The Aeolian Archipelago in the Tyrrhenian Sea, north of Sicily is a string of seven volcanic islands named after Aeolus, the Greek demigod of the winds. Under Italy’s brilliant blue skies, the rocky islands are speckled among sparkling cerulean waters and hold a cornucopia of life. Each of the Aeolian islands is a UNESCO World Heritage site, designated in recognition of their unique volcanic activity – three islands are active volcanoes, and the remaining four islands still represent secondary volcanic phenomena.
Many local organizations are fueling projects to preserve the islands with the support of the Aeolian Islands Preservation Foundation (AIPF), who works in collaboration with other national and international groups. Their goals include preserving the exceptional natural beauty of the Aeolian Islands and to promote a sustainable approach to tourism, fishing and development to create bustling local industries and more sustainably continue to welcome the 200,000 visitors who seek the islands’ beauty each year. The main partner involved in sea protection projects is Blue Marine Foundation, an English NGO that operates in all the seas and oceans of the world and, since 2016, has launched an ambitious project in the Aeolian Islands, working side by side with the AIPF and addressing especially its focus on promoting responsible small-scale fishing practices. SmileWave Fund is one of the main supporters who strongly contributed to making the initiatives possible.
The Aeolian Islands have been declared a Mission Blue Hope Spot in recognition of the Aeolian Islands Preservation Foundation (AIPF) and their partners’ work to promote sustainable fishing and tourism practices, scientific research on the many endangered species within the islands, waste-reducing initiatives and marine conservation education programs to preserve this pocket of paradise for generations to come.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue, says, “I applaud the Aeolian Islands Preservation Foundation and their partners for doing what they’re doing to protect this archipelago and build community support for coexisting peacefully with nature. The time to act is now. Thank you for bringing a voice to those who can’t speak – the sharks, the sea turtles and the groupers. I’m sure if they could speak they would be thanking you.”
Ambra Messina, Hope Spot Champion and Executive Director of the Aeolian Islands Preservation Foundation, says, “It’s so incredibly valuable to have local people and organizations involved.” She elaborates, “The health of the ecosystems of the Aeolian Islands is vital for maintaining the balance of nature, but also for the survival of local activities that depend on the beauty of these islands. It is very important for us to actively involve the community and local organizations and to take care of this immense natural heritage together.”
The Aeolian Islands and their surrounding waters nurture a remarkable range of biodiversity. The inshore reefs are home to groupers, lobsters and octopus. Hugging the islands’ rocky coasts are Posidonia oceanica seagrass meadows, which provide important habitats for juvenile fish. Below the crystalline surface, submerged caves and seamounts provide sanctuary for big pelagic fish like amberjacks, barracuda bluefin tuna and mahi-mahi. The deep waters host red gorgonians and rare corals. Divers who venture further out to sea can spot animals like sperm whales, dolphins and loggerhead sea turtles that cross the islands for migration and mating.
However, in recent years, public concern surrounding environmental issues in the Aeolian Islands has grown. Overfishing, the use of unsustainable fishing gear, and a lack of management of marine resources have led to the impoverishment of the sea. Artisanal fishers are trying to tackle this, despite aggressive commercial fleets taking the remaining fish. Currently, a coalition of more than 30 artisanal fishers, supported by the Blue Marine Foundation, works to promote low impact, sustainable and responsible fishing. The small-scale fishermen have developed a voluntary ‘Responsible Fishing Code of Conduct’. One of their major efforts is recovering ghost nets. Together with the local divers and in collaboration with the Healthy Seas, they recovered 20 tons of nets within a two-year time span.
Giulia Bernardi, Project Manager of Blue Marine Foundation, says, “The project showed that the Responsible Fishermen have embraced principles such as association, team spirit and self-management of fishing efforts in order to contribute to the preservation of the fish resources in their sea.”
Delicate coral reefs and seagrass meadows that hold juvenile fish are being damaged by massive boating tourism and anchoring. The islands have also seen an increase in plastic pollution. Thanks to the local administrations that have established specific ordinances to reduce the consumption of single-use plastic, the Aeolian Islands are now plastic-free.
The Hope Spot Champions and their partners are also seeking improved management of eco-compactors that collect and recycle plastic bottles. To further promote reducing one’s plastic intake, the Hope Spot Champions and their partners have introduced water purifiers and reusable water bottles in two local schools and continue to educate students about traditional Aeolian fishing practices – ancient practices that are far more sustainable than today’s modern commercial fishing methods.
“The sea is threatened by climate change, overfishing, and plastic pollution. To counteract its devastating effects, it is essential to launch programs to increase awareness, We do not have much time left to act”, says Laura Gentile, Marevivo. “We know that as man is the cause, man can also be the solution. For this reason with our projects we want to ally institutions, entrepreneurs, schools and citizens in a battle to defend the sea and the territory.”
Some of their many goals include continuing to safeguard Caretta caretta nesting sites in the islands and reduce human-inflicted damage on two of the main marine caves in the archipelago to preserve their marine habitats, in collaboration with the Coast Guard.
Monica Blasi of Filicudi Wildlife Conservation says, “The Caretta caretta is the most common sea turtle in the Mediterranean Sea but the species is highly threatened and that is why we have been working for years to protect them, thanks to our first aid center. Our awareness campaigns addressed to the community and to the children, informing about the behaviors to adopt in case someone spots a turtle in distress or of a spawning or hatching event.”
The Aeolian Islands Preservation Foundation and their partners, Blue Marine Foundation, Marevivo, Healthy Seas, Ghost Diving, Sea Shepherd, Oceana, Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, Kurma, Aquastudio, SmileWave fund, Filicudi Wildlife Conservation, Magazzino di Mutuo Soccorso, have worked to preserve the sea of the archipelago and are looking forward to continuing to work with members of the community, the local government, tourism operators, schools and artisanal fishers to preserve the beauty and health of the marine ecosystems.
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