Mediterranean whales and dolphins

Until the mid-1980s there was virtually no information about the ecology of Mediterranean top predators such as whales, dolphins, seals, sharks and rays, based on direct observations at sea (as opposed to fishery data). Lack of knowledge was crippling conservation initiatives. To help fill the gap, in 1986 I founded the Tethys Research Institute, a not for profit research organisation. Tethys produced the first ever quantitative ecological assessment of cetacean populations in the seas surrounding Italy, providing indications on the presence of important cetacean habitat useful for the designation of marine protected areas. We also applied what at the time where totally innovative techniques to cetacean investigations in the Mediterranean, such as the application of genetic and contaminant studies to small skin and blubber biopsies remotely collected from whales and dolphins; the use of satellite telemetry to track cetacean movements; the application of vessel and aerial survey techniques to estimate cetacean populations; and the use of laser range-finder binocular to track whale movements and study short-term behaviours.

Work accomplished by Tethys during the ensuing three decades strongly supported the evidence of the uniqueness of the Mediterranean megafauna, combined with highly concerning levels of threats to its survival.

More than thirty years after its foundation, Tethys continues to support the marine environment through research, conservation and awareness activities.

The Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean marine mammals

Two important facts had become of public domain in the late 1980s, in large part through the work of Tethys: the awareness that the western Ligurian Sea was by far, of all the seas surrounding Italy, the most important area for cetaceans, and the formidable threat that these mammals were subjected to there, due to the calamitous and un-checked proliferation of pelagic driftnet fishing which was causing the death of large numbers of whales and dolphins accidentally caught and drowned in such nets. The phenomenon was atrocious, unsustainable and intolerable.

Thus was born the idea of creating a sanctuary in the area, where cetacean populations could thrive without major concerns. In collaboration with Europe Conservation (an NGO which no longer exists) and with support from the Rotary Club, I conceived the idea of establishing a very large (almost 90,000 km2) Biosphere Reserve between northwestern Italy, south-eastern France, Monaco and Sardinia, encompassing the whole of Corsica. The idea sounded rather crazy at the time, because most of the envisaged area was in the high seas still beyond the jurisdiction of any nation, and so it wasn’t clear who could take such initiative, and worse even, who could enforce it. Nevertheless the work was carried forward and a proposal with the title of Project Pelagos was presented at a meeting in Monaco on 2 March 1991, at the presence of His Serene Highness Prince Rainier III. The Prince did not think it was such a crazy idea, and fully supported the project. Thanks to the keen interest by Carlo Ripa di Meana, formerly the European Commissioner for the environment and at the time Italy’s Minister of the environment, France, Italy and Monaco started negotiating an agreement soon thereafter, and eight years later the Pelagos Sanctuary was formally established by a tripartite treaty signed in Rome on 25 November 1999. Quite unfortunately, the parties decided not to create a Biosphere Reserve, although the Sanctuary was later included in the list of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI) under the aegis of the Barcelona Convention, which allowed its designation in parts of the Mediterranean high seas.

As the world’s first marine protected area established in Areas Beyond Natural Jurisdiction (ABNJ), the Pelagos Sanctuary has served significantly the purpose of attracting attention to the need of protecting the high seas, although today, so many years years after its designation, I cannot state that the sanctuary has been doing much for the local populations of whales and dolphins. Pelagos was never properly managed — in fact it has no management body.

However, the situation of marine protection of the Mediterranean is different today from the late ’80s, when the idea of Pelagos was conceived. First, driftnets are no longer the main threat to cetaceans, having been made illegal (although they still cause cetacean mortality in pockets of illegality still persisting in southern Italy, Morocco and Turkey). Second, in the frame of a process that will eventually cause international waters to become extinct in the Mediterranean, Pelagos no longer lies in ABNJ, being now within France’s Mediterranean Exclusive Economic Zone and Italy’s Ecological Protection Zone. Third, the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic (ACCOBAMS), under the Convention on Migratory Species, has come into force since 2002, with a wide regional membership and the mandate of protecting cetaceans everywhere in the Mediterranean, not just inside the borders of Pelagos.

All of this considered I think that, its shortcomings notwithstanding, the Pelagos Sanctuary continues to serve an important function, at a minimum because of the awareness, strong sense of pride and belonging that it has generated during the years within the human communities living along its coasts in Italy, France and Monaco.


The entry into force of ACCOBAMS, i.e., the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (a special agreement created under the umbrella of the Convention on Migratory Species) marked a major milestone in the conservation of whales and dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea, because it resulted in a formalised and structured commitment by the Mediterranean States to prevent the extinction of cetaceans from their waters.

The Agreement was signed in Monaco in November 1996 and came into force in June 2001.  This resulted from a long-term joint consultative process by the Barcelona, Bern and Bonn Conventions, with several meetings organised in Athens (1992) and Monaco (1995, 1996). I participated in all of them. I was then invited to attend as an expert of the Agreement’s Interim Secretariat to the First Meeting of the Parties, held in Monaco in February 2002, where the Agreement’s conservation priorities, which I had developed for the Secretariat, were formally adopted.

I was then nominated Chair of the Agreement’s Scientific Committee during its first meeting, and held that position until the Fourth Meeting of the Parties, in 2010, when I decided it was time for me to move on.

I have been instrumental in the organisation of the work of the ACCOBAMS Scientific Committee since its beginning, through the chairing of its first six meetings, and the organisation of the intersessional work. My activities as Committee chair provided me with the unique opportunity for contributing to the construction of a cetacean conservation policy in the region, including the strengthening of cetacean ecological science, the identification and mitigation of threats, progress in building capacity in cetacean conservation across the region, and the establishment of specially protected areas.