Overfishing Leaves Much of Mediterranean a Dead Sea, Study Finds

Centuries of overexploitation of fish and other marine resources — as well as invasion of fish from the Red Sea — have turned some formerly healthy ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea into barren places, the National Geographic Society said in a news release.

Citing research by an international team of scientists designed to measure the impact of marine reserves, National Geographic said that the study found that the healthiest places in the Mediterranean were in well-enforced marine reserves. “Fish biomass there had recovered from overfishing to levels five to 10 times greater than that of fished areas. However, marine ‘protected’ areas where some types of fishing are allowed did not do better than sites that were completely unprotected. This suggests that full recovery of Mediterranean marine life requires fully protected reserves,” the Society’s news release added.

The research was published in the February 29 issue of the journal PLoS ONE.


Fish abound in Spain’s Medes Islands Marine Reserve in the Mediterranean Sea. Unprecedented new research turned up healthy ecosystems in well-enforced marine reserves across the Mediterranean. The research was led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala. Photo by Enric Sala ©2012 National Geographic.


“We found a huge gradient, an enormous contrast. In reserves off Spain and Italy, we found the largest fish biomass in the Mediterranean,” said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, the paper’s lead author. “Unfortunately, around Turkey and Greece, the waters were bare.”

According to the National Geographic statement, the researchers made hundreds of dives over three years off Morocco, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey, setting up transects to count fish and take samples of plants and animals living on the seafloor in 14 marine protected areas and 18 open-access sites. “The result is information on the Mediterranean at an unprecedented scale,” National Geographic said.

“While the level of protection was the most important factor in determining the biomass of fish, the health of the algal forests that support the fish depended on other factors, the authors write. Recovery of formerly abundant algal forests takes longer than recovery of fish. ‘It’s like protecting a piece of land where the birds come back faster than the old trees,’” Sala said.

The study provides the first baseline that allows evaluation of the health of any Mediterranean site at the ecosystem level — not only its fish but the entire ecological community, National Geographic said. “The trajectory of degradation and recovery found by the authors allows for evaluation of the efficacy of conservation at the ecosystem level for the first time.”

Sala believes the results about fully protected marine reserves give reason for hope in waters well beyond the Mediterranean. “If marine reserves have worked so well in the Mediterranean, they can work anywhere,” he said.

Often called the “cradle of civilization,” the Mediterranean is home to nearly 130 million people living on its shores, and its resources support countless millions more, National Geographic added. “A variety of pressures keep the organisms that live in the sea in a permanent state of stress.”

Death by a Thousand Cuts

“It’s death by a thousand cuts,” said Enric Ballesteros of Spain’s National Research Council and coauthor of the study. Among them are overexploitation, destruction of habitat, contamination, a rise in sea surface temperatures due to climate change and more than 600 invasive species. On the southwest coast of Turkey, for example, an invasive fish from the Red Sea called the dusky spinefoot has left Gokova Bay’s rock reefs empty.

A series of marine reserves that shelter slivers of the sea allows certain ecosystems to recover and their all-important predators to eventually reappear. “The protection of the marine ecosystems is a necessity as well as a ‘business’ in which everyone wins,” Sala said. “The reserves act as savings accounts, with capital that is not yet spent and an interest yield we can live off. In Spain’s Medes Islands Marine Reserve, for example, a reserve of barely one square kilometer can generate jobs and a tourism revenue of 10 million euros, a sum 20 times larger than earnings from fishing.”

“Without marine reserves, fishing has no future,” said fisherman Miquel Sacanell, who fishes near the Medes reserve.

The research was supported by Spain’s National Research Council, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Oak Foundation, the Lenfest Ocean Program and the National Geographic Society.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Terry Mock

    Developing a Sustainable Oregon Coast

    The southern coast of Oregon is a rare place on earth, where beautiful wild & scenic rivers tumble down through steep canyons, and the tallest and largest carbon-sequestering forests in the world on their way to a rocky coastline with wide stretches of sandy beach, before pouring out into the mighty Pacific ocean. Along the rugged coast are picturesque working ports, made of hillside homes, small waterfront cafe’s, vibrant art communities, and more parks per mile than anywhere in the USA.

