues in Greece."

Giovanni has a second dolphin project in the waters surrounding the island of Kalamos. Kalamos in only 10km from Amvrakikos Gulf, but here the story is very different. Less than 10 years ago, common dolphins were relatively abundant in these waters. Due largely to over fishing, they have all but disappeared.

Until recently, short-beaked common dolphins were abundant throughout the entire Mediterranean Sea. These small, sleek dolphins are energetic and form groups that prey on small schooling fish. They are highly social and are instantly recognizable by their characteristic, yellow markings.

Today common dolphins are rare, surviving only in small isolated pockets. Kalamos is their last stronghold in the Ionian Sea, or at least it used to be.

On the island of Kalamos, Giovanni runs a field station where scientists and students from all over Europe come together to conduct research and work to conserve the endangered common dolphin, as well as a small resident population of bottlenose dolphins. In the transparent blue waters surrounding the island of Kalamos, Giovanni and his team used to see common dolphins everyday. Now, the researchers are lucky to see common dolphins once a month.

Giovanni Bearzi, PhD. -

"Only 10 years ago, we were sitting on the porch in front of our field station in Kalamos and we could see common dolphins passing by in the channel, large groups, so we could go out in our boat and be surrounded by dolphins. It was so easy to find them, and see them feeding and we would see tuna, swordfish, a number of animals. The sea was pretty much alive.

What began as a study of the ecology and behavior of common dolphins in Kalamos, became a systematic record of their disappearance.

Giovanni Bearzi, PhD. -

"It was a pleasure to go out, I was enthusiastic. This is what prompted us to start the project there. Today everything has changed in such a short time, there are a few dolphins left, and when we go out to sea, it feels really sad."

The red track lines show dolphin movements recorded at sea over past years. They indicate the alarming reduction in common dolphins.

While research effort in the area has increased over the years, common dolphin numbers have shown a continuous decline, from around 150 animals in 1995, to only 15 today. Extensive surveys have not found common dolphins elsewhere in the Ionian Sea. This demonstrates that the animals have not simply moved out of the area.

Giovanni's research shows that common dolphins are disappearing due to prey depletion caused by over fishing. In the Amvrakikos Gulf, commercial fishing is banned. However in the waters around Kalamos, commercial purse seiners fish alongside small-scale artisanal fishers.

A purse seine is a large wall of netting that encircles a school of fish. Fishers pull the bottom of the net closed - like a drawstring purse, herding the fish into the center. A dramatic decline in fish catches in the region since the mid 1990's suggest that the present impact of commercial fisheries, particularly purse seining, is unsustainable.

Giovanni Bearzi, PhD. -

"We believe the decline of dolphins is caused primarily by over fishing, by excessive fishing of their prey. These animals prey primarily on sardines and anchovies and other epipelagic fish and this has been severely over fished in our study area."

Around Kalamos there are some 250 artisanal fishing boats, and very few commercial purse seine boats. The scientific data shows that the smaller proportion of commercial purse seiners are removing the greatest percentage of fish, including the fish that common dolphins prey on.

Sixteen fishing villages surround the area of Kalamos. Most of the local fishers are artisanal, and use sustainable fishing methods. Joan studies dolphins in the area all year. As part of his research on the state of marine ecosystems, he works with local fishers, and records information on their catch. It appears the recent arrival of commercial fishers have caused the problem.

Joan Gonzalvo, Associate Researcher, Tethys Research Institute, Italy. -

"The fisheries in the area of Kalamos, the main problem we have, or the area has actually, is the industrial fisheries. The industrial fisheries, meaning purse seiners and big trawlers working in the area. In an area like Kalamos we have a large community of artisanal fishermen and a very tiny proportion of fishermen actually working with intrusive gear, with purse seining and big trawlers. In terms of a socio-economic aspect, it is very few families, which are taking lots of benefit out of the resources, and a large community, which is struggling to cope with their daily needs. The artisanal fleet is actually struggling as much as the common dolphins are struggling. If you talk with the local fishermen, they will tell you the catches have been decreasing so much."

Kostas Amargianos and Dimitrios Carlesis are local fishers from Paleros. Kostas has fished these waters for decades and is the President of the local fisherman co-operative. He knows the disappearance of common dolphins means the fish are also disappearing, and this is not good for the future of local communities.

