The sea on our doorstep makes up a minnow-sized 1% of the world’s oceans but it’s a big fish in the blue economy, netting 20% of the fiscal catch. But the Mediterranean is in deep trouble.


A Ticking Clock

A ‘blue goldrush’ of commercial exploitation over decades and six months of coronavirus have created a perfect storm. Wreaking havoc on its natural assets and setting the marine economies of 22 countries on a rocky course. In a global SOS to mark World Ocean Day this summer, the World Wildlife Fund unveiled the blueprint for a ‘Blue Recovery’. This could deliver healthier ecosystems and economies IF we can increase Marine Protected Areas to 30% by 2030. The Med’s not even a third of the way yet and the clock is ticking. Belinda Beckett reports.

Marine Miracles

A short RIB ride from the packed summer beaches of L’Estartit, seven rocky islets rise up above a scuba paradise. This industry has transformed the blue economy of villages along the Costa Brava.

Divers and underwater film makers seek out the Illes Medes for their cave-dwelling giant grouper. A 75-metre cordon of protection around the islands since 1983 has limited and regulated tourism, thus biodiversity has returned.

This tiny marine miracle is one of 1,200 Marine Protected Areas in the Med. Managed by the countries in whose territorial waters they fall, they offer six levels of protection. They can be entirely no-fish zones or they can be multi-use. Thus helping to protect ecosystems while supporting local marine industries.

The Pelagos Sanctuary allows commercial ships to pass through providing they’re fitted with a special system. This technology share sightings of marine mammals so that other vessels can plot routes to avoid them.

A Promise Not Kept

Running the coasts of Italy, Monaco and France, Pelagos is half the size of all the Med’s MPAs put together. Despite a commitment to protect 10% of their waters by 2020, most countries have ‘blatantly underperformed’, says the WWF. The majority of MPAs still only exist on paper, leaving just 1.27% of waters fully protected. Unfortunately fathoms from the 30% by 2030 needed for a sustainable restart. In contrast, offshore oil and gas exploration contracts will commandeer 40% by 2025.

Saving the Mediterranean

Over the last 50 years, the Mediterranean has lost one-third of its fish and seagrass meadows, 40% of its marine mammals and all but 400 of its monk seals. Unfortunately, fishermen consider them pests as they tear nets and steal catches. Its temperature is warming 20% faster than the rest of the planet. Moreover, the amount of plastic we dump annually is equal to tossing 33,800 plastic bottles overboard every minute.

“The slowdown in maritime activities since the pandemic has confirmed that if we ease the pressure on the natural environment, fish stocks and marine habitats may rebuild. If it is fast enough it could sustain our socio-economic relaunch,” says Giuseppe Di Carlo, Director of the WWF Mediterranean Marine Initiative.

“We need courageous changes if we want to give our young generations the chance to live and work in the Mediterranean of the future.”


The Med trawls in €396 billion a year, counting coastal tourism – equal to half the EU’s post-Covid Recovery Fun. But with too many marine enterprises panning for gold in the same pond, its bounty will run dry without change. Belinda Beckett checks out the prospects.

Cruise Blues

The Med is the world’s second favourite cruise destination after the Caribbean. Think 30 million cruise passengers a year flushing waste and producing four kilos of rubbish a day each . And unfortunately, sometimes it is not always ecologically disposed of. In a Friends of the Earth Survey only Disney Cruise Lines scored an overall ‘A’. Sewage treatment, water quality, air pollution reduction and transparency are all considered.

Ships’ anchors tear up sea beds and their propellers scythe through marine mammal populations. Furthermore, their passengers descend in hoards on one place for a few hours. Mega cruise ships were still docking in Venice this year, despite calls to ban them.
Covid has sunk this year’s cruise market but specific routes, anchorage zones and tourist limits are the way forward.

Merchant Marauders

Over 15% of global shipping passes through the Med and traffic is forecast to swell by 4% a year over the next decade. Along with a corresponding increase in oil, chemical and noise pollution.

Oil spills since 1977 would fill the hold of one supertanker and container ships are getting bigger. HMS Algeciras, named after the world’s largest cargo port is a 400-metre monster – 80 metres longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. More whales and dolphins die from ship strikes than any other threat. While underwater noise is impairing their ability to hear, communicate and detect threats.

Cleaner technology and the rerouting of merchant ships away from frail marine ecosystems are key to the Blue Recovery.

Yachtie Problems

The number of people with car stickers saying ‘my other ride is a yacht’ is growing. They’re dropping anchor just about anywhere, wreaking havoc on Poseidon grass meadows. These vital fish nurseries which double as carbon sinks are disappearing at a rate of knots. Off some coasts during the tourist season, an average five boats per hectare share an area of water the size of a rugby field. Marinas are multiplying along fragile coastlines due to continued demand for berths. The Med boasts 940, half of them in Italy, Spain and France.

