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Was Greek Fishing Helped or Hindered by Pandemic?


2 Greek Fisherman
Has the pandemic helped or hindered Greek fishing? Credit: Greek Reporter

Did the pandemic help or hinder Greek fishing? Experts offered their take with Greek Reporter on how fish populations and marine life are faring today after the coronavirus lockdowns.

One year ago, Greek scientists were noting a remarkable recovery of fish stocks and marine life as a whole, due to the lockdowns and restrictions imposed on fishing.

Thanasis Tsikliras, an Associate Professor of the Department of Biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, explained that that fishing had been severely curtailed as a result of the first few months of the pandemic. “It may have dropped by 60-70 percent in the last three months and in some areas it may have even reached 100 percent.”

A year later, Tsikliras says that “The reduction of pollution on a global level is impressive. In Greece we have notable improvements, observed in all ecosystems.”

He explains that pollutant measurements, done in real time, “show that chemical pollutants and marine trash were significantly reduced within a month.” He added “Greece will benefit in multiple ways from this.”

According to Tsilkliras the restrictive measures from Greece’s first lockdown in the spring of 2020 were responsible for a “great reduction in pressure on fishing reserves across all fishing activities, whether by professionals or amateurs.”

Marine life in Greece will see benefits for years to come

Although commercial fishing did not stop entirely during lockdown, the combination of reduced fishing, a ban on swimming and a ban on amateur fishing at the time “all ended up in zero fishing pressure on the coastal front as well,” said Tsikliras.

The biologist predicted that in a few years the biomass of marine life in the Greek seas, particularly fish, will rise steeply because of the absence of the usual mass harvesting of the resource — and even the size of the fish will be greater.

“Fish born today – except for anchovies and sardines, which are fished when they’re a year old – will be fished two or three years from now,” Tsikliras explains. This will greatly benefit commercial fishermen in the long run.

The unplanned fishing pause offered an unexpected research opportunity — one that could demonstrate a better, more sustainable way to manage the seas in the post-COVID-19 era.

Experts mostly agree that the slow down of human activity was simply one breath. The seas require a full oxygen tank in order to recover.

Scuba diver Pierre-Yves Cousteau, the youngest son of renowned oceanographer and explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, is a frequent visitor to the southeastern Aegean.

He has stated that the Aegean’s underwater landscape is like a stage in a wonderful theater. The set is unique with underwater caves, seagrass meadows, dramatic cliffs and an incredible clarity of water.

However, it is a theater without actors or an audience. Local fishermen complained to the oceanographer that “We got a sea full of fish from our parents but are delivering a desert to our children.”

The Mediterranean and the Aegean have been overfished for decades. As far back as 1975, the multilateral environmental agreement, as part of the Regional Seas Program of the United Nations Environment Program, UNEP, was created.

Mediterranean countries and the European Community approved the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP) as the institutional framework for cooperation in addressing common challenges of marine environmental degradation.

Under the auspices of UNEP/MAP, a framework convention dedicated to the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution was adopted in 1976 and amended two decades later to encompass the key concepts adopted at the landmark 1992 Rio Conference and to include coasts in its scope.

The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Coastal Region of the Mediterranean was adopted in the 1995 Barcelona Convention.

UNEP/MAP and the Contracting Parties to the Barcelona Convention – 21 Mediterranean countries and the European Union — have created a comprehensive institutional and legal framework integrating essential building blocks for sustainability in the Mediterranean.

Gaetono Leone, the recently retired coordinator of the UNEP/MAP program, told Greek Reporter “We do not need to advocate for a pandemic to improve marine environments. Human activity-and its impact on the seas thanks to the pause created by the pandemic slowed down the impact for a short while.

“It did not reverse the general trend and we still have great cause for concern.”

The Italian national has been based in Greece the past few years and Athens has served as host to the office of the General Secretariat. Leone says “Our research demonstrated that 78 percent of the fish stock in the Mediterranean is being removed beyond its capacity to reproduce.”

Greek coastlines are one third of the coastal environments that are part of UNEP/MAP. “We are the richest generation ever and yet we have also messed up the planet and mankind in the worst way,” states Leone.

“Integrating coastal management by considering the impact on local communities and ratifying into legislation the recommendations we have made, will reduce the damage,” Leone says.

One of the current recommendations to all coastal environments is that tourism development be carried out a 100-meter distance from the coastline. However, most seaside tavernas of the past and today practically have the tables in the water, and hotels have private rooms, pools and catering facilities that are also in extreme proximity to the water’s edge.

