It was a lucky escape for the Mediterranean Monk seal (Monachus monachus). The pirogue was illegally fishing with purse seine nets inside the Costa de las Focas reserve, Mauritania - right beside an adult male.
The reserve patrol identified the vessel, sending photographs to the Coast Guard. Fortunately, the seal was unharmed but the fishers had to pay a penalty. “Thanks to training and the excellent relationship developed with the Coast Guards over the past few years as part of our broader effort, we are seeing positive results for the seals”, explains Pablo Fernandez de Larrinoa project coordinator with SOS grantee CBD-Habitat – an organisation monitoring the seals since 1997.
With 82 pup births, 2016 was another record year for the colony of Endangered Mediterranean Monk Seals living in the Costa de las Focas reserve. This smashed the previous records of 73 and 63 births set in 2015 and 2014 respectively. As the largest remaining colony of these marine mammals the colony’s health is critical to the species’ recovery prospects.
Such a trend is the fruit of continuous conservation efforts protecting the seals from land and marine-based human disturbance through education, training in monitoring fishing practices and consistent patrolling of the reserve which was created in 2001. The creation of the reserve protected the breeding caves and its surroundings.
Since then work focused on reducing human disturbances by demarcating the reserve on land and improving surveillance of the reserve in general. Most recently the project team dangled from abseiling ropes to install a new high definition camera to monitor activity in the main breeding cave for example. It also aimed to reduce the negative interactions between fishers and seals by encouraging local artisanal fishers to switch away from gill nets which could easily entangle seals. This was complemented by deploying trained observers on local fishing vessels to monitor fishing practices. Training provided to the Coast Guard and to these observers - employed by the Institut Mauritanien De Recherches Océanographiques Et De Pêches (IMROP) - developed skills but also the rapport so critical to ensuring ongoing relations and shared vision that helped penalise the pirogue in that lucky escape for the seal.
In general the future for the Mediterranean Monk Seal is brighter. It was down-listed (improving in conservation status) from Critically Endangered (CR) to Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ™ in 2015. This followed recent small increases in all subpopulations and a review of all data available including an earlier Red List assessment from 2008.
At Costa de las Focas, so too all the numbers are going in the right direction: seal numbers have increased from 109 individuals in 1997 to almost 300 animals in 2017. What is more in July 2017, the team counted the 1000th pup birth since it began working in the area. Meanwhile numbers of infractions and numbers of incidents with fishing gear are down fifteen and fifty percent respectively during the period of SOS funding.
But for the Costa de las Focas reserve population the future remains uncertain. The nearby city of Nouadhibou is growing fast which means more artisanal fishers and barnacle collectors along the coast as well as visitors to the bluff above the breeding caves. Without this ongoing vigilance and coordinated action, the seals’ prospects of recovery could diminish rapidly Pablo warns.
This story concerns just one of more than 250 threatened species supported by more than 100 projects in the SOS portfolio. Each one completed offers a wealth of practical lessons and insights into conservation action across numerous taxonomic groups and challenges. Explore the SOS project pages and sign up for the SOS newsletter to keep up to date on further news from our grantees and visit the Mediterranean Monk Seal project page here to learn more.