    The Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT) has a mission to engage Port Orford fishers and other community members in developing and implementing a Port Orford Community Stewardship Area Plan that ensures the long-term sustainability of the Port Orford reef ecosystem and social system dependent on it. The Redfish Rocks area south of Port Orford has been designated a pilot marine reserve and a broader area of some 30 miles in length along the southern Oregon coast forming a unique 935-square-mile land and sea stewardship area is to protect terrestrial, freshwater, intertidal and ocean reserves. This model sustainability initiative is a new approach to planning that can help to achieve community sustainability.

  • […] Lastest Sea News Overfishing Leaves Much of Mediterranean a Dead Sea, Study Finds Some waters off Turkey explored by an international team of scientists were found to be empty of sea life. The research team made hundreds of dives in the Mediterranean off Morocco, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey. Photo by Murat Draman. Read more on National Geographic […]

  • […] According to the researchers, the major threats against the ecosystems of the Meditteranean are overexploitation of fish and other resources, destruction of habitat, contamination, a rise in sea surface temperatures due to climate change and more than 600 invasive species.On the southwest coast of Turkey, for example, an invasive fish from the Red Sea called the dusky spinefoot has left Gokova Bay’s rock reefs empty. http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/03/02/overfishing-leaves-much-of-mediterranean-a-dead-s… […]

  • Chris

    It’s amazing how uch the Turks ruin everything they get their hands on.. After living there for over a year it was evidenced thet they care nothing about the enviornment, planet or each other. I have never met a more selfish people. They don’t deserve that beautiful country, or the surrounding seas.

  • guodengfei

    Chinese situation is bad,but but the government even don’t overlook this question.

  • […] Overfishing Leaves Much of Mediterranean a Dead Sea (National Geographic) […]

  • […] An international team of scientists designed to measure the impact of marine reserves found that the healthiest places in the Mediterranean were in well-enforced marine reserves and centuries of over exploitation of fish, marine resources, and the invasion of Red Sea fish have turned many other areas into barren places. Reserves off Spain and Italy were found to have the largest fish biomass in the Mediterranean and areas around Turkey and Greece were bare. Read more at nationalgeographic.com […]

  • Freddy

    Give a man a fish and he eats for a day.
    Teach a man to fish and he rapes the ecosystem and he overpopulates his world and destroys what could have been managed and preserved for generations.

  • Juliette

    It is not a matter of finger pointing, or pushing the problem onto someone else. It is human kind’s job to protect the ecosystem and regulate our available resources. We all need to stop pretending we are all individuals. We are all human and we are all responsible. Yes, including you.

  • Kirk Clark

    The obvious issue is overpopulation.

  • Steven W Smeltzer

    Great article that demonstrates the power of effective management of our resources and equally the consequence of not paying attention to our ocean resources.

    I have begun a series of articles on “What Are Coral Reefs” including threats to these reefs. I will certainly add a link to the articles and include in resources. I will be interested in follow ups to this initial baseline.

  • […] Segons la nota publicada per National Geographic: […]

  • […] They extended an earlier pledge to restore overfished species – including the 80 percent that are overexploited in the Mediterranean – pushing their theoretical recovery date back from 2015 to 2020 despite efforts by Oceana and […]

  • Steven Smeltzer

    I am going to be doing an assessment and review of the reef rebuilding project in Bali Indonesia at the first of 2013. Has anyone looked at the potential of employing similar techniques for the reefs off of Greece or other threatened areas of the Mediterranean? I am looking to potentially start a small test project in Haiti and would be interested in the efficacy of the Indonesian approach in other environments.

    Link to the Indonesian site:
    related video:


  • Kyle

    Check out tsrproject.org they are trying to start their project to save the predators of the ocean! They are based in America, but it looks like they will have the largest impact in the Mediterranean Sea!

  • […] become a common theme causing me to wonder if the Mediterranean has been fished out. Tragic to read this.  What kind of a world are we leaving to our […]

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