Dimitrios Carlesis, Local fisherman, Paleros, Greece. -

"I was born here, and my father was a fisherman too. If I compare it to now, it was a totally different place. There was more fish, the environment was much cleaner, and my father, he could feed his family with one boat like what I have now. With this kind of net here, it was possible to feed the family and now, you cannot feed nobody."

Kostas Amargianos, President, Fishermen Cooperative. Paleros, Greece. -

"For me the most important problem - this is my personal opinion - is over fishing, i.e. we fish much more fish than we should.

The reasons are the large fishing gears, which are the purse seiners, the trawlers and the beach seiners. From all these, the beach seiners are the smallest. I have nothing against the fishermen colleagues that use purse seiners, beach seiners and trawlers; I myself have a beach seiner, but I am ready to accept at this moment that it stops right now, because I see that the fish stocks are continuously decreasing. They are decreasing firstly because there is overfishing, and secondly because the law is not applied.

Look, I remember in the old times there were large fishes: swordfish, tuna, many dolphins... To be honest, I have not the best of relationship with dolphins, because they were destroying our nets. Nevertheless, I love them, because I know that when there are dolphins there is fish as well."

Dimitrios Carlesis -

"We miss the tuna, we miss the dolphins, we miss a lot of sort of fishes, big fishes and small fishes. I think now, something has to be done, right now."

Joan Gonzalvo -

"The thing is that dolphins and fishermen have been coexisting for centuries, but it has arrived to a certain point where we just have to take some pressure off of the ecosystem and the actual pace of fishing. This cannot go on. So it is time for us, local communities, fishermen, developers of tourism, local marinas to take some pressure off and look from a certain perspective and slow down the actual pace, the exploitation."

Giovanni Bearzi, PhD. -

"Artisanal fishing for instance in this area is probably fully sustainable if properly managed. Basically all the management that is needed is about reducing commercial fishing, but that is only a few boats and can be done very easily without causing any economic or social trouble."

If commercial fishing were reduced, Giovanni predicts the population of common dolphins would increase. Management action supported by the local community is urgently needed to prevent the complete eradication of common dolphins from this part of the Mediterranean Sea. Giovanni is frustrated at watching the common dolphins disappear. He knows 'conservation on paper' won't stop their decline.

Giovanni Bearzi, PhD. -

"I think that to convince the governments that it is now time to act, what is needed is a lot of public pressure, pressure from the media, and strong pressure from the general public. There should be a widespread call to act, to do something, to prevent the decline of these magnificent animals and prevent the complete destruction of the ecosystems. It should be the people who call for that, and this kind of call unfortunately is still missing."

Sofia Bekerithou - Teacher & Earthwatch Volunteer, Vonitsa, Greece.

"I think that the best solution is the education. Introducing this information in the classroom creates a group of people that will be able to spread the message to older children and higher ages that are difficult to approach."

Marine Protected Areas for Kalamos and the Amvrakikos Gulf were formally recommended to the twenty nation members of ACCOBAMS - 'The Agreement of the Conservation of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic Area, by the ACCOBAMS Scientific Committee in 2007. The purpose of ACCOBAMS is to reduce threats and improve knowledge about cetaceans.

Joan Gonzalvo -

"A marine protected area, an MPA would be beneficial not just for the dolphins, but for the fishermen also. They would increase the number of catches, the amount of catches they are getting and therefore, they will be very supportive towards the MPA. We want the locals communities to understand the benefits of MPA's and proper management."

It is vital that warnings by scientists and fishers are carefully considered. It is now up to the Government to respond to this call, and implement proper management measures. If unsustainable fisheries such as purse seining are controlled, fish, dolphins and local communities can thrive from the benefits of a healthy ecosystem.

Giovanni Bearzi, PhD. -

"If cetaceans keep declining in the Mediterranean as they are currently doing, and if they eventually disappear, that would be a disaster. It would mean that we are entirely incapable of preserving ecosystems and their most magnificent and charismatic representatives. Cetaceans are the quintessential animals representing and embodying the sea, and what we like about the sea."

   Kalamos Island and Amvrakikos Gulf, Greece.
   Source: NASA World Wind

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