By Shaun Hurrell,
Once thought locally extinct in Lebanon, immediate action was taken by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon for the conservation of this Endangered species when a pregnant female was found dead.
In March 2015, a seal was found dead trapped in fishing nets on the coast of Beirut, Lebanon. When post-mortem confirmed that seal was pregnant, this was a saddening event on its own. But a group of conservationists were further compelled to action when they realised this was a Mediterranean Monk Seal – believed to be the world’s rarest species of pinniped (seals, sealions and walruses).
With an estimated population of less than 450 mature individuals, this Endangered species was once thought to be locally extinct in Lebanon – for the last five decades there have been only occasional sightings, including those as deaths or bycatch.
For conservationists in Lebanon, this was as exciting news as it was sad, as Monk Seal could still be breeding in a coastal cave, and providing an opportunity to protect the species and its remaining habitats. The fact that this female was pregnant suggested that another seal might be still present along the coast, and this was confirmed few days later sighted by few fishermen.
On hearing the recent tragic news, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) in the Mediterranean quickly granted emergency funding to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL; BirdLife Partner) to carry out a thorough identification of the remaining Mediterranean Monk Seal habitat in Lebanon, to investigate new threats and to work with local communities including fishermen to protect them.
The Mediterranean Monk Seal was formerly found throughout the Mediterranean Sea, Black Sea and northwest African coast, but its population has declined rapidly since the 1970s most probably due to disturbance, degradation of habitat, hunting, killing by fishermen who see them as pests, bycatch, plus a lack of awareness and other causes that need to be explored and identified.
The first step in the project: to fully understand the status of Monk Seals in Lebanon. SPNL has started talking to fishermen and divers whilst building a bank of data to compensate for the current absence of surveys and scientific studies to find out where they are, how many, and what threatens them.
SPNL have identified that there may be new threats such as the consumption of alien invasive poisonous fish Lagocephalus sceleratus, illegal fish blasting near caves and repetitive oil spill incidents.
Next, a conservation action plan for the species is crucial. SPNL is developing a Mediterranean working group for the Monk Seal including key range states and stakeholders where seal conservation lessons from other countries have already been learnt and can be shared.
Finally, understanding and raising awareness is key. Interviews have been initiated with the fishing community and divers to communicate the importance of Monk Seal conservation.
Due to fisherman-seal conflict, whereby fishermen accuse seals of ‘eating their fish and destroying their fishing gear’, the prohibition of fishing in sensitive areas for Monk Seals is one early response – but not a last resort.
For the last decade, SPNL have been reviving an ancient tradition of sustainable protected area management that rings well with local people: the Hima revival. So SPNL hopes that once coastal sites and islands important for the seals are officially identified, they can ensure their protection through designation as Marine Hima which will be supported and cared for by local people.
In the future, CEPF and SPNL wants to ensure the sustainability of Monk Seals and their conservation in Lebanon.
“The presence of this animal alive along the coast of Lebanon constitutes a unique natural heritage, and could be very interesting from a sustainable tourism point of view,” says Bassima Khatib, SPNL.
“Similarly to how we reduced the persecution of owls which were perceived to bring bad luck, we want fishermen to understand that Monk Seals are a good omen on the coast.”
Mediterranean Monk Seals were listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List from 1996 until last year. However, there have been some signs of recovery in certain areas such as the Aegean Sea near Greece meaning they are now listed as Endangered (more data is still needed from Lebanon though).
The Ancient Greeks revered Monk Seals as they saw them as a good omen, so perhaps this is a good sign for the future of the species in Lebanon.
With lack of data though, and still a very small population, there is still a long way to go for saving this species.
More about the Mediterranean’s most endangered marine mammal
Mediterranean Monk Seals Monachus monachus used to inhabit open sandy beaches and rocky shorelines, but ancient hunting pressure forced the intelligent animals to seek refuge in remote accessible caves with underwater entrances. Over two metres long and weighing 250-300kg, they are called ‘monk’ seals because from behind the head and shoulders resemble a hooded monk wearing flowing black robes.
The seal is an ‘EDGE’ species (Evolutionarily Distinct & Globally Endangered): one of only two surviving monk seal species from an ancient pinniped lineage.
We have withheld the location of sightings in this article for the safety of the seals.