Marine Mammal Commission

Mediterranean Monk Seal

The Mediterranean monk seal, the sole member of the genus Monachus, is one of two surviving species of monk seals. As with the Hawaiian monk seal, the Mediterranean species is endangered, numbering no more than 700 animals. A third species, the Caribbean monk seal, was driven to extinction in the 20th century. The Mediterranean monk seal has suffered millennia of exploitation, persecution, and harassment, and today all that remain are a few widely separated, fragmented populations that occupy, collectively, only a small portion of the species’ original range.

Mediterranean monk seal, Monachus monachus, in Gokova Bay, Turkey.

Species Status

Mediterranean monk seals are in danger of extinction, but there are some encouraging signs: conservation efforts and coordination among countries are improving, some populations are increasing in size, previously undocumented breeding areas have been discovered, and monk seals are beginning to appear in habitats and places where they had not been seen for decades. In the last five years, individual monk seals have been seen in Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Albania, Croatia, Italy, Sardinia, Syria, Spain, and Libya. In light of these positive signs, in November 2015 the IUCN reclassified the Mediterranean monk seal from ‘Critically Endangered’ to ‘Endangered.’

There is a long history of human exploitation and persecution of Mediterranean monk seals, stretching back from modern times to the Middle Ages, the Roman era and even to prehistoric times. Like other monk seals, Mediterranean monk seals likely rested and pupped on sandy beaches in many areas, but over centuries of exploitation and harassment, they now almost always rest and pup in inaccessible caves that contain sandy beaches. The low pup survival rate seen in Mauritania is thought to result from the use of caves where pups are at risk of being swept away during storms.

Mediterranean monk seals were found regularly throughout the Mediterranean, Marmara and Black Seas, along the West African coast to as far south as Cap Blanc, and in the Canary, Madeira and Azores Islands. In the 20th century, the species was eliminated, primarily by fishermen, over most of that range, disappearing from Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, the Black Sea, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, France, the Balearic Islands, Spain, Tunisia, and Morocco.

They are now found in four populations, which are isolated from each other.

  1. Northeastern Mediterranean: in the islands of the Ionian Sea off western Greece, along the mainland coast of Greece, in the islands of the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, and along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.
  2. Mauritania: along a short stretch of the Cap Blanc Peninsula, roughly 1,600 km southwest of the Strait of Gibraltar.
  3. Desertas Islands: in the Madeira Archipelago southwest of Portugal.
  4. Southwestern Mediterranean: where some seals may remain in northeastern Morocco and Algeria.

Given their reclusive habits, accurate and precise population estimates are not available, but monk seal researchers agree that there are no more than 700 seals in total. Researchers currently estimate that the eastern Mediterranean population is no larger than 350 adult animals, but this estimate is uncertain. At one time, the largest population of nearly 320 animals had been on Cap Blanc Peninsula, but it was reduced to roughly 100 seals following a large die-off in 1997, possibly due to a toxic red-tide event. Since then, the population has rebounded and has been estimated recently to number between 220 and 250 seals. A small colony of approximately 40 seals exists in the Desertas Islands of the Madeira Archipelago. It is likely that no more than 10 seals remain along the northeastern coasts of Morocco and Algeria.

What the Commission Is Doing

In recent years, the Marine Mammal Commission’s research program has provided support to Greek researchers for work in three areas:

  1. Development of a genetic research protocol, and optimized sample collection and laboratory methods, to be used in a preliminary assessment of the genetic characteristics of monk seals in Greece. The results of this research, published in 2016, demonstrated that the species has extremely low levels of genetic diversity. Three genetically distinct populations were identified – Cap Blanc, Aegean Sea, and Ionian Sea.
  2. Monitoring monk seals recently discovered to be breeding at Evia Island, Greece, a 2013 research grant.
  3. Establishment of the “Hellenic Monk Seal Register” of genetic information on monk seals in Greece, also a 2013 research grant.

In addition, the Commission has provided support for cooperative research efforts between scientists working on the conservation of Mediterranean and Hawaiian monk seals, and it participated in a scientific roundtable at the Greek Embassy to review and identify priorities for Mediterranean monk seal conservation. That meeting endorsed efforts to identify and protect core monk seal habitat and to develop community-based initiatives that enhance local involvement and seek support from people living near core seal habitat and from stakeholder groups, particularly those engaged in fisheries.

Commission Reports and Publications

To date, the Commission has not drafted any reports for the Mediterranean monk seal.

Commission Letters

Letter Date Letter Description
September 28, 2015

Letter to NMFS regarding an application from Lamont Doherty-Earth Observatory to take marine mammals incidental to a 2D and 3D geophysical survey in the eastern Mediterranean Sea

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Threats

Threats to Mediterranean monk seals include human encroachment and critical habitat destruction, alteration and fragmentation, deliberate harassment and killing by fishermen who consider them competitors for fish and a source of damage to their fishing gear, and incidental drowning in gillnets. Deliberate killing has been the most frequently diagnosed cause of monk seal deaths in Greece, also a serious problem in Turkey and Cap Blanc. One-third of monk seal deaths in Greece in the early 1990s were attributed to deliberate killing by fishermen. In 2011 and 2012, nearly 20 percent of all well-documented monk seal deaths in Greece were attributed to deliberate human causes, such as gunshots likely inflicted by fishermen. Disease outbreaks, toxic algal blooms, rock slides or cave collapses, shark predation, and abnormally low water temperatures are also threats to individual populations.

