Caring for the Patmos sea

The conditions of the sea surrounding Patmos are appalling. What you see below the surface stands in stark contrast to the beauty of the landscape above the waterline. Marine biodiversity – from algal cover to fish populations and marine top predators such as dolphins and monk seals – has plummeted in the past couple of decades, and it is so evident that even the children notice. There is still uncertainty about the causes for such major observed changes, however concurrent factors likely include:

  • severe overfishing through resource over-extraction by both commercial and speargun fisheries, as well as continued, unpunished illegal activities including dynamite fishing;
  • poor water quality due to the discharge of untreated urban waste;
  • invasions by alien species from the Red Sea, such as siganid fishes which have ravaged the infralittoral algal cover and diversity;
  • climate disruption (on average, the sea surface temperature in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea has increased by about 2°C in the past 30 years).

Ongoing activities on the island have the potential for bringing about some improvement to the situation described above. For instance, a new sewage treatment plant under construction (2017) will improve water quality once it is in operation; trash is being collected from the sea bottom by teams of local volunteers, and at the same time a programme of solid waste recycling has been implemented by the municipality.

However, no improvement is in sight concerning fisheries management, and certainly nothing will be happening anytime soon in terms of mitigating the effect of climate disruption.

Swimming in an empty sea

Striving to establish a Marine Protected Area in Patmos

In June 2014, with funding collected through a local NGO called Patmos Habitats, I accompanied a small delegation of professional fishermen from Patmos to visit the Italian Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Torre Guaceto, near Brindisi. Torre Guaceto is one of the most iconic MPAs of the entire Mediterranean, which manages to effectively protect its marine environment and, at the same time, obtaining the satisfaction of the local fishermen. We were in Apulia for three days, with the idea of taking advantage of this virtuous example to see if our Patmian friends wished to embark on a similar experience.

Dubious at first, Patmian fishermen Michalis, Athanasios and Nikolaos were quite impressed when they saw with their eyes the bounty that the Torre Guaceto fishermen landed one morning, compared with the meagre catch they are used to cope with at home. 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.

However, while with that trip it was possible to plant a seed of optimism in the minds of the local fisher folks, the challenges to MPA establishment in Greece are so formidable that we are still quite far from even approaching the idea. 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 is daunting, although it doesn’t involve rocket science.

Athanasios meets the largest scorpion fish he can remember

Declaring a marine Natura 2000 site in Patmos

In 2012 I submitted a proposal to the Greek government for the inscription in the EU Natura 2000 Network of a wide area, in part on land and in part at sea, encompassing the relatively pristine south of the island.

In 2016 the Patmos site that I proposed was included in a list of almost 100 new marine Natura 2000 sites in Greece. Unfortunately however, the land portion of my proposal was excluded from the site, although a large portion of Patmian sea was retained.

After that, however, nothing has happened, and none of the new marine Natura 2000 sites have been formally submitted by the Greek Government to the European Commission.

Once the inscription of the Patmos Natura 2000 site in the European network will be formalised, it will be possible to devise, plan and implement management measures.