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February 17, 2016

One step forward to protect underwater gardens in the Mediterranean

Fort d'en Moreu 33. Protection area proposed by Oceana. Zona de protección propuesta por Oceana. *** Local Caption *** Trawl net lost in coralligenous seabed. Fort d'en Moreu, Cabrera, Balearic islands, Spain. Oceana expedition to the Balearic seamounts onboard the SOCIB R/V. August 2014. Red de arrastre abandonada en fondo de coralígeno. Fort d'en Moreu, Cabrera, Islas Baleares, España. Expedición de Oceana a las montañas submarinas de Baleares a bordo del B/O SOCIB. Agosto 2014.


Anything can happen underwater, and even gardens are not necessarily composed of plants. In fact, one of the most beautiful habitats in the Mediterranean are coralligenous gardens, where trees are replaced by soft corals (gorgonians) and flowers give way to calcareous red algae and animals such as sponges and bryozoans. These wondrous places support a high biodiversity, and steps are now being taken to better protect them.

It is a long story. In 2014, Oceana and other scientists recommended Mediterranean governments, among other important measures, to validate the existing maps of two habitats composed by red algae – coralligenous and rhodolith beds – to take them into account when regulating fisheries, and when designating future marine protected areas.

This may seem obvious, but it is not: if authorities don’t formally recognise that coralligenous or similar habitats are found in an area, they may allow activities to occur which destroy them. The most damaging such activity is bottom trawling; the physical impacts of trawling gear over coralligenous and similar habitats leads to the death of the dominant species that build the habitats, changing the environment completely. One area where this problem has been highlighted is the Menorca Channel in the Balearic Islands, where bottom trawling over these habitats continues, despite being banned by EU law, and Oceana is relentlessly fighting to stop it.

However, the good news is that the scientists’ 2014 proposal has just been accepted. Last week, at the biennial meeting of the Barcelona Convention, an updated Action Plan for protecting these ecosystems was approved. The plan contains a detailed timetable of actions, including building up a coralligenous/maërl distribution on line database and promoting the declaration of offshore protected areas. The Convention is the main legal framework for protecting the Mediterranean marine environment, and thanks to this significant step, national governments will now apply better management tools to regulate the use of aggressive fishing techniques. So the story isn’t over yet – stay tuned for the next chapter!