The Mediterranean's delicate health has long been at the centre of European environmental research. The Black Sea has not been ignored either and has been the subject of a number of studies and remedial measures. Now, with the approaching accession of Romania and Bulgaria (planned for 2007), the European Union will land itself an extensive shoreline along this landlocked sea, which is in a particularly critical state. The IASON initiative, launched in the spring of 2003 at a major scientific conference under the Greek presidency, aims to set up transnational and multidisciplinary co-operation networks to treat and protect these two crucially important maritime basins.
View of the point where the Eastern Mediterranean joins the Black Sea captured, by the Envisat satellite. At the top of the picture, south of the Carpathian Mountains, green patches can be seen which indicate suspended sediment in the marine waters off the Danube delta. To the south is Greece and the Aegean Islands, and at the bottom the desert coasts of Africa.
Thessaloniki is in Greece and is, therefore, still in Europe. Yet there is something in the atmosphere that evokes the proximity of the Orient, the Balkans and the Carpathians. An industrial port and university town in the Eastern Mediterranean, Thessaloniki stands at a crossroads of civilisations where Christians, Muslims and Jews have rubbed shoulders for centuries. It is this city, symbolic of an enlarged Union, which hosted IASON (International Conference on the Sustainable Development of the Mediterranean and Black Sea Environment). The gathering aimed to find ways of ensuring the sustainable development of these two important maritime regions.
A fast-growing population Time is short. These two seas which form Europe's southern border are currently undergoing radical change. In addition to their relatively small size, they also have the common characteristic of being virtually landlocked, with the Straits of Gibraltar, the Dardanelles and the Bosphoros considerably impeding water circulation.
This is exacerbating the effects of a rapidly expanding population. 'In the 1960s, the population of the countries bordering the Mediterranean was 246 million. Today it is over 450 million,' points out Michael Scoullos of Athens University, who is also secretary of the Office for Information on the Mediterranean (MOI-ECDSE). 'Then there is the seasonal influx of tourists to be taken into account, totalling some 150 million. All the forecasts indicate that these figures are set to increase further.'
Half of the 25 000 km Mediterranean coastline is already heavily urbanised. The water treatment stations built in response to this population increase are often too old and too small, and not all coastal inhabitants are connected to them. Moreover, the impact of humanity on the marine environment is growing all the time – partly due to technological progress.
Wide-ranging impact 'The transnational and multidisciplinary environmental problems of the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean have not yet been assessed in an integrated way, one taking advantage of all the existing data and liaising with existing efforts,' says Achilleas Mitsos, director-general of research at the European Commission. 'Such an integrated approach could lead to solutions, policy actions and proposals for long-term strategies for sustainable development.'
The uncontrolled discharge of waste from the 17 countries bordering the Black Sea over many decades has resulted in critical marine pollution in this closed basin.
A number of major rivers in this region (the Rhone, Po, Danube and the Nile) drain across vast areas where industrial agriculture dominates. Farm inputs also enter the sea through numerous smaller rivers and streams. French, Italian, and Spanish regions bordering these seas each consume more than 100 000 tonnes of pesticides a year while pesticide use is also increasing in other regions: Turkey recently reached the 35 000-tonne level and Egypt is going the same way.
There is also the question of air pollution – which is often under-estimated when speaking of the sea – generated by cars, household waste incinerators, industry, and so on. '[The] impact is, however, concentrated in the air masses of coastal areas and exchanges between these and surface waters. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the absence of tides, which greatly reduces the mixing effect,' notes Alexandros Theoharis of the Greek National Center for Marine Research. 'The concentration gradients, as well as pH gradients, for various molecules are, therefore, very intense, with marked consequences on marine biocenoses.'
The sea itself is now being used more intensively than ever before. There has been a major increase in sea transport, especially of hydrocarbons, which can cause such devastating and lasting pollution. Every year 100 000 tonnes of hydrocarbons pass through the Black Sea alone. Fishing fleets are having a greater impact too, even if the number of vessels has remained virtually stable. Fish farming has also expanded considerably, and this too will have major ecological repercussions.
The Europe, fitted out by IFREMER, on a Mediterranean mission - European research is today providing a considerable mass of data with a view to enabling the sustainable management of endangered marine ecosystems.
Disrupted ecosystems The combined effect of this environmental pressure is that a number of sustainability indicators are now on maximum alert. A high and increasing mortality rate among marine animals in the Black Sea, for which there is as yet no clear explanation, has been observed over the past three decades, with losses estimated at tens of millions of tonnes.