If the trend continues, the pristine seas that Greek tourism is selling are in jeopardy. “The shoreline will not remain beautiful with this type of development. It is not sustainable. Other countries such as Spain are already suffering because of the exploitation of pristine natural environments thanks to over ambitious development,” according to Leone.

“We have no enforcement capacity — the job of the UNEP/MAP is to make recommendations for successful integrated management of Mediterranean coastlines. But it is up to the individual governments to follow through on that guidance with mandates and resolutions,” says Leone.

Greece has been on board with reducing the carbon emissions of its marine traffic. This will help to slow down the trend of pollution but it will not reverse it completely.

There are several non-profits working to protect the Aegean’s marine life. They include the Cyclades Preservation Fund, CPF, All For the Blue and Enaleia.

“I got more and more worried about the scarcity of fish and the increase of plastic,” said Lefteris Arapakis, the Greek who was named Young Champions of the Earth in 2020 by UNEP.

He saw greater amounts of plastic turning up in the nets when he fished. And because no other option was evident it was dumped back into the water.  “I was deeply concerned that my father, and now my brothers, could not make a living out of this job, which is what they learned to do and what they love to do.”

The revelation led Arapakis to found Greece’s first professional fishing school, Enaleia, which translates as “fishing together,” in 2016. Its mandates are to teach fishermen to ply their trade in a more eco-friendly manner and enlist the help of the seafaring community to scour the Mediterranean for discarded plastic.

Arapakis​, 26, is one of seven young scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and activists from across the globe honored as a champion by UNEP. With solutions to harvest water from the air, recycle plastic into paving slabs, and motivate fishermen to haul tons of plastic out of the ocean, these changemakers show how innovative ideas coupled with ambitious action can help solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges.

Arapakis comes from a long line of Piraeus fishermen​. For five generations, his family has plied the bountiful waters off southern Greece, netting the same cod and red mullet that have sustained Greeks for millennia. But in recent years, overfishing and pollution, especially discarded plastic, have hammered Greece’s fisheries, with catches in the Mediterranean Sea falling by as much as 34 percent in the last 50 years. Out at sea​, he noticed many boats around Piraeus hauling in nets filled with rubbish, instead of fish.

Since its launch the organization has collected more than 80 tons of plastic from the sea. “We teach students not just how to fish, but also how to fish so fish can exist tomorrow,” said Arapakis.

With this initiative fishermen remove around 20 tons of plastic from the sea each month. Initially Arapakis and his team stored the plastic at recycling facilities at the port, but the increasing volumes motivated them to create an innovative partnership with Healthy Seas, an organization based in the Netherlands that upcycles fishing nets, one of the most frequent “catches” from the plastic bounty. Healthy Seas then repurposes the plastic into carpets, socks, masks and other consumer products, calling it “waste to wear.”

Enaleia now works with more than 700 fishermen and operates in 12 Greek ports as well as Rimini in Italy.

Arapakis, who has a degree in economics and management from the Athens University of Economics and Business, said the plastic pollution in the fishing areas of the Argosaronikos gulf “has been significantly reduced.”

“The fishermen are saving the seas from plastic,” he add​ed. The spread of COVID-19 dealt a temporary blow to Enaleia earlier this year. During the first lockdown in Greece in March and April​, many of their sponsorship contracts were cancelled. However, Enaleia adapted to the pandemic and managed to increase the plastic collected from the sea. Once the pandemic passes, Arapakis hopes to expand Enaleia’s work to other seafaring countries.

“We want to empower every fisherman to catch plastic and then bring it back to the port and upcycle it. That would create a huge global impact.” While the tide of marine plastic continues to grow, Arapakis is optimistic about the future. “I think there is a lot of awareness from our generation about plastic pollution and other environmental challenges. Awareness that I don’t think has existed on such a wide scale for decades.”

Protecting the sea and the fishermen in the Cyclades islands is a priority for CPF, a UK registered charity. In cooperation with local communities and experts, CPF supports a range of activities designed to promote sustainable fisheries and to combat alien species that harm the native species and threaten the delicate balance of the marine ecosystem in general.

According to Anni Mitropoulou, local fund director for CPF,  “The Cyclades Conservation fund has three areas they have focused on when it comes to sustainable marine environments in the Aegean. Fishing Smarter, Pick Your Fish and Amorgorama are three programs we promote to protect fish populations in the Aegean.”

“Fish Smarter is a proven solution that offers fishermen an alternative source of income while still using the tools and equipment they have for fishing. By capitalizing on authentic and unique experiences for visitors to Greece, fisherman are trained to demonstrate their trade. Fishing tourism is a business that can be supplemented by the government, keeps the seaman out on the water by generating an income through education and experience to curious visitors. The non-profit is working with the guidance and expertise of Enaleia, in partnership with the Costas M. Lemos Foundation, we are helping to create an alternative source of income for fishermen and simultaneously fight against overfishing.”

