A lifetime commitment to marine conservation

1a scelta crop Born in 1948 in the Italian lagoon city of Venice, fascinated by all things natural, I have been looking for all sorts of critters living beyond land’s end since I started walking and swimming. Becoming a marine ecologist was therefore my recipe for happiness.

During the first phase of my professional life (1968-1985) I have mostly been concerned with the advancement of knowledge of the natural history, ecology, behaviour, and taxonomy of aquatic vertebrates, with an emphasis on whales, dolphins, seals, sharks and manta rays. I have described my work in more than 160 scientific papers, several books, and many reports and conference presentations. However, in subsequent years my professional choices have been deeply influenced by major changes which have affected our unstable world in the recent decades. During my lifetime humans have managed to reach such an extraordinary level of control of the planetary environment through technological development, that the geological epoch we are living in now has been named the Anthropocene – the “Age of Man”. I couldn’t disagree more with this name. As techno-savvy as they might be considered, humans haven’t been able to develop, in parallel, the moral wisdom to appropriately manage their impacts on the planet. Stuck like blind paramecia inside our economy-driven insanity, we are destroying our own planetary life-support system, we are destroying other species at an exponential rate, at the same time causing countless, unnecessary suffering to living beings, humans and non-humans alike, at a frightening scale. Rather than the “Age of Man”, I’d rather call it the “Age of Fuck-up”.

These considerations caused my happiness to be tainted by concern, and my age of curiosity to yield to commitment to change (1985 to present). The depressing deterioration of the world’s environment, and of the oceans in particular, has transformed science in my mind from an end into a means. The need for humans to change their behaviour is urgent and compelling – and in fact there are weak signs that this might be happening – but the process is too slow. Behavioural adjustments rest importantly on the progress of scientific knowledge, which provides guidance on what we should do, and what we shouldn’t. Most relevantly, the change we need must come from everyone. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. In my small way, I have always strived to contribute to marine conservation both as a scientist and a concerned citizen. Amongst frequent failures and setbacks, sometime small differences were obtained in specific activities at the local, national, regional, and global scales. My hope is that by joining these modest achievements with those of countless other women and men of goodwill, the change we want will eventually happen.


Mobula munkiana

The devil ray I described with the name of Mobula munkiana, in honour of my friend and mentor Walter Munk, oceanographer extraordinary.

Local scale

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara aboard Santal, Patmos, 2011

Aboard “Santal”, Patmos, 2011.

Patmos is the northernmost island of the Dodecanese, in the Greek Aegean Sea, where I spend my summer months since the early 1970s. The island’s spectacular landscape and extraordinary mix of environmental and cultural values stand in stark contrast to the dearth of vision in the local management, and these values are at great risk of being swept to oblivion by short-sightedness, greed and corruption. The conditions of the marine environment are particularly appalling, with a plummeting of biodiversity – ranging from algal cover to fish populations – so evident that even the children notice. 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. The site was inscribed in 2016, but unfortunately with the exclusion of the land portion of my proposal. Now is the time for planning management measures aiming at restoring environmental health: a work in progress.

National scale

Nation-wide network to monitor whale and dolphin strandings in Italy. To gain a first understanding of the causes of mortality of cetaceans around the Italian coasts, with a number of colleagues in 1985 I spearheaded the creation of the first nation-wide cetacean stranding network. Although solely volunteer-based, during almost two decades of activities the network generated a much needed baseline knowledge of the existing species of whales and dolphins in the Italian seas, and of their main mortality causes. Unfortunately, this volunteer-based network was later dissolved to be replaced by an institutional effort under the aegis of the Ministry of the environment; this change of governance crippled the programme and Italy at the moment no longer has a nation-wide cetacean stranding network. Supporting national marine conservation policy. Between 1997 and 2003, as President of the Central Institute for Applied Marine Research (ICRAM, Istituto Centrale per la Ricerca Applicata al Mare – now merged with ISPRA), I had the opportunity of contributing to a comprehensive national strategy for marine protection, implementing programmes to achieve that vision under the auspices of the Institute. I ensured that the Institute fulfilled its tasks and duties based on the directives of relevant ministers, including the provision of scientific support to national institutions in the fields of marine conservation, management and policy (e.g., quality of the marine environment, protection of species and habitats, marine protected areas, sustainable fishing and aquaculture, management of environmentally hazardous activities at sea). Promoting knowledge on marine conservation science and policy. For a decade I have been teaching a course on the science and policy of marine biodiversity conservation at the University “Statale” of Milano, providing a professional outlook on the discipline to hundreds of students. Through appearances on television and radio, and the publication of popular articles, blogs and books, I have also been striving to increase the awareness of the general public on the need for protecting the marine environment.  

