Tethys completo blu

Logo by Massimo Demma

In January 1986, with publisher and friend Egidio Gavazzi, I founded the Tethys Research Institute, a non-profit research NGO based in Milano, having the main goal of promoting scientific knowledge essential for the implementation of marine conservation measures. In subsequent years I steered Tethys towards a suite of research programmes along two main lines of action: a) species-oriented activities, and b) space-oriented activities.

A. Species-oriented activities included:

  • studies of cetacean abundance in the seas surrounding Italy, which demonstrated the overwhelming importance for cetaceans of the Western Ligurian Sea, thus paving the way for the proposal of a cetacean sanctuary in that area;
  • in-depth studies of the ecology of cetaceans in the western Ligurian Sea, notably fin whales, sperm whales, striped dolphins and Risso’s dolphins; these involved the pioneering adoption of field research techniques such as photo-identification, line-transect surveys from vessels and airplanes, satellite-tagging, the combined use of laser range-finding binoculars and GPS to passively track the horizontal movements of whales, the study of diving cetaceans through the use of time-depth recorders, acoustic recordings and surveys, and the collection of small biopsies for toxicological and genetic studies, which revealed that local fin whales belong to a distinct Mediterranean population;
  • longitudinal, photo-ID-based studies of the socio-ecology of bottlenose dolphins in the waters east to the Croatian (formerly Yugoslavian) islands of Lošinj and Cres, which continued until 2000. Similar research programmes were initiated as well in western Greece in 1993, and still continue today, focusing on the socio-ecology of common and bottlenose dolphins based in Kalamos, and on common bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Ambracia;
  • research cruises from 1994 to 1996 in the North Atlantic, including the Caribbean, the Canary Islands, and the coastal waters of Western Sahara, known in the past to be a wintering ground for North Atlantic right whales. There in I led an expedition funded by the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society to verify if right whales could still be found in the area, evaluate the environmental conditions of the region and the status of other cetaceans living in the area, assess its current suitability as a right whale breeding habitat, and establish a long-term cetacean sighting and stranding reporting mechanism in co-operation with the local authorities;
  • surveys in the Strait of Messina (2005-2006 and 2011-2012), on behalf of “Stretto di Messina S.p.A.”, to acquire quantitative knowledge on distribution, abundance and habitat choice of cetaceans in the area, to support the environmental impact assessment of the construction of a bridge across the Strait;
  • several Mediterranean monk seal conservation activities, including: a) a feasibility study for a monk seal captive-breeding and rehabilitation programme in Italy, funded by the Ministry of agriculture (1986); b) the drafting of a national strategy for the conservation of monk seals in Greece, under contract from MOm (2009); c) the drafting of a Mediterranean strategy for the conservation of monk seals in the Mediterranean, under contract from the RAC/SPA (2013); and d) the formulation of a project to protect monk seals in the Greek island of Gyaros (Cyclades) funded by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and by the European Commission (2013);
  • continuation of my interest for the biology, taxonomy and ecology of Mobulid rays (Family Mobulidae), through population studies of Mobula mobular in the Mediterranean, including analyses of data derived from aerial surveys in the Ligurian and Tyrrhenian seas, and the development of field techniques for the species identification of Indo-Pacific species, e.g., M. kuhlii and M. eregoodootenkee from the Arabic Gulf and adjacent waters.


B. Space-oriented activities:

I first became involved in the science and practice of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Mediterranean with the conception and preparation of Project Pelagos – Proposal for the institution of a Biosphere Reserve in the Corsican-Ligurian-Provençal Basin, which I had developed in cooperation with Fabio Ausenda (Europe Conservation), and presented in Monaco in March 1991 to H.S.H. Prince Rainier III of Monaco with the support of the European Foundation Rotary for the Environment.

Project Pelagos eventually stimulated the creation by Italy, Monaco and France of the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, based on an Agreement signed in 1999 and entered into force in 2002.  In cooperation with Patrick Van Klaveren (Principality of Monaco) and Leonardo Tunesi (ICRAM), I prepared the proposal for the inclusion of the Pelagos Sanctuary in the List of SPAMIs; such inclusion was later adopted by the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention (2001). I now serve in Italy’s Pelagos Sanctuary national Steering Committee.

In 2013 I started a project named Pelagos 2.0 to review the performance of the Pelagos Sanctuary and consider its conversion into a Biosphere Reserve of UNESCO, which could be more amenable to the fulfilment of its conservation goals. The project, funded by the Eulabor Institute, is being conducted as a cooperation between Tethys and Dr. Tundi Agardy, Sound Seas.


Related post: Tethys’ 25th birthday.