Presumably as an accommodation to their harsh treatment by people, Mediterranean monk seals have retreated to what is likely marginal, suboptimal habitat. Along the Cap Blanc Peninsula, seals rest and pup in caves that are exposed to storms that can wash pups away. In Turkey, seals have been observed resting in the water in caves that do not have beaches or haul-out areas. It has been suggested that the species cannot recover unless it can reoccupy open beaches.

Although a small number of dedicated scientists and environmental groups have made significant advances toward Mediterranean monk seal recovery since the late 1970s, more efforts are needed. A major impediment has been the unwillingness or inability of national governments to carry out effective conservation programs or provide more than minimal levels of funding for monk seal research or conservation within their respective jurisdictions. As a result, most monk seal conservation work has depended on the efforts of (and funding from) non-governmental organizations such as MOm (The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Mediterranean Monk Seal) and CBD Habitat (Spain), and on government organizations such as the Madeiran Park Service (Serviço do Parque Natural da Madeira) (Portugal).

Current Conservation Efforts

Conservation efforts began in the 1970s, and today national and international laws and treaties provide protection throughout its range, including the establishment of protected areas (some of which prohibit or restrict fishing). In addition, non-governmental organizations contribute important conservation efforts, such as the rescue and rehabilitation of injured, sick and orphaned seals, public outreach and education, and research.

One of the first and most significant actions was in the northern Aegean Sea, where the National Marine Park of Alonissos was established by the government of Greece in 1992. Covering 2,200 km2 (850 mi2) of nearshore waters around the Northern Sporades Islands, the park was meant, in part, to protect one of the largest surviving colonies of monk seals, which numbered about 50 in 2000. Commercial fishing is restricted within a substantial portion of the park, and MOm has worked with local residents and park visitors to promote human attitudes and behavior that allows seals and people to coexist. Although enforcement of conservation measures in Greece has been weak, the government of Greece also established a national park on the northern coast of Karpathos and is promoting similar designations on the islands of Kimolos and Gyaros.

Habitat protection is widely recognized as the greatest conservation priority. Monk seal researchers agree that a network of protected areas is necessary for the Mediterranean monk seal population to survive long term. In addition to the park in the Northern Sporades Islands, protected areas that restrict fishing have been established at locations on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts of Turkey, in the Desertas Islands in Madeira, and off the Cap Blanc Peninsula, Mauritania. At least some of the protected areas appear to have been effective in reducing entanglement rates and increasing the survival of pups. The fishing restrictions and pupping-cave protections provided on the Cap Blanc Peninsula have also contributed to that population’s recovery of the population from the die-off suffered by that population in 1997. Nonetheless, monk seal biologists and conservationists believe that much more habitat needs to be protected, and that monitoring and enforcement must be improved.

Efforts to reduce deaths due to fisheries interactions are being made for all the populations. Those efforts include restricting fishing activities in protected areas, use of alternative fishing gear, and education of fishermen.

In 2005, the Working Group of the Mediterranean Monk Seal in the Eastern Atlantic (part of the Bonn Convention) developed an Action Plan for the Recovery of the Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) in the Eastern Atlantic. The plan reflects a shared, international commitment by Mauritania, Morocco, Portugal and Spain to ensure the recovery and persistence of the monk seals in the region. The plan focuses on several objectives, including 1) coordinating and funding conservation actions, 2) monitoring and research, 3) reducing human sources of mortality, 4) protecting critical habitats, and 5) educating the public.

To provide a framework for monk seal conservation efforts in Greece, in 2009 MOm updated an earlier monk seal action plan by preparing a new five-year National Strategy Action Plan for the Conservation of the Mediterranean Monk Seal in Greece. This plan adjusted priorities to emphasize protection of seals in the wild, habitat protection at national and local levels, developing a national network of protected areas, and strengthening measures to protect seals moving outside of and between protected areas. The plan calls for national legislation to strengthen legal authority for seal protection and to establish a National Monk Seal Conservation Commission. Other elements include a vigorous public awareness program targeting commercial fishermen and tourists, a national inventory of important habitat sites, stronger management ties between local communities and user groups in designated protected areas, legally enforceable conservation measures that are applicable throughout national waters, and expanded scientific research.

Additional Resources

General Information

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Mediterranean Monk Seal page

The Monachus Guardian

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Mediterranean Monk Seal page

Seal Conservation Society Mediterranean Monk Seal page

The EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) of Existence Program

National Resources on Monk Seals

Croatia: State Institution for Nature Protection

Greece: MOm (The Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Mediterranean Monk Seal)

Italy: Gruppo Foca Monaca Italia

Mauritania: CBD Monk Seal Conservation Program

Madeira: Life Madeira – Monk Seal

Turkey: SAD-AFAG (Underwater Research Society – Mediterranean Seal Research Group)

Turkish Marine Research Foundation

Selected Peer-Reviewed Publications

Prehistoric and historic distributions of the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) in the eastern Atlantic. Luis Mariano Gonzalez. Marine Mammal Science 31(3):1168–1192, doi:10.1111/mms.12228

Shaping species conservation strategies using mtDNA analysis: The case of the elusive Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus). Alexandros A. Karamanlidis. 2016. Biological Conservation 193:71-79, doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2015.11.014

The Mediterranean monk seal Monachus monachus: status, biology, threats, and conservation priorities. Alexandros A. Karamanlidis, et al. 2015. Mammal Review 46(2):92-105, doi:10.1111/mam.12053