Coralligene reefs in Greece: unique natural heritage & a lifeline for fish stocks

A multinational team of scientists from 7 countries (Spain, Greece, England, Lebanon, Turkey, Croatia), who specialise in marine priority habitats, were invited to the island of Fourni in the Eastern Aegean Sea, Greece, by the Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas (RAC / SPA) as part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and specifically the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), and Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation, to take part in the first regional training workshop on coralligene reef  mapping techniques.

Through SCUBA diving and the use of a robotic underwater camera and sonar, the team recorded important coralligene reefs at depths of 40-100m. The coralligene reefs, are home to an extremely high biodiversity. It is estimated that about 1666 species including 300 species of algae, 1200 species of invertebrates, and more than 100 species of fish live within coralligene reefs. During the diving surveys, the scientists recorded 35 species of invertebrates and 36 species of algae. Highlights of these surveys included the recording of a large abundance of the rare algae Ptilophora mediterranea, as well as the exciting discovery of corals estimated to be well over 700 years old!

However, it has to be emphasised that the ongoing deterioration of such habitats is particularly alarming considering there very slow growth rate (0.006 – 0.83 mm / year). Greece as well as most other Mediterranean countries are bound by European legislation and international conventions to protect highly productive marine ecosystems such as coralligene reefs, and as such should have already carried out mapping of these habitats. However, this has not been done, and consequently these habitats are being destroyed. Authorities are unable or unwilling to prevent destructive fishing practices, such as trawlers, which drag heavy (up to one ton) iron “doors” across fragile ecosystems – causing devastation that will require many centuries to recover.

In an effort to remedy this problem, this workshop was held in order to standardize common methods for
recording these habitats so that they can be applied across Mediterranean. Members of the workshop worked alongside the local community to enhance cooperation with the fishing communities, increasing the role they play in providing information on the location of key marine habitats, as well as identifying and addressing the degradation factors.

A combination of empirical information and the application of modern economic methods for recording these habitats can significantly reduce the cost and time of data collection, but as yet, in most cases the methods used have been extremely costly and time consuming. This workshop in Greece will act as a pilot model that can be used in other Mediterranean countries, pending its success. The main goal of the workshop is the direct mapping of coralligene reefs and the submission of data and maps to the national authorities who are responsible for the adoption of specific management measures for the protection of these habitats. For  example, an immediate conservation measure would be to define no trawling zones where these habitats are identified.