Regional scale

Conservation science of Mediterranean species. In 1986 I founded the Tethys Research Institute, dedicated to the progress of knowledge of Mediterranean top predators such as whales, dolphins, seals and rays, providing support to the evidence of the uniqueness of the Mediterranean fauna, combined with the high level of threats to its survival. 30 years later Tethys still keeps supporting marine conservation through research and conservation activities.   Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean marine mammals. In 1991, under the impetus of the highest concern for the survival of cetacean populations in the Mediterranean, strongly impacted by human activities (most notably bycatch in pelagic driftnets), with a proposal called “Project Pelagos” I put forward the idea of establishing a large (87,000 km²) marine mammal sanctuary in the region’s NW portion, covering an area containing critical habitat of several cetacean species. In 1999 the Pelagos Sanctuary was formally established by a treaty among France, Italy and Monaco, and was later included in the list of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance under the purview of the Barcelona Convention.   Mediterranean cetacean conservation policy. Since the early 2000s I have been engaged in supporting with robust science the implementation of the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS), and served as Chair of the Agreement’s Scientific Committee from 2002 to 2010.


A Mediterranean monk seal sighted off Ionian Greece. Photo by Joan Gonzalvo/Tethys.

Protecting one of the world’s most endangered seal. Having received in 2011 a request for advice from the “Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation” on actions to protect the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seals, I recommended to secure a core of the seals’ presence, in Greece, which eventually led to a project funded by the European Commission and the Foundation itself. The project, still ongoing, envisages the involvement and empowerment of the local communities in the conservation of their marine environment, including the seal population.

Spinner dolphins now can rest undisturbed in the no-entry zone of Samadai Reef, Egypt.



Making dolphin conservation and tourism development compatible in the Red Sea. In 2003 I received an invitation from the Government of Egypt to advise on management of tourist visits to a Red Sea reef, named Samadai, used as a resting place for spinner dolphins. Concern existed that uncontrolled visits had grown in the area which might ultimately cause the dolphins to abandon their habitat. I developed a management plan which was immediately implemented, and the dolphins still use the area to this date. The management plan included a maximum ceiling of daily visitors and the zoning of the reef, with a very large no-entry zone where the dolphins are able to rest undisturbed, a much smaller buffer zone where guided swimming visits are allowed, and a third outer zone which is the only where boats can enter. A modest entry fee is today generating revenues that pay the salaries of rangers in the entire region – in other words, the Samadai dolphins now sustain the conservation of a large portion of the Egyptian Red Sea.

Global scale

Jumping champion Mobula munkiana in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Photograph courtesy of © Octavio Aburto.

Taxonomic revision of the world’s devil rays (genus Mobula). Over two centuries of research, ichthyologists the world over had described devil rays – the smaller relatives of manta rays – with hundreds of different names, resulting in an almost inextricable confusion on how many different species existed. Part of my doctoral work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography included tidying up this mess, boiling down the genus to nine species, and describing a new species, Mobula munkiana, in the process. As it turned out, this work eventually carried conservation value because many of these species have become highly vulnerable to fishing and exploitation, and they had to be clearly identifiable in order to be protected.







Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs). In 2013, having created the a Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force within the framework of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with colleague Erich Hoyt, we set up to define and identify IMMAs in the world’ oceans. IMMAs are discrete portions of habitat, important to marine mammal species, that have the potential to be delineated and managed for conservation. They can be seen as a “marine mammal layer” which represents a pre-selection for consideration by governments, conservation groups, and the general public of areas that deserve consideration for place-based protection. Current work consists in the identification of IMMAs in various marine regions of the world, in cooperation with IMMA Coordinator Michael Tetley. Regions include the Mediterranean (funded by the Fondation MAVA), and the South Pacific, Northeast Indian, Northwest Indian, Southeast Pacific Oceans and the waters of Australia and New Zealand (funded through GOBI by the IKI Programme of the German Government).  

My current tasks include

Summary of professional activities:


You can read an autobiographical perspective here.