19 October 2007

The future of ACCOBAMS: heading for the crossroads between progress and failure

The last issue of FINS succinctly describes the various activities which the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS is currently engaged in, in its efforts to contribute to the goal of the Agreement: conserving Mediterranean and Black Sea whales, dolphins and porpoises. These activities require regular attention, and thus, unlike other bodies of ACCOBAMS, the Scientific Committee shares with the Secretariat the burden of keeping the steam going on a constant basis. Such efforts, as mentioned earlier, are fuelled solely by motivation.

Scientific Committee members include marine conservation professionals who share a very high concern for the conservation status of the region’s cetaceans, and the strong wish to be given the chance to contribute to reverse negative trends. To further improve its effectiveness, the Committee is striving to muster up the available knowledge residing within the wider scientific community, to complement its action with specific expertise which may not be present within its ranks.

However, even with the valuable support of the Secretariat, the Scientific Committee can achieve precious little by itself, because the only actions that can make a concrete difference to the status of the region’s cetaceans are management actions, and these may only be implemented by decision makers. While the politicians’ accomplishments will be significantly strengthened by heeding the scientists’ advice and many recommendations, the responsibility for action ultimately rests solely on their shoulders. For this reason the members of the Scientific Committee have placed a great deal of expectation on the upcoming 3rd Meeting of Parties (MOP), and hope that the parties will decide to address with resolve the concerns that it has raised through the years and expressed in its many Recommendations

For instance, Committee members would be delighted to learn that measures are being taken to eradicate from the region deadly fishing practices such as some types of gillnets and in particular pelagic driftnets, long ago declared illegal by all relevant authorities, including the competent Regional Fisheries Organisation. Or that it will no longer be possible for phantom navies to ensonify beaked whales’ critical habitat, causing massive stranding of these vulnerable mammals. Or that all the region’s nations, with no exception, will agree to refrain from issuing permits for the live capture of dolphins from populations of unknown or threatened status, to be used in commercial enterprises disguised as therapeutic practices of questionable value. Or that fishing practices are being managed in a sustainable fashion, also having an eye of regard for the wider ecosystem: like in the eastern Ionian Sea where endangered common dolphins have recently been displaced from their prime habitat by the depletion of their main prey through overfishing. Or that full support will be given to the Committee’s efforts to organise a region-wide cetacean survey, at long last providing much needed knowledge about population numbers and distribution.

So far, the Recommendations from the Scientific Committee have not had a significant effect, and this is why so much hope is placed on the next MOP. In many cases, just deciding to do what nations have already agreed on doing would make a significant difference. Management measures that will benefit cetaceans, involving sustainable fishing, curbing marine pollution and protecting biodiversity, are already embedded in a large number of existing legislation and treaties. If all such measures, invoked by international, regional and national legal instruments for the wise management of human activities in the Mediterranean and Black Seas (e.g., the FAO Code of conduct for responsible fisheries, the Barcelona and Bucharest Conventions and related Protocols), were to be fully implemented and enforced, many of the problems preventing whales, dolphins and porpoises from having a favourable conservation status would be challenged, and the recovery of the populations would become possible.

Fifteen years ago, addressing the world’s nations gathered in Rio de Janeiro to attend the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, S.H.S. Prince Rainier III of Monaco declared:

Let us be careful of easy words and declarations of principle with no followup. Let us find the moral and political strength to apply the prescribed remedies so as to save the essential. It is up to us, Chiefs of State, to seize, together, this chance of long-term revival of our blue planet and so allow our children and future generations to evolve in a healthier and more equitable world.

Bringing about in the Mediterranean and Black Seas an agreement such as ACCOBAMS, in 1996, was an extraordinary accomplishment denoting the existence of an admirable vision among the region’s leaders. A decade later, the Agreement is as needed as ever. However, have the whales and dolphins noticed a difference? We suspect not; at least, not yet. Heeding the appeal of the late Prince seems like an obvious and urgent course of action to convince the world that ACCOBAMS continues to deserve a raison d’ĂȘtre.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara
Chair of the Scientific Committee of ACCOBAMS

From FINS 3(2), the newsletter of ACCOBAMS

Notarbartolo di Sciara G. 2007. The future of ACCOBAMS: heading for the crossroads between progress and failure. Fins 3(2):24-25.

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