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Why and where to protect 30% of the Mediterranean Sea to recover vital biodiversity and fisheries, new study reveals

Mediterranean fish stocks, including the most commercially valuable hakes and groupers, could strongly recover if 30% of the sea is effectively protected [1].

Today, only 9.68% of the Mediterranean Sea has been designated for protection, of which only 1.27% is effectively protected

WWF’s new report “30 by 30: Scenarios to recover biodiversity and recover fish stocks in the Mediterranean” (full report and summary report), is the first to provide conservation scenarios for the Mediterranean Sea, analyzing the extent of the benefits that halting unsustainable fishing and other damaging activities from selected areas would bring to marine biodiversity and fish populations. The study was conducted in collaboration with scientists from the French CNRS-CRIOBE, the Ecopath International Initiative, and the Spanish ICM–CSIC. 

The scientific analysis [2] is clear about the fact that fish stocks would continue declining in the next years in the Mediterranean if unsustainable fishing and other industrial activities were continued [3]. On the other side, the report confirms that with effective protection in specific areas covering 30% of the Mediterranean Sea and sustainably managed activities in the rest of the basin [4], these same commercial fish stocks would increase and the whole marine ecosystem would significantly recover, benefitting the millions of people who depend on it as well. Potential catches of breams could increase by 4-20% and of large commercial demersal fish by up to 5%.

In the Western Mediterranean, for which more scientific data is available, the analysis shows impressive potential increases: the biomass of predator species like sharks could increase by up to 45%, while commercial species like groupers are projected to increase by 50% and European hake could even double its biomass. Even the bluefin tuna, the most iconic and commercially valuable population of the Mediterranean, would potentially recover its biomass to a record-high increase of up to 140%. 

Marina Gomei with the WWF’s Mediterranean Marine Initiative said:

“Today we have the scientific evidence that protecting key areas of the Mediterranean is an effective way to rebuild the most important fish stocks and stop the dramatic loss of species and habitats that is threatening our sea. These marine areas have enormous potential to sustain the fisheries sector and the local economies also impacted by the COVID19 epidemic and increase our resilience against climate change. The next decade must see the Mediterranean Sea back at the centre of the ecological and economic agendas of our governments if we want to secure a future to the almost half a million people living in the region.”

In late 2021, world leaders are expected to adopt a new Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework to halt and reverse the loss of nature and more than 50 countries are already calling for a commitment to protect 30% of the planet by 2030. This same commitment, which for WWF must include a rights-based approach to conservation, should be then transposed by Mediterranean countries in the regional biodiversity framework to be adopted in December at COP22 of the Barcelona Convention. To this end, WWF calls [5] on all Mediterranean governments to swiftly develop more ambitious regional and national plans of action to deliver an effective protection of the Mediterranean Sea.


[1] WWF and others are calling for a network of effective marine protected areas (MPAs) and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECMs) covering 30% of the Mediterranean Sea by 2030. The difference between protected areas and OECMs is that the primary objective of protected areas is conservation, whereas OECMs deliver effective in situ conservation of biodiversity, regardless of their objectives (IUCN-WCPA, 2019). For example, a commercial fishing closure established through a long-term management plan and delivering positive biodiversity outcomes might be reported as an OECM, contributing to both the CBD and SDG targets.

[2] A description of the methodology adopted to develop the scenarios is provided in the full report. 

[3] 75% of Mediterranean assessed fish stocks are still overfished and sea temperatures are increasing 20% faster than the global average. The COVID19 pandemics with reduction of activities due to lockdowns and the decreased demand for seafood due to the closure of local seafood markets and restaurants has heavily affected the fisheries sector globally and in the Mediterranean (see our COVID19 regional map). WWF calculated that, if well protected, the marine resources of the Mediterranean Sea could deliver assets valued at US$450 billion per year.

[4] The Mediterranean spatial areas that are predicted to provide the greatest conservation benefits are: Alboran Sea, north-western Mediterranean, Sicily Channel, Adriatic Sea, Hellenic Trench, Aegean Sea and Levantine Sea.

[5] WWF calls on countries to:
1. Expand the coverage of MPAs and OECMs to cover 30% of the Mediterranean Sea.
2. Protect hotspots of marine biodiversity to increase future fishing catches in the overfished areas of the Mediterranena Sea and secure seafood and livelihoods for future generations.
3. Work with other sectors to establish OECMs. Steps towards OECMs should include setting new: Locally managed no-take zones; Fishery Restricted Areas; Ecological corridor; and Extended deep-water and coastal trawling bans.
4. Integrate the MPA and OECM network into wider ecosystem-based integrated ocean management to sustainably manage all activities across the Mediterranean.
5. Urgently increase the level of protection of existing and future MPAs and OECMs by combining fully and highly protected areas that allow ecosystem restoration and deliver the greatest benefits.
6. Ensure all MPAs and OECMs are effectively managed, with zoning and management plans and sufficient resources to implement and monitor them.
7. Employ just and fair financial instruments to move from business as usual to effective conservation and sustainable blue economy. Lower-income countries require financial support to fund research, marine spatial planning and conservation measures.
8. Involve local stakeholders at every stage of the process through co-management and participatory processes. Fishers and other local people must be involved in the decisions that affect their rights and livelihoods and share responsibility for the management of their resources.
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Protecting marine ecosystems