Tourists Destroy Unique Turtle Habitat on Greek Island

VIENNA, Austria, October 3, 2005 (ENS) - Thousands of summer tourists, illegal sunbeds, umbrellas, bars and boats have once again invaded and irreparably damaged Greece’s National Marine Park of Zakynthos, pushing the Mediterranean’s largest nesting population of loggerhead turtles towards extinction, WWF warned today.

In Vienna, WWF conservationists intercepted European Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas at a climate change conference where he was speaking and presented him with a report on this year's degradations in Zakynthos. Dimas is a native of Greece.

In 2002, The European Court of Justice declared that Greece was in violation of European Union law because it had failed to protect the loggerhead turtles in Zakynthos, a legally protected marine park. The European Commission is soon expected to announce that it will refer the case to the Court for a second time.

According to WWF and Greek conservationists, Greek authorities have done too little to halt the abuse within the park during the 2005 tourist season, which overlaps with turtle nesting season.

Local businessmen installed hundreds of umbrellas and sunbeds above the authorized limit on the beaches. Illegal bars, taverns and parking areas were still in operation, while boats regularly crossed or anchored in zones where entry is prohibited to protect turtles.

Cars, motorcycles and horses damaged the sand dunes. The lack of proper controls, financial support and law enforcement also allowed tourists to tamper with nesting sea turtles at night.

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Summer beach furniture on Zakynthos' supposedly protected Gerakas beach is almost triple the amount permitted by law and is not removed at night, making nesting difficult for sea turtles. Summer 2005. (Photo courtesy Medasset)
The situation in Zakynthos is totally unacceptable, violations within the protected area happen every day," said Demetres Karavellas, WWF-Greece's chief executive officer. "The Environment Ministry has not effectively responded to repeated calls for urgent action to halt the destruction of one of the most important sea turtle nesting habitats in the Mediterranean."

The National Marine Park of Zakynthos was established in 1999 for the conservation of marine turtles and the sustainable development of the island. WWF Greece and the NGO Archelon are represented on the management body of the park.

Medasset, the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles, based in Athens, says that Greece is now backed into a corner. Greece has been forced to clean up its act before the European Commission's October deadline, says the group, or face the European Court of Justice and the imposition of a multi-million euro fine for neglecting its commitments to the turtle nesting beaches of Laganas Bay on the island of Zakynthos.

As the bulk of tourists left the island having disrupted yet another crucial nesting season for the endangered loggerhead sea turtles, Amalia Karagounis, the recently appointed president of the Zakynthos National Marine Park, started to show her mettle, says Medasset.

With unprecedented government support for her position and just enough money to pay part of the wages owing to guards and ZNMP staff since 2003, she used her considerable skill to enforce almost all of the ECJ ruling's demands throughout the Bay - excluding the 'strictly protected' Daphne beach.

Daytime guards were posted on a number of beaches; information signs, kiosks and barriers preventing vehicle access were restored; illegal businesses were closed down; a port police post was established with regular patrols of the Bay, and a boat was brought in to patrol the sea; buoys delineating restricted areas were replaced; and on some beaches excess furniture was removed, although much mysteriously found its way back.

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Tropical plants, a wall and summer beach furniture, parallel to the sea along Daphne's supposedly strictly protected sea turtle nesting beach, make nesting impossible. (Photo courtesy Medasset)
The president has now turned her attention to the illegal buildings and tourist infrastructure on Daphne beach. Since the beginning of September, a bitter debate has raged between Karagounis and the head of the Local Zakynthos Administration, the Prefect.

Eleven years after the Greek government ordered the buildings pulled down, and despite having signed the demolition order himself, the prefect claims that it is not his job to do so, that the responsibility lies with the government. His role is "not one of destruction," he said, but to protect the local inhabitants and foster the development and promotion of Zakynthos.

He has suggested that to solve the problem the state should compensate those affected by conservation measures.

The president of the park responded, saying, "Compensation to landowners should not be confused with demolition."

Meanwhile, at the Greek Constitutional Court, Daphne landowners lost an appeal to remove restrictions on private property development within the boundaries of the park. The restrictions were imposed by the Presidential Decree establishing the park.

The park president is optimistic that the park may soon receive the 60,000 euro, which has been owed to the park since 2003 by the Mayor of Laganas and the Prefect of Zakynthos, for their share of a LIFE/ Nature EC project.

In addition, she hopes to take funds, as of next summer, for beach furniture rental tenders, and with this money run a self-financing Park. But is this possible? In January 2005 300,000 euro was needed to cover the park's debts - a figure which will have increased considerably since then.

Since March 2004 funds have been promised repeatedly by the Ministry of Environment, in the press and in Parliament, but until now only 190,000 euro has been paid, barely covering back taxes and wage bills.

As Karagounis herself pointed out, although an appeal has been made to the European Commission for a stay of execution on the ECJ ruling, her achievements will not prevent Greece from being fined.

One thing is clear, said Medasset - Greece does not act unless under extreme financial pressure.

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Sea turtle Kalamaki nesting beach ius covered with peddle boats, beach furniture and a wall, making it almost impossible for turtles to nest. (Photo courtesy Medasset)
WWF said today that it is urging the Greek government to demolish illegal buildings, restore the coastal area, and provide the National Marine Park of Zakynthos with the financial support needed to operate efficiently.

The global conservation organization is calling on the European Commission to define specific requirements and clear standards that the Greek authorities will have to meet in order to avoid a second conviction at the European Court of Justice and a financial penalty.

WWF wants the EU to urgently enforce European laws protecting endangered species such a loggerhead turtles.

"The EU Habitats Directive is being clearly undermined through cases such as Zakynthos," said Karavellas. "The role of the European Commission is critical in bringing about change and saving these unique nesting beaches. We hope they won’t let us down."

The National Marine Park of Zakynthos normally hosts between 800 and 1,100 nests from the end of May to the end of July. The peak of the tourist season coincides with the start of the hatching of the turtle eggs in August.

Marine turtles are very sensitive to human disturbances. Lights distract the nesting females and disorientate the hatchlings as they make their way to the sea.

Trampling of nests by tourists is also frequent. These impacts exacerbate the natural risks to hatchlings, and it is estimated that out of about 1,000 turtles that hatch, only one will reach adulthood.

The loggerhead turtle, Caretta caretta, is one of the two marine turtle species that reproduce in the Mediterranean. The other species is the green turtle which nests in Turkey and Cyprus.