A little seed of hope for the Patmian sea

I am just back from the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Torre Guaceto, Brindisi, where I parted company with Michalis Pouliezos, Athanasios Panagiotakis and Nikolaos Giamaios, three members of the community of professional fishermen of Patmos, who are now on their way back to their Greek home island.

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Inspecting the protected area. From the left: Nikolaos, Athanasios, Michalis.

We were in Apulia for the last three days, visiting one of the most iconic MPAs of the entire Mediterranean, which manages to effectively protect its marine environment and, at the same time, the satisfaction of the local fishermen. Our idea was to use this virtuous example to see if our Patmian friends wished to embark on a similar experience.

Managed since 2005, the Torre Guaceto MPA allows the local cooperative of 8 fishermen to fish once a week in the buffer zone of the protected area, with trammel nets 1000 m long. Here they catch, on average, 25 kg of high quality fishes (e.g., red mullet and scorpion fish), which compares very favourably with the 10 kg or so that can be obtained outside of the reserve. Fishes caught in the MPA are also significantly larger, which contributes to fetching a higher price on the market.

The Patmian expedition was organised by an NGO, Patmos Habitats, to support the growth of stewardship for the island’s environment within the local community. Since the excruciating Greek bureaucracy has still prevented us from formally establishing Patmos Habitats in spite of two years of efforts, while waiting for the instituting process to emerge from its preordained legal quagmire, we decided to take the bull by the horns and just go for it. So we raised from amongst ourselves and close friends the needed sum, and launched the expedition. We were fortunate to be supported by Anna Florentis who offered to accompany the trio from Patmos, with little daughter Gaby in tow, and help with the translation. I joined the group by airplane from Milano.

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Examining the catch from the smallest of the boats.

Dubious at first, Michalis, Athanasios and Nikolaos were quite impressed when they saw with their eyes the bounty that the Torre Guaceto fishermen landed in the morning of 18 June, compared with the average catch in Patmos, which is below 3 kg/km of net, and normally consists of smaller, less valuable fish. There is no real reason why there should be less fishing in Patmos than in Torre Guaceto; the challenge only consists in the implementation of a wiser and more effective fishery management. Seeing our friends’ faces brightening at the sight of the copious and colourful pile of large fishes was a heart-warming experience.

In addition to assisting to the landing of the catch on the morning of 18 June, our visit included meetings with our gracious host, the MPA Deputy Manager Francesco De Franco, with the local fishermen who were happy to exchange their experiences with the Patmians, and with Marcello Longo, councillor of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, who provided insight into the potential of supporting the local economy through the marketing of marine products.

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Athanasios with a good-sized scorpion fish.

Michalis and his friends are now travelling to Patmos with a spark of willingness and ideas in their minds, and this is certainly a momentous result of our effort, although it is only an infinitesimal step in a long and uncertain process. Now comes the hard part. The good intentions must now spread to the whole community, and widely shared. Illegal practices – most notably from within the amateur spear fishermen – must be abated. A protected area regime must be enacted by the relevant authorities, research must show where and how to create it, and the funding necessary for management, monitoring and enforcement must be raised. The whole process seems daunting, but it doesn’t involve rocket science. If there is good will from all parts, I don’t see why it should not happen.

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Discussing options with Francesco De Franco, Deputy Manager of the Torre Guaceto MPA.

Most importantly, the process has now started in the only possible way: from within the community of Patmians. We from the outside, who love Patmos, its environment and its people but are not Patmians, all that we can do is stand by and provide all the support that we can to enable and empower the islanders to bring about the needed change. There is much to do to protect the environment of Patmos, and ensuring that the local fishermen support such protection will be a significant change. Hopefully the little seed that was planted in Torre Guaceto a few days ago will ensure that, one day, this change will happen.

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