Although most motor yachts are under 7.5m, many are still fitted with high-emission two-stroke engines. But more than 50% of the world’s superyachts also spend eight out of 12 months of the year in the Med. Thus putting extra stress on ecosystems from habitat destruction and pollution. Billionaire Roman Abramovich’s yacht Eclipse is a whopping 162.5m, bow to stern.

Furtive Fishing in the Mediterranean

Around nine million Europeans have licenses to fish for pleasure. Many more cast their lines under the radar. But the real can of worms is not so much the number of anglers as where and what they fish. Vulnerable species poached from MPAs account for half their catch.

Threatened grouper, scorpion fish and bluefin tuna are highly prized. Moreover, 53% of Mediterranean shark species are on the brink of extinction. The use of exotic species as bait, along with lost lines and hooks, pose other threats to marine fauna.

Cabo de Gata Nijar in Almeria is a shining example of good MPA management. Recreational fishers must report captures via a mobile app so they can track.

Endangered Species

They’re the small fry of the ocean but family fisheries make up 80% of the 60,000-strong Mediterranean fleet. Fishing is woven into the soul of the region, providing a livelihood for families over generations. But decades of overfishing has put 80% of stocks on the overexploited list. 10,000 small scale fisheries have hauled in their nets for good in the last decade.

By-catch caught in their nets also puts vulnerable species at risk. In particular sharks, rays, skate and turtles. While birds, dolphins and whales become entangled in longlines floating on the surface and drown.

The good news is that fish revenues come in two to four times higher when there’s a Marine Protected Area nearby. This regenerates the habitat and allows stocks to recover – a lifeline for endangered fisheries.

Ill Wind

Offshore wind farms already populate the North, Irish and Baltic seas and these floating windmills are on their way to the Med. Italy was due to get its first this year and pilot farms are due to launch off France and Greece.

Offshore wind power is a promising renewable for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But like land-based wind farms, bird strikes and habitat loss are hazards. One turbine’s footprint on the seafloor can extend over 2,000m2 and its blades kill an average eight seabirds a year. In the Baltic Sea the death toll is already counted in hundreds.

Aquaculture Invasion

Half of the Mediterranean seafood we eat comes from fish farms and more is on the way. If you’re looking for wild-caught lubina or dorada, dream on!

Aquaculture is an excellent idea for the most over-fished sea on the planet but it has its downsides. For instance pollution, disease, seafloor damage, the spread of alien species and competition for clean, shallow water with MPAs. Shellfish farming in Catalunya’s Ebro Delta has introduced the invasive zebra mussel to this important wetland.

Spain is one of the Med’s big four fish farming nations – numero uno for mussels and bluefin tuna. But a commercial shift up the food chain from herbivores like grey mullet to predatory species is aquaculture’s biggest negative. These fish eat other fish and the wild stocks used for fish meal are already at their sustainable limit.


More people have flown into space than explored the deep ocean. Belinda Beckett dives into its multi-layered ecosystems to discover its darkest mysteries.

The Twilight Zone Depth: 200m-1km

The deep ocean starts here, in murky depths that have inspired countless sci-fi thrillers. Sunlight and colours start to fade and fish grow huge bug eyes to see their way. Others use bioluminescence to make their own light, flashing it on and off like a torch to confuse predators, attract prey and lure potential mates. Plankton blooms turn the sea into an eery light show of bioluminescent blues and greens.

The Midnight Zone Depth: 1-4km

Too dark for plants to photosynthesise, marine creatures have to compensate for food shortages. They move more slowly to conserve energy and adopt transparent, red or black colours which act like a cloak of invisibility in the darkness. Disguised from predators, they can grow to enormous size – two metre giant squid and shrimp the size of a human hand. Many thrive around hydrothermal vents, converting the mineral magma erupting from the sea floor into energy through their skin. Although the temperature is close to freezing down here, these undersea hot springs can raise it to a scalding 400C.

The Abyssal Zone Depth: 4-6km

Only the hardiest creatures can be found at these crushing depths, where the water pressure is equal to the weight of 48 jumbo jets. Life at this level can survive because it’s made of jelly and cartilage rather than brittle bone, and lacks air sacs that can be crushed. The flexibility also helps with digesting larger prey. Not that there’s much to eat down here except for marine snow, the detritus from dead fish and decaying plants that drift down to the seafloor like manna from heaven.

The Mariana Trench Depth: 11 km You’ve reached rock bottom.

This vast underwater valley in the Pacific off Japan is two kilometres deeper than Mount Everest is tall. Found in the deepest Hadal Zone, only a handful of humans have ever seen it, among them Titanic film director James Cameron who took part in one of only four manned descents in 2012. Regrettably, even at these depths, the last man down found plastic and sweet wrappers, while traces of carbon from nuclear bomb testing have been detected in the few invertebrates that can survive here.


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