26 February 2011

Tethys’ 25th birthday

So, the Tethys Research Institute is now a quarter of a century old. That distant 31 January 1986 seems like yesterday though, when I walked into the notary’s office to create Tethys with friend Egidio Gavazzi, then the publisher of Aqua, a magazine I was science editor of. At the time we were animated by bold intentions; however even in the rosiest of our expectations we would never have hoped that the little seed we were laying in the ground, in that drab Milanese winter afternoon, would have sprouted into a hardy tree, able to withstand the roughest of weathers for decades to come.
Our intuition was right about the ground, which at the time was indeed fertile for a good seed to grow in. There was a need for the work that Tethys was set to do, and this need was felt more strongly by the general public in Italy than by the national research and governing institutions, which unfortunately have always given Tethys – particularly in the early years - more trouble than support. Carrying out conservation-minded research on the ecology of free-ranging cetaceans was still a quite esoteric endeavour, in Italy like elsewhere. Twenty five years ago we weren’t even sure what cetacean species existed in the Mediterranean; we did know about a few but the rest was fog. Now we know a lot, and although this progress in knowledge is certainly the result of the collective effort by a growing number of passionate scientists around the Mediterranean and beyond, Tethys always was, and still is, at the forefront. Tethys contributed significantly to demonstrate the validity of methods and techniques, spread scientific results, stimulate public awareness, and spur decision-makers into deciding.
It has been a dense period, full of hard work and satisfactions. Research techniques which have now become commonplace, such as photo-identification, the use of telemetry, the collection of biopsies for contaminant and population structure research, and modelling techniques to extract from the data significant insight, were all applied by Tethys since the early years. More than 300 scientific papers – in large part on international, refereed journals - were published to describe Tethys’ research results. A large number of young scientists were trained during this time, always under the imperative that science was to be used as a tool to promote conservation, and contributed with 60 university theses. Finally, research was used to stimulate actions in the real world. Amongst many, the idea of a cetacean sanctuary in the Ligurian Sea – later resulting in an international treaty amongst France, Italy and Monaco creating the Pelagos Sanctuary– that occurred to me when considering the overwhelming importance of that area for cetaceans, which had become obvious during a first set of sighting cruises across all Italian seas.
Tethys was ten years old when I felt forced to abandon the helm, having been called to lead a government marine research institute. That adventure now thankfully beyond my back, I have accepted to become again the president of Tethys. Challenges are greater than ever, however our little tree has now its roots solidly grounded in rock, thanks to a long list of people – former students, friends, colleagues – who have worked hard and competently during these 25 years. Most importantly, it is the work that Tethys does that is more needed than ever. The state of the Mediterranean marine environment is not getting any better. The human population across the coastal zone is increasing, habitat degradation is rampant, political will to do anything serious about it would be below zero if that were physically possible, and as a consequence the suffering of habitats and species is under everyone’s eyes. A long overdue re-awakening of the public opinion against this onslaught is sorely needed. When that will happen, Tethys will be there. It is so sweet to be home again.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara

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