Days ago we learned from the news that a team of marine biologists from the University of Haifa discovered a reef of deep-sea coral at a depth of 700 m, about 20 nautical miles west of Tel Aviv. This is not the first time that deep-sea coral, also known as “white coral” because of its colour, is found in the Mediterranean. Reefs mostly built by Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata were also found in the Gulf of Lion, in the Strait of Sicily, and in the Ionian, Adriatic and Aegean seas. White corals, as the name implies, are not the colourful constructions we are used to admire as they fringe islands and atolls in warm, shallow waters under a blazing tropical sun. However, just like their warm-climate relatives, reefs made by white corals are delicate, beautiful lace-like constructions which create in the dark and cold waters of the deep sea an ecosystem hosting a wealth of other marine species such as fishes, molluscs and crustaceans, in part still unknown to science. Although we are currently unable to enjoy the beauty of such deep ecosystems, inaccessible to all except the most specialised marine biologists, their ecological value is as high as that of tropical reefs. And they are perhaps even more vulnerable, because due to their fragility and extremely slow growth rate (some living deep-water corals are known to be at least 10,000 years old), once damaged it may take them centuries to rebuild. Unfortunately, even at the extreme depths they inhabit, white corals are not immune from the destructive potential of human activities.
One of these is fishing. To protect valuable and delicate Mediterranean deep-sea ecosystems from damage caused by the dragging of nets across the seafloor, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean has declared “Fisheries Restricted Areas” in a few locations, such as off Capo Santa Maria di Leuca (to the southeast of Italy), in an area off the Nile Delta in Egypt where the seepage of hydrothermal fluids from the sea bottom is creating conditions for unique species to survive, and on the extraordinary Eratosthenes Seamount: a huge (120×80 km) submerged massif rising 2000 m above the abyssal plain having the same name and peaking at a minimum depth of 690 m, where intriguing communities of rare marine critters are known to reside.
Fishing, however, is not the only danger to Mediterranean deep-sea ecosystems. Our civilisation’s insatiable hunger for oil is casting much darker clouds over our fragile marine environment, and an obsession for searching deep-sea oilfields has pervaded the Mediterranean people of late. Blasting explosive sound through contraptions called “airguns”, which are also known to displace sensitive animals like whales and dolphins from their habitat, surveying fleets are combing the Mediterranean as I write, in search for new oil deposits. Wherever a promising find is made, an oilrig is likely to be built in the near future, and if the location also happens to host a valuable ecosystem, that’s just too bad. Out of sight, out of mind, anyway.
As a consultant to the United Nations’ Mediterranean Action Plan’s recent initiative to draft the blueprint of a network of marine protected areas in the Mediterranean open seas, a few months ago I had the obvious demonstration that this is exactly what is happening. Based on an expert survey of the distribution of marine biodiversity hotspots in the Mediterranean, a list of 13 potential locations was drafted and submitted to the approval of the Mediterranean nations; and the Eratosthenes Seamount was of course one of them. All countries agreed on the list, except Cyprus. The Eratosthenes Seamount, they said, lies within Cypriot jurisdiction, and it is for them alone to decide what to do with it. In the end the Seamount was struck off the list, which now contains only 12 locations.
So if tomorrow we will see an oilrig rising from the sea 100 km south of the island where the legend says the goddess of beauty Aphrodite was born, we shall not be surprised. Unfortunately, we will be unable to know what was destroyed down there, 690 m under the waves, in the process. Nobody can now explore the Eratosthenes Seamount without Cyprus’ permission, and what critters dwell on its summit has become an impregnable national secret.