Holding Water

Vast meadows of posidonia seagrass carpet the floor of the Mediterranean, the clumps of long green leaves creating an ecosystem which provides shelter for spawning fish and their babies, produces oxygen and slows coastal erosion. But the Mediterranean’s posidonia is being choked to death by an invasive tropical green alga and suffering from heavy pollution. A crucial bioindicator, the plant reveals the sea’s health by its growth or decline.

‘It’s under threat and we need to monitor its evolution and know if the meadows are shrinking,’ says marine expert Chedly Rais. But there’s a problem: ‘Skilled people with the specific techniques for measuring this bioindicator are lacking in countries like France, Spain and Italy’.

Rais is the president of Okianos, a company he founded in December 2005 in his native Tunisia. After years working with the Tunisian marine research institute and the United Nations Environmental Programme in the city of Tunis, he saw a clear need for training in the marine environment field, with many areas of the Mediterranean lacking scientific data and the means to collect them.

So he set up Okianos to train researchers and the general public, developing training programs and environmental education for schools.

Modules taught by experts from around the Mediterranean basin are held in Tabarka, on the northwest coast of Tunisia. Professional programs include topics like Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Mapping of Biotypes, while for schoolchildren there’s a weekend course on aquariums.

‘We teach them how to build an aquarium, how it works, the plants, the fish. And through this exercise we try and give them an environmental message, for example about paying attention to water quality,’ says Rais.

He’s also designed a one-week program for 15- and 16-year-olds, who come mainly from Marseilles in the south of France to Tunisia to study the sea, with practical classes on how to measure the salinity of water and how to tell the ages of fish as well as the chance to interact with the local Tunisian children.

Rais was in Genoa a few weeks ago to attend Slow Fish 2007 and participate in two Water Workshops there on marine legislation. He was impressed with the activities for children, and hopes to encourage more similar programs in Tunisia.

‘It was fantastic,’ he says, referring to areas like Fish Tales, where schoolchildren could learn about less-popular fish like gray mullet and horse mackerel. ‘The most important work needs to be done with children. If we have environmentally educated children, future work to conserve resources will be very easy.’

But for now, there’s much to be done. Rais says the most visible problem in the Mediterranean is overfishing, and that the invasion of foreign species and unregulated use of coastal zones are also critical. However according to him, the most serious issue is organic pollution.

‘Thousands of tons of sewage is dumped into the sea,’ he explains. ‘Even if it’s treated, it still contains many nutrients, and acts as a fertilizer. This is not good. This is a bombe à retardement, a time bomb.’ These fertilizers upset the balance of the ecosystem and create havoc, favoring the development of just one or two species, creating more biomass but reducing biodiversity.

‘We have no idea how to fertilize in the sea,’ he says. ‘On land we can do it because there are monocultures. But in the sea you affect the whole system.’

What can individuals do about this problem? First of all, says Rais, if you have a boat never discharge organic waste into the water. People can also put pressure on decision-makers to discourage dumping and make sure that sewage is adequately processed. ‘These treatment plants are run by government authorities,’ said Rais. ‘So who will monitor them?’

Consumers can also help save the Mediterranean’s rich biodiversity and complex ecosystem by boycotting fish that’s sold under its regulated size. ‘If the fishermen can’t sell these fish, they will not even try to catch them,’ he says.

Closer adherence to fishing regulations and the importance of the individual choices of consumers are a key part of Slow Food’s Mangiamoli giusti (Fare’s Fair) campaign, launched at Slow Fish.

Rais emphasizes that the most important thing is to avoid buying fish which are small for their type: ‘Before disappearing the fish will get smaller and smaller. So if you refrain from purchasing small fish you can stop overexploitation.’

Rais says he would have liked to see more participation from the countries along the south of the Mediterranean at Slow Fish. ‘There’s great potential to help them improve the quality of their products and conserve resources,’ he reckons.

‘I will show my country’s people my photos and tell them about the protected marine areas and the high-quality products like Monterosso anchovies.’

Rais was also inspired by the presidia and food communities he met from all over the world: ‘When I get back to Tunisia I want to try and build a Slow Food fishing community there’.

Carla Ranicki, UK/USA is a young journalist who has collaborated with the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy

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