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The Mediterranean sea of plastic

Plastic packaging and discarded fishing nets bob in the tranquil waters of the Mediterranean, signs of the choking pollution that stirred strong feelings at the world conservation congress in the French port city Marseille last week. 

“The Mediterranean is the most beautiful sea in the world … and one of the most polluted,” said Danielle Milon, vice-president of the Calanques National Park on the edge of the city, where the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) held its congress. 

Although the quantity of rubbish in the sea is well documented — the IUCN released a report last year entitled Mare Plasticum — it is driving alarm among countries whose economies rely on tourists

At the opening of the IUCN congress, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to greatly increase the size of conservation areas off their Mediterranean coasts. “Marine protected areas must no longer be paper parks but must have defined conservation measures,” Mitsotakis said. “We must promote sustainable tourism [and] put biodiversity at the heart of tourist coastal planning.”

The main types of plastic pollution in the almost closed sea are packaging and fishing debris, said Francois Galgani, of Ifremer, a top marine research centre in France.

“Turtles confuse the packaging with jellyfish and in some areas in the Mediterranean 80% of turtles have ingested plastic,” he said. 

And nets can kill long after the fishing boats leave them behind. Plastic waste can alter life cycles and the floating debris can transport some species far from their habitats. “A Noah’s ark”, said Galgani, adding that there are “no other examples of species transport of this magnitude”. 

To change the situation, everyone needs to play their part, said Philippos Drousiotis, head of the Cyprus sustainable tourism initiative. “I was in the tourism trade and very much liked the idea of being sustainable [but] environmentalists didn’t care about people,” he said, adding that he was driven by economic realism. 

With initiatives such as the “keep our sand and sea plastic free” project, his organisation tries to steer tour organisers, boat rental firms and hotels to stop using single use plastics. It has also installed fountains on beaches to make it easier for holidaymakers to not use plastic bottles.

“The solutions are on land and not at sea,” said Romy Hentinger, of the Tara Ocean Foundation.

It is also necessary to increase knowledge of the sources of pollution and how it circulates. The Tara Oceans schooner led an expedition in 2019 to trace plastic pollution in the major European rivers. 

Nathalie van den Broeck, oceanographer and vice-president of Surfrider Europe, said “80% of waste on beaches and in the seas comes from rivers”. 

The French NGO has also launched a study using artificial intelligence to find waste in images taken on mobile phones by citizen scientists. Volunteers have travelled along the Rhine, which crosses six countries. Mercedes Munoz Canas, of the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation, wants to bring in business interests. “We must build a community,” she said. — AFP

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