Fish catches have plummeted by 80% in recent years and, of the 26 species previously fished commercially, only six remain in sufficient numbers. At the same time, populations of jellyfish and other gelatinous animal species have increased significantly, probably due to eutrophication and/or the accidental introduction by ships of foreign species.
Reduced catches have also been recorded in the Mediterranean for more than a decade. 'What is more, the overfishing of large carnivorous species has upset the structure and functioning of the ecosystem. At many locations, fisheries are now obliged to make do with smaller varieties which are more sensitive to environmental variations,' points out Jacques Bertrand of the French Institute for Marine Research (IFREMER).
These major changes to the Mediterranean ecosystem are all the more worrying as it is a sea with a high level of endemism (the presence of exclusively local and, hence, irreplaceable species). The Mediterranean represents just 1% of the world's seas but contains 7.5% of all aquatic species. Among the various indicators of disturbed ecological balances, there is a clear trend towards 'tropicalisation' as many species from warmer waters are proliferating to the point where they are threatening their indigenous cousins, whether plants (such as the famous predatory seaweed Caulerpa taxifolia), molluscs, shellfish or other types of fish. This worrying and complex phenomenon is probably due to the combined effect of inflows of water and increased shipping traffic through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar, and may be further exacerbated by global warming.
Caulerpa taxifolia, sometimes known as the 'predatory alga', is disrupting the balance of several marine ecosystems. Its excessive proliferation is the result of eutrophication caused by agricultural, industrial, urban or aquicultural waste.
Solutions without frontiers Most of the processes at work – and consequently the possible solutions – are transnational and require multidisciplinary approaches. This explains the range of expertise represented at the IASON conference, where oceanologists and climatologists rubbed shoulders with specialists in biology, marine genetics, fishing, economics and modelling. The gathering drew scientists from throughout the Union, as well as delegates from Albania, Croatia, Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Bulgaria, Egypt, Cyprus, Romania, Ukraine, Israel and the United States. It is only through such a spirit of co-operation that a sustainable future for these two precious seas can be achieved.
Making data accessible A mass of oceanographical data has been gathered over the years by scientists working on the Mediterranean and Black Sea. A recent project (MEDAR/MEDATLAS) – supported by institutions in 20 countries, the European Commission and UNESCO – has now made readily available a large proportion of this data in the form of an easy-to-use database, available through the Internet or in the form of four CD-ROMS. This usefully supplements the multidisciplinary database previously compiled by the MTP/MATER, an EU-backed project studying the Mediterranean. MEDAR/MEDATLAS provides high quality data sets, based on extensive sampling of parameters such as temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, as well as ion concentrations.
This impressive information source includes maps, graphs and diagrams, all accessible free of charge. The database is updated continuously and extended regularly to include new factors and parameters.
Control sample of fish catches taken on board the Thalassa.
Eutrophication and algal efflorescence The waters of the Mediterranean are naturally poor in nutrients and, thus, in algae, which is why they are so blue and transparent. But the results of the EU-backed Interpol project suggest that this equilibrium is now being seriously upset in certain places by human waste with its high density of phosphate, nitrate and other nutrients. This waste – originating in the leaching of agricultural fertilisers and the inflow of urban or industrial waste water – is causing eutrophication reflected in the intense development of unicellular algae and the micro-organisms which feed off them. In deeper waters, it is causing disoxygenation.
These changes are impacting on the ecosystem as a whole, sometimes resulting in the virulent proliferation of certain species of planktonic algae which produce 'red tides' (or tides of other colours depending on the species of plankton). These proliferations can be viscous and foul smelling, with disastrous effects for regions where beach tourism is a source of vital revenues. They can even be toxic, causing high mortality among marine species. Several European research projects, such as FATE, are trying to understand the mechanism at work in these proliferations and, in particular, the nutrient thresholds at which they are triggered.
Eutrophication is even more of a problem in the Black Sea than in the Mediterranean, especially in the north-west corner into which water flows from the 'four Ds': the Danube, Dnieper, Dniester and Don. For its size, the Black Sea is the final destination for a very large volume of human, agricultural and industrial waste. Algal blooms are frequent, intense and extensive, resulting in acute disoxygenation, which causes high mortality among shellfish and benthic molluscs. A number of marine species have disappeared, while the proliferation of jellyfish and Noctiluca scintillans (a type of plankton) has worsened what is already a seriously disrupted ecosystem. Fortunately, some easing of the effects of eutrophication has been observed recently.
The gills of the giant Riftia worm, which lives at a depth of over 2 000 metres.
