Marine rewilding: time for a sea change?

Posted by Daniel Allen on 6/03/2019
With UN World Wildlife Day throwing the spotlight on subaquatic life, pioneering European restoration projects show the benefits of treating our marine assets differently.      
Two Mediterranean monk seal pups have recently been recorded within secluded caves in Gökova Bay. These critically endangered marine mammals rely on thriving fish populations. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya.


Across Europe and beyond, the terrestrial restoration of ecosystems such as forests, peatland and floodplains is now relatively commonplace, with an increasing number of progressive rewilding projects delivering tangible benefits for people and wild nature on a growing scale. But things are very different in our seas and oceans. Here rewilding projects are far less common, despite an urgent need to reverse ongoing marine biodiversity decline.

In Europe the deterioration of reefs, seagrass beds and other aquatic habitats has been particularly severe. Thanks to factors such as infrastructure development, overexploitation and pollution, less than 15% of European coastline is now considered in "good" condition. At a global level, only 13% of oceanic waters are still considered truly wild

While these figures are undeniably alarming, many marine ecosystems can recover very quickly if given the chance. With UN World Wildlife Day celebrated last Sunday (March 3) under the theme "Life below water: for people and planet", now seems a particulary appropriate time to discuss positive trends in marine environment restoration.


Grassroots action

Today a range of pioneering initiatives are proving  that marine rewilding projects can be just as successful as their terrestrial counterparts.


In Europe, the Tenerife-based PROYECTO M.A.R.E.S. (Manejo de Áreas Reservadas y Ecosistemas para la Sostenibilidad / Reserved Areas Management and Ecosystems for Sustainability) is a particularly inspirational example of marine restoration. Focusing on Tenerife's El Puertito de Adeje Bay, this progressive collaboration between the Sustainable Ocean Alliance (a global NGO) and a dive centre run by local resident David Novillo is demonstrating how grassroots innovation and community-focused rewilding efforts can revitalise marine ecosystems and deliver benefits to a whole range of stakeholders.


In 2006, Novillo created social enterprise Oceano Sostenible to rid El Puertito de Adeje of the invasive long-spined sea urchin population which had devastated the cove's marine ecosystem. This saw the algal cover restored in the bay, which in turn led to the comeback of numerous species, such as juvenile green turtles and the unique and endangered angel shark.


The recovery of El Puertito de Adeje attracted divers and dive boats from the tourist resort of Playa de las Americas, causing injury to the returning turtles, as well as public safety risks. Novillo and the local municipality realised that simpy focusing on the restoration of their increasingly valuable marine asset was not enough - the sustainable management of the area, which in turn would underpin a low impact nature-based economy, would require an institutional framework.  


The municipality stepped in to support David's initiative and is now using its access and influence to create a form of conservation concession - a pioneering new type of protected area, both for Tenerife and the whole of Spain. Plans are also afoot to extend marine restoration efforts to the adjacent cove of La Caleta.


"We hope that a future marine resource management concession will allow us to share our love of diving and the marine environment with tourists and encourage them to care about its future," explains Novillo.


Thanks to the efforts of David Novillo and PROYECTO M.A.R.E.S  in El Puertito de Adeje Bay in Tenerife, many species such as green turtles and angel sharks have returned.  


Thinking big

At the other end of the spectrum, seascape-wide restoration successes have shown that a wide range of stakeholders can work collaboratively to transform the marine environment. Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is one UK-based NGO heavily involved with marine conservation. Their efforts stepped up a gear in 2012 when an Arcadia Fund grant allowed them to develop a strategic conservation programme that could tackle threats to the marine environment at a larger scale.


In total, FFI has enhanced marine management at more than 40 sites since 2012, helping to catalyse the establishment of new marine protected areas, guide the development of management plans, and support enforcement, surveillance and monitoring efforts.


One such site is the stunning Gökova Bay Marine Protected Area, where sheer mountains drop down to turquoise waters. Situated on Turkey's south-west coast, Gökova Bay is located at the meeting point between the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, and is home to many iconic and commercially valuable species.


Together with a local partner - Akdeniz Koruma Dernegi (Mediterranean Conservation Society) - FFI has worked with communities and the authorities to strengthen management of the marine protected area. This has included initiating community-led patrols with fishers to tackle rampant illegal fishing in smaller no-take zones.


There are now exciting signs that this hard work is paying off, with rare wildlife including sandbar sharks and loggerhead turtles thriving in Gökova Bay, and the endangered Mediterranean monk seal returning to the protected area for the first time in a generation. Moreover, a local fishing cooperative has reported an increase in their per-boat income, showing that good management can benefit both biodiversity and local livelihoods.


"Fishing pressure can cause irreversible damage to the marine food chain," says Zafer Kizilkaya, president of the Mediterranean Conservation Society. "Well-enforced no take zones have proved an excellent way of restoring marine ecosystems. In Gökova Bay, we saw fish biomass increase 10  times within protected zones in just eight years."


With new funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, FFI is now working to restore 500 kilometres of vulnerable marine habitat along the Turkish coast. This which will be an important test case for large-scale restoration in the Mediterranean.


Predatory fish such as groupers play a key role in controlling the negative impact of non-native invasive fish species, which are entering the Mediterranean from the Red Sea via the Suez Canal. Credit: Zafer Kizilkaya.


The way ahead

Unlike on land, there is often little indication on the surface of our seas and oceans that life below is suffering. But the truth is that our marine environment faces threats that are too numerous to document properly here.


Yet just as on land, marine rewilding offers an innovative and positive way to counter these threats. Underpinned by the principles of recoverable Earth, pioneering projects are demonstrating that marine asset restoration can deliver significant and sustainable benefits to both people and wild nature.