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Are the Mediterranean common dolphins making a comeback?

Common dolphins in the Ionian Sea

Dolphins inhabiting the coastal waters of Greece are facing significant threats. Some populations must deal with increasing human encroachment, while others have disappeared altogether from portions of their former range.Once one of the most abundant cetacean species in the Mediterranean Sea, common dolphins, have declined throughout the region since the 1960s. In 2003 their Mediterranean population was classified as Endangered in the IUCN Red List and in 2006 they have were included on Appendix I and II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (Bonn Convention – CMS). The causes of their generalised decline include prey depletion by overfishing and incidental mortality in fishing gear. Detailed findings suggest that competition between dolphins and fisheries in this coastal area has minor effects on fisheries. Conversely, prey depletion resulting from overfishing can negatively affect cetaceans, common dolphins in particular.

Friends from the Ionian Dolphin Project however have reported a sighting during their first survey of 2013 that is sure to warm the cockles of any hardened heart – a pod of 7 common dolphins. On the surface, this might not seem all that dramatic but let me take you a little deeper into the history and you’re sure to share their happiness and possibly do a wee jump for joy. 

In 1991 the Tethys Research Institute (by way of the Ionian Dolphin Project) began a study in the coastal waters off of Greece in the Mediterranean Sea. Initially, they intended it to be a long-term investigation on the ecology and behaviour of common dolphins in what was then a central Mediterranean hotspot. Sadly, the study instead became a documentation of their sharp decline.

They were to bear painful witness to a dramatic decline of common dolphins in the area, from approximately 150 to 15 animals in just over 10 years. Since then, few sightings have been reported. You’ll surely agree therefore, that after encountering a healthy pod of 7 individuals (on the first day of their season out on the water) they weren’t lying when they declared they’d “hit the jackpot”.

The decline of common dolphins in the area has been convincingly linked to overfishing and specific fisheries management solutions have been advocated yet to date, not implemented. It would seem therefore, that not only does Greece have to sort out its economy, but five years after the establishment of 27 management agencies for 61 Natura 2000 sites (areas of importance protected through EU legislation), and two years after the definition of 359 Greek Sites of Community Importance, there is a clear need to move from a facade of conservation commitment to effective implementation of conservation actions if the common dolphin and others, are to survive.