Marine Conservation on Paper: The Mediterranean Case

In a recent editorial on Conservation Biology, Giovanni Bearzi described his 20-yr experience working with Mediterranean coastal dolphins and reported frustration caused by the fact that scientific evidence, workshops, recommendations and action plans only sum up to 'conservation on paper'. The game today consists in continuously calling for more research or action plans as a way of diverting from action and postponing the enforcement of meaningful conservation measures.

Scientists and conservationists spend much of their life frantically writing documents and recommendations, but little or nothing happens in the real world. Is paper, and then more paper, all that governments really want from us? When will the time for action come? Are we allowing ourselves to be lost in the illusion of doing conservation while in fact we are mostly just producing conservation tools that are rarely used?

The existing international conservation agreements and at times even MPAs look excellent on paper, but unless followed by concrete action they only serve for greenwashing purposes, rather than to support conservation.

The Scientific Committe of ACCOBAMS, chaired by Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, has been a formidable tool to outline what needs to be done with regard to cetacean conservation. In several cases, problems and solutions have been accurately described and specific management actions outlined. But everything seems to stop there, as the political will to listen to scientific advice is poor.

The body of evidence on the impact of human activities on Mediterranean ecosystems keeps growing. Practical solutions to mitigate the damage have been identified. And yet, not much happens (with rare exceptions). Cetaceans keep declining, overfishing continues, illegal fishing is widespread and unchallenged, coastal development grows like a cancer everywhere.

The emerging message is that a change of strategy is needed. The kind of new strategy that should be envisaged to prevent more devastation is still unknown. However, it is important for the scientific and conservation community to realize in the first place that the current approach won't bring us far. As long as we don't look for alternatives, it is unlikely that we come up with new ideas.

What can committed scientists do apart from producing more and more paper, therefore playing the game that politicians want us to play? We believe that there may be two major answers: 1) innovative and direct ways of communicating with the public (e.g. without filters and distortions created by the media); and 2) teaming up between the scientific community and NGOs, who should be seen as complementary to research. Improved communication and strategic planning involving both the scientific community and the NGOs may be an important way of effectively conveying science-based conservation messages to the public, and to convince the institutions that the time to act has come.

More importantly, what creates a barrier in the decision makers' behaviour between making conservation commitments and honouring them? Is this just due to corruption and political misrule, or are there objective obstacles of a more fundamental nature in political systems that can be challenged through improvements in governance?

Conservation strategies need to be as flexible and dynamic as is the modern world we are living in. The primary focus should be on the effectiveness of the message. Whatever we do, we should make sure that someone will listen. New conservation approaches need to be designed so that they can be promptly incorporated in the policy making process.


Bearzi G. 2007. Marine conservation on paper. Conservation Biology 21(1):1-3. (173 Kb)