Fishing and aquaculture The sustainable management of marine resources is a delicate art. Fish farming – often presented as an alternative to overfishing – requires vast quantities of fish meal. In addition, uneaten food debris and excrement build up around the breeding enclosures and can place a considerable burden on the surrounding ecosystems.
The sustainable management of fishing means defining exactly what catches a given stock can support. This must be based on a complex series of demographic indicators –population size, age pyramid, number of reproducers, etc. This requires a major scientific monitoring exercise. The creation of fishing reserves as a tool of stock management involves a judicious choice of location, geographical limits and the implementation of precise rules.
These are all challenging tasks for researchers whose opinions are often questioned by professionals.
The biodiversity capital It is difficult to put a monetary value on marine biodiversity, although research is looking into possible ways of doing so. One example of the economic importance of this natural 'capital' is the vast numbers of species of bacteria, known as thermophilic or hyperthermophilic, which are able to live at temperatures of over 100°C and which are now the subject of close study. These bacteria live in hydrothermal springs and the molecules found in their metabolism can withstand temperatures which are incompatible with the functioning of ordinary biological processes.
Some of these molecules – enzymes, sugars, antiseptic or antifungal agents – are thermostable which makes them of great interest to industry, especially the paper, detergent, agri-foodstuffs and textile industries. Research into these fields has resulted in many products which are already commercially available.
IASON sets sail
By focusing on the environmental destinies of both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, European research is responding to the new reality of the enlarged Union – and its future coastline. The IASON conference marks the point of departure for this ...
Dr. Evangelos Papathanassiou - National Centre for Marine Research (GR) email
Dr. Elisabeth Lipiatou, Research DG, European Commission email
IASON sets sail
By focusing on the environmental destinies of both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, European research is responding to the new reality of the enlarged Union – and its future coastline. The IASON conference marks the point of departure for this integrated approach. Christian Patermann, director of environmental research at the European Commission, discusses the issues at stake.
European research has traditionally concentrated on the threat to the Mediterranean. Does this mean that the very critical situation of the Black Sea had previously been seen as non-vital?
Certainly not. And, just as it is actively involved at many sensitive points in the global environment, the Union has not waited until now to concern itself with the very serious problems in the Black Sea basin. It has provided support under the Phare and Tacis programmes – in particular for UN Environment Agency and World Bank initiatives. And then there are the actions carried out by the Environment DG and those in the framework of European research projects. These include EROS 21(1) which studied the effects of the Danube on coastal waters. This project also measured the Black Sea’s high concentration of methane, one of the greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change.
The Black Sea basin clearly plays a considerable eco-strategic role. It is a major sea route for oil transport and it is the outlet for 20% of Russian exports. It is simply not possible to envisage managing its coasts and protecting its biodiversity at anything but the common European level, especially in the light of enlargement. Take the Danube, for example, Europe's second longest river whose immense delta is an exceptional ecosystem with a rich biodiversity. The environmental health of this delta is affected by everything happening in the immense drainage basin, which covers some 8 million km2 and stretches from Poland to Germany, Austria and Romania.
Are candidate countries most concerned by these environmental questions able to participate in Union research actions?
The candidate countries from the former communist bloc are reaching the end of a process which has brought their infrastructures and research systems almost to the point of destruction. They are facing a number of pressing problems, sometimes related to questions of simple economic survival. As a result, research and environmental issues are not necessarily priorities for them at present.
But, in the longer term, it remains imperative for these countries to be involved in protecting their natural capital and resources. Apart from purely ecological considerations, economic resources, such as tourism and fishing, depend on the health of the rivers and seas.
These countries also have some excellent scientists. It is essential to create and sustain links with them and to help them become a part of the European Research Area. The concept of sustainable development is a basic tool in this respect, one which takes into account the economy, the environment and social aspects. Implementing it in this part of Europe is a vital opportunity and also a challenge for the continent as a whole.
Did the Thessaloniki conference meet your expectations?
We wanted to take stock of this region in all the scientific fields linked to sustainable development: climate change, biodiversity, management of coastal areas, fisheries, aid in decision-making, and so on. The aim was to bring together scientists specalising in these fields to form a core team able to determine the priorities for improving the situation of these two maritime basins and to submit proposals for their sustainable management.
I was impressed by the quality of the contributions made by the participants and by the fact that more than 20 nationalities, from regions directly concerned as well as from northern Europe, turned up. We are going to continue this dialogue by setting up a permanent platform, initially supported by an Internet portal, so as to maintain these links, continue the evaluation, organise new initiatives and remain open to new contacts. Greece has undertaken to coordinate this effort and to define the operational instruments with which to put this dynamic to work.