Mediterranean monk seals nurse their young on open beaches and seabirds nest in burrows; on the inaccessible rocks. Lush Posidonia meadows under the surface of the sea, where the sunlight is lost in the endless blue, and even deeper coral formations, shape underwater seascapes of unique environmental value and unparalleled beauty. This is Gyaros. A place of history, memory, and unbelievable natural wealth. An island of exile in the past, now it is an oasis of life.
For all these reasons, in 2011 Gyaros was included in the Natura 2000 of protected areas ; but unfortunately, the rest of the story was not ideal. Like so many other sites that are part of the Natura 2000 network in Greece, Gyaros did not have an effective and legally binding framework of measures to protect its natural wealth. Specific regulations were absent regarding destructive human activities , , such as: trawlers fishing, the main threat to coral formations (tragana), or on anchoring of vessels, which can cause irreversible damage to the posidonia meadows, home to many species of fish.
Apart from damaging invaluable meadows and tragana, however, unregulated and illegal fishing activities and plastic pollution are also important threats to the endangered Mediterranean monk seal. Especially in areas near their breeding caves, where the seal pups learn how to swim, ghost nets can become death traps.
Working together for the protection of Gyaros
The Co-management Committee of Gyaros was created as a participatory and dialogue scheme, aiming to jointly develop, based on an ecosystem approach, holistic and integrated conservation measures for the protection of Gyaros natural environment while in parallel promote the sustainable development of the wider area. It took unanimous decisions and held open and transparent meetings. It consisted of the Ministries of Environment and Energy, Culture and Sports, Mercantile Marine and Island Policy, the Region of the South Aegean, and the Decentralised Administration of the Aegean, the Municipalities of Ermoupoli-Syros and Andros, the professional coastal fishermen of Syros and Andros, the Development Agency of the Cyclades and the Cyclades Chamber, the Museum of Natural History of Crete, the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, and the NGOs MOm/Hellenic Society for the Study & Protection of the Monk Seal and WWF Greece. With a common vision for the island of Gyaros, it managed to achieve its purpose and formulated a joint proposal for the protection of Gyaros. A large part of this proposal became reality with the issuance of the Ministerial Decision by the Ministry of Energy in the summer of 2019, that estalished Gyaros as the first marine protected area in the Cyclades.
Our goal, through our actions on a national and Mediterranean level, is to practically and effectively protect marine areas such as Gyaros, which are home to important species and habitats. Only 1.27% of the Mediterranean is covered by protected marine areas that are effectively managed and actively implement conservation measures. In Greece, although 20% of the sea is part of the Natura 2000 European network, only three officially established marine protected areas have a specific and legally binding zoning system, with specific regulations on human activities (e.g. fisheries, sea traffic, and tourism), and active management.
Therefore, in Gyaros we shaped a common vision together with the local communities of Andros and Syros, aiming at creating a model marine protected area, which will operate effectively to benefit both nature and people. Together with the responsible authorities and the key stakeholders and through an inclusive process, we decided on the measures and actions that will be implemented on the island that will effectively protect its natural wealth, and support sustainable development of the wider region, and, naturally, of local fisheries.
Among other interventions, a pioneering surveillance system was installed at the peak of Gyaros, monitoring the activities of vessels, aiming to reduce illegal activities. We created a network of diving paths, where visitors can enjoy the underwater seascape, with respect for marine species , while we increased the awareness and appreciation of the value of the natural environment of Gyaros through a variety of educational and training activities on Syros and Andros, and we promoted a different model of development towards sustainability .
The most pivotal milestone, however, came in 2019, when Gyaros was established as a Marine Protected Area and the measures that had been proposed were adopted by the Greek state.
Presently, scientists from a variety of fields collect data on fish populations within and beyond the island’s marine protected area. The surveillance system is still active and we continue to monitor the marine area of Gyaros in close cooperation with the Syros Coast Guard. We implement informational actions on Syros, visits to Gyaros, and, together with our specialised partners, we create opportunities to train professionals in developing low impact activities to contribute in the sustainable development and the wellbeing of the local societies.
As an environmental organisation, we are at the forefront, ensuring that our seas will remain healthy, and we steadily continue with targeted political interventions – on a Mediterranean and national level – to effectively protect the important species and habitats of our seas.
Without your support, we cannot continue to defend our precious natural environment and ensure a healthy future for humanity and the planet. Join us now!