The Mediterranean, a ground zero for dialogue between progress and the environment

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These are the drawbacks of having a sea that is geographically almost closed, but historically open to all cultures: it is the first to benefit from progress, but also the first to suffer setbacks.

In recent decades, the millennia-long dialogue with the Mediterranean has turned its back on a natural environment that is struggling to stop being a dumping ground and return to being a garden of civilisations. The bad news is that its degradation is accelerating in the wake of the climate crisis. The good news is that all the alarm bells have gone off and there are many initiatives committed to reversing the situation.

A plastic sea

Every year some 229,000 tonnes of plastic are dumped into the Mediterranean, the equivalent of more than 500 containers of non-recyclable rubbish a day, degrading into the dreaded microplastics that end up in the stomachs of fish and even in our blood and urine. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), at the current rate this figure could double by 2040 if urgent action is not taken. And so far, more than one million tonnes have already been accumulated, poisoning its waters.

These are some of the worrying conclusions of the report "Mare Plasticum: The Mediterranean", produced by the IUCN after analysing the discharges of the 33 countries of the Mediterranean basin. To this environmental disaster must be added the chemical pollution caused by large coastal industrial centres, oil spills such as the one recently suffered in Gibraltar, the immense quantities of untreated sewage dumped from many of its overpopulated coastal cities, an unsustainable fishing pressure and the growing impact of climate change that is leading to the boiling of its waters.

This is the only way to understand why the Mediterranean Sea, the Mare Nostrum, the cradle of the West's main civilisations, is now a Mare Mortum, an almost dead, dying sea. Its suffering is also that of its 500 million inhabitants. And that of a rich biodiversity that after millions of years of fruitful evolution is facing the slow but inexorable extinction of its most emblematic species such as the monk seal, the nacre or the once great posidonia meadows.

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How such a negative scenario could have come about?

The degradation of the large marine ecosystem is the result of a very complex combination. It is affected by the high population densities increasingly concentrated on the coast, inefficient waste management spurred by the spread of the linear throwaway economy, industrialisation and urbanisation of the coast, high tourist inflow, growth of strategic commercial shipping and increased consumption.

Future trends point to an even more dramatic scenario. The Mediterranean region is facing a 'blue gold rush' that includes the expansion of wind farms, extraction of the last oil and gas reserves, reinforcement of local industry in the face of the crisis of the offshore economy, and an increase in shipping routes and mass tourism.

And all this in a climate crisis scenario where sea temperatures are rising 20% faster than the average for the rest of the oceans in what is already tropicalisation. Climate change is also causing sea levels to rise, resulting in the loss of beaches and the consequent economic damage given the importance of these leisure areas for tourism. It is also behind the advance of invasive species such as zebra mussels, apple snails and blue crabs, which, in addition to their serious environmental impact, cause millions of dollars in losses to coastal economies.

Too little fishing and too many fishermen

Fishing is one of the main bio-indicators of the health of a marine ecosystem. There are 225,000 professional fishermen in the Mediterranean and Black Sea, more than half of them working as artisanal fishermen, and the so-called "blue economy" employs an estimated 785,000 people. But there are fewer and fewer fish to catch. According to the SoMFi report, produced by the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean (GFCM), all Mediterranean fisheries are suffering from worrying overfishing.

But it is not all bad news. After decades of unsustainable fishing, international concern and increased controls are beginning to take effect. According to the State of Mediterranean and Black Sea Fisheries (SoMFi 2020) report, although 75% of fish stocks are still overfished, this percentage has decreased by more than 10% between 2014 and 2018. And the relative biomass has doubled since the last edition was published in 2018.

This is the case for bluefin tuna, whose stocks have managed to recover after decades of overfishing. Or European hake. But other species are not in the same situation. Like the swordfish, on the verge of collapse as it is caught twice as much as recommended by the scientific community and there is barely 30% of the population that existed 30 years ago in the Mediterranean.

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Nature-based solutions

Against a negative backdrop, IUCN is developing numerous environmental improvement projects in the Mediterranean through nature-based solutions. Focusing especially on coastal ecosystems such as marshes, dunes, beaches and salt marshes, it promotes actions to protect, manage and restore them in an effective and adaptive way, thus benefiting people and nature.

Mediterranean wetlands and their environments, while being the most affected by this crisis, are the best and most natural tool to mitigate and adapt to this new scenario, say the scientists. Starting with them, it is possible to recover the lost dialogue between nature and humans born in the Mediterranean, which is now facing such gigantic challenges as climate change, disaster risk reduction, food and water security, biodiversity loss, human health and the promotion of sustainable economic development.