Exploring and drilling for hydrocarbons must be stopped in unique and fragile mediterranean deep sea

Conservation organizations WWF and Oceana are deeply concerned about recent developments in the exploitation of hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea that risk causing irreversible damage to fragile and unique deep-sea life.

Press Release Date: June 27, 2011

Location: Madrid


Marta Madina | email: mmadina@oceana.org | tel.: Marta Madina

Particularly alarming is the recent green-lighting by the Cypriot government of drilling for gas in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by energy company Noble Energy.

A large part of the almost 5,500-km2 area Noble Energy could start drilling as early as September, falls within the Eratosthenes Seamount area, a Fisheries Restricted Area (FRA) adopted by the UN’s General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM).  It should also be noted that this seamount is recognized as a priority area for inclusion in the list of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMI) under the Barcelona Convention.

Fisheries Restricted Areas are created to protect deep-sea sensitive habitats – in this case hosting a unique and particularly fragile ecosystem, including rare species of corals – that are extremely vulnerable to external interference. Recent studies on the Eratosthenes seamount reveal the richness of this area, which serves as a vital stopping point for certain migratory species of whales and cetaceans, including sperm whales, fin whales, striped and bottlenose dolphins.

Deep-sea fishing activity is banned within the FRA, but the UN’s GFCM also explicitly calls for protection of the area “from the impact of any other activity jeopardizing the conservation of the features that characterize these particular habitats”. Likewise, The European Union’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive, calls on EU Member States to protect the marine environment at European and international levels from any human activity that is likely to have a significant impact on the marine environment.

“The Cypriot government and EU authorities must urgently ensure compliance with international law in this new oil rush of the oceans,” said Dr Susana Sainz-Trapaga, WWF Mediterranean’s Marine Officer. “Measures are needed that specifically exclude UN-designated fisheries restricted areas like the Eratosthenes Seamount from any exploratory prospection or commercial exploitation – and prescribing severe consequences if the rules are not respected.”

WWF and Oceana were alarmed to observe a vessel performing deep-sea prospection inside the protected area.  According to public sources, the vessel was carrying out transects reportedly towing a 5-mile cable supposedly for gas seismic survey purposes.  It is to continue exploration for a period of 35 days in the area.

“Any activity impacting the sensitive habitats and species and the integrity of the sea bed in this area constitutes a clear violation of international legislation and must not be tolerated,” said Nicolas Fournier, Coordinator of Oceana’s Brussels office. “The consequences of an oil spill, similar in size to that of the Deepwater Horizon, in a closed sea like the Mediterranean, would be catastrophic both for the environment – with irreversible damage to the unique and fragile marine life of the seamount – and to human activities, due to the long term effects of such a disaster on fisheries and coastal activities.”

WWF and Oceana call on the Cypriot government to stop hydrocarbon developments around the Eratosthenes seamount and immediately adopt strict marine conservation measures for this biodiversity hotspot. Cyprus is significantly lagging behind in terms on marine protected areas, with only 0,94% of its national waters currently protected under  Natura 2000 network. This is far below the 10% objective internationally agreed, and the EU must call on Cyprus to intensify its marine sites designation efforts.

The massive Eratosthenes Seamount rises from the sea floor to 800m below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. The area hosts a wide array of invertebrates and corals, and these highly fragile deep-sea biological communities are very sensitive to human impacts in the form of deep-sea fishing, waste disposal, chemical pollution or soil prospection and extraction activities.

Three weeks ago the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructure ordered Noble Energy  to stop its drilling activities in a nearby area offshore Israel, the Leviathan field, after the company identified water flowing from the well to the sea floor. However, the company was just allowed to resume drilling few kilometers away of the previous site.