One method introduce years ago to halt overfishing was to stop fishermen from fishing altogether. The European union still offers a hefty subsidy to professional fishermen with wooden fishing boats, known as the kaiki, to have the vessels destroyed. Smart fishing, by promoting fishing tourism can put a halt to this practice of destroying a family’s nautical legacy, and at the same time continue to provide for an income for the family.

Mitropoulou told Greek Reporter “Fighting alien invasive species through responsible gastronomy is a second target for sustaining fishing stocks in the Aegean. Alien species are considered as a paramount threat for marine ecosystems, local economy and human health, worldwide.

To date, Greece has more than 300 recorded marine alien species.  But fisheries avoid targeting alien species since their market value is minimal, and thus the additional effort necessary to catch them is increased. However there is a constant increase of the proportion of alien species caught, compared the native species catches.

Consumption of alien species in other countries is quite widespread with a high market value for a variety of species. Cyprus is such an example, where the Spinefoot fish average $15 per pound. In Greece the Spinefoot is discarded as an unwanted catch.

“Our new partner, iSEA through the campaign Pick the Alien, promotes the consumption of specific alien species and introduce them in stores and restaurants, starting with the local market of Santorini.” Lionfish and the Germanos are two species that are also being promoted.

“Responsible fish consumption, however, is a daily habit that we must all incorporate into our lives. Choosing sustainable seafood means fish are harvested to contribute towards the protection of the seas,” she added.

“The third program we are encouraging to sustain fishing stock through our organization is ‘Amorgorama,’ a goal for the fishermen of Amorgos is to not fish at all in April and May and to focus on collecting garbage from the northern beaches with Kaikia and other vessels. Potential partnerships and sponsorships use the local community, the international community and finding resources from both European / Greek programs, but mainly from crowdfunding.”

Amorgorama is a sustainable approach to cope with the problems of increasing plastic pollution along the coasts as well as the overfishing in the Aegean Sea.

“In order to give the shoals time for regeneration, the fishermen do not want to fish in April and May. In these months, most fish species reproduce.  But fishermen need to work. They do not have the luxury of taking these two months off.

“Subsidies for both the collection of plastic pollution and or the refurbishing of their vessels is one way to encourage a fishing pause for the two months.”

Mitropoulou said she hopes that “Amorgorama becomes ‘Cycladorama’ as the program spreads to islands though out the Aegean. The solution will come from the fishermen themselves, adopting a mindset of a fishing pause to sustain their future, as well as the government offering them subsidies to be able to survive.”

All For Blue is a Greek non-profit organization with global actions whose mission is to protect the seas and oceans through education and experiential cleanup actions. Ocean conservation seminars, aim to educate future generations about the balance of marine ecosystem, to provide ways to avoid single use plastics and to tell the truth about what is really happening in the oceans.

Founder Katerina Topozoglou told Greek Reporter “With beach and underwater clean-ups, we instruct participants how to organize a cleanup, act as a team and raise awareness.”

In the fall All For the Blue headed to Kinarou to visit the lone inhabitant Kyria Reenie. You can see the video of the work they did here.

Topozoglou said that although the lockdowns limited human interaction with the seascape underwater garbage is even worse than before. She said the now added to the top 10 sea debris items, pandemic pollution-masks and wet wipes-rank number eight. She said it requires more than just a tiny break from activity but a mental shift from how humans have abused the waters of the world to how they can heal them.

The aqua-activist has had an interesting journey to All For the Blue. She went from model to scuba diver to spearfishing champion to diving with sharks and now works to protect the sea from human pollution so that marine life can live well again.

Climafish is a three year study that ended in March. The focus of the project was to consider the impact of climate change on small pelagic fish. Climafish is funded by the General Secretariat for Research and Technology, GSRT and the Hellenic Center for Marine Research, HCMR.

Eudoxia Schismenou served as scientific coordinator of the Hellenic Center’s project, which ran for 32 months. Schismenou said that the ultimate goal is to develop a model to be used to study the fluctuations of anchovy, sardine and additional pelagic species in different Mediterranean and Atlantic ecosystems, with the aim of comparatively studying the effects of climate change. populations and improving fisheries management.

Commenting on how Covid-19 lockdowns affected the research she said that there may have been a slight impact because a year of the total study was completed during a year long period of lockdowns.

The professor said the composite model will provide a powerful, highly innovative tool and will be used for identifying drivers of population variability, understanding the response of the pelagic ecosystem to climatic variability and for testing alternative management scenarios for the sustainable exploitation of the resources.

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