Challenging customary law to protect high seas threatened species

Full Solution
A fin whale cruising in the glassy waters of the Pelagos Sanctuary
Tethys Research Institute/Margherita Zanardelli

Evidence of severe threats to the recently discovered importance of the area for marine mammals was revealed in the ‘80s by the scientific community, and highly covered by the national and international media. The need for the establishment of an international MPA, despite legal difficulties (>50% of proposed MPA in ABNJ), was emphasized to highlight the conservation shortcomings of customary law in a proposal named “Project Pelagos”, presented to the international community in March 1991.

Last update: 29 Sep 2021
Défis à relever
Increasing temperatures
Ocean warming and acidification
Conflicting uses / cumulative impacts
Pollution (incl. eutrophication and litter)
Physical resource extraction
Lack of public and decision maker’s awareness
Poor monitoring and enforcement
Poor governance and participation

Declaring a high sea protected area to protect marine mammals from rampaging human threats. A destructive fishing practice (pelagic driftnet fishing) was causing unsustainable mortality levels in many of the area’s marine mammal populations. The establishment of an international MPA would have addressed the problem, but most of the area was outside of any national jurisdiction.

Scale of implementation
Deep sea
Open sea
Rocky reef / Rocky shore
Habitat fragmentation and degradation
Species management
Poaching and environmental crime
Connectivity / transboundary conservation
Protected and conserved areas governance
Cities and infrastructure
Local actors
Protected and conserved areas management planning
Science and research
Fisheries and aquaculture
Marine litter
Sanctuaire Pelagos
West and South Europe
Summary of the process

Building block are clearly interconnected in temporal and logical succession. Scientific action (in this case, NGO-based science as opposed to institutional science) detected the problem, civil society brought the problem to political attention with the support of NGOs and the media, a solution was offered, and the institutions intervened by creating a conservation and management legal tool. The latter being judged to be of limited effectiveness, civil society and institutions need now to work together to make it more useful; this is the phase we live in now.

Building Blocks
Creating media and popular momentum
Collection and publication of scientific discoveries on the ecological importance of the Ligurian Sea and the unusual level of cetacean mortality attributable to driftnet fishing; engagement of the media; circulation of a petition to the Italian Government to stop driftnet fishing in the area with the collection of large number of signatures.
Enabling factors
Onset of ecological field research in Italy and France in the mid-1980s promoted by scientific and advocacy NGOs; onset of a volunteer-based cetacean stranding monitoring network which revealed the extent of cetacean mortality; attention of the general public to marine mammal conservation in the 1980s; availability of the media to cover the story.
Lesson learned
Press can help create momentum at governmental level.
Developing a proposal for the MPA designation
Based on a decade of ecological data collected since the early 1980s, emphasizing the ecological importance of the area for marine mammals, a proposal (“Project Pelagos”) prepared by Tethys in cooperation with Europe Conservation (an Italian NGO), envisaging the ecological, socio-economic and governance aspects of establishing an international MPA in the area. The proposal was presented on 2 March 1991 to Rainier III, Prince of Monaco.
Enabling factors
“Progetto Pelagos” was endorsed and strongly supported by the Rotary Club (Milano, Monaco, St. Tropez), which created a conduit with the Monaco Principality and organised the March 1991 meeting during which the proposal was presented to the Prince of Monaco.
Lesson learned
Involving many players from several countries was crucial to the success of achieving an MPA. In retrospect, getting formal agreement that a management body would be properly funded and put in place and that the area would focus fundamentally on conservation with specific directives is essential.
Developing and implementing an international agreement
After the signature (Brussels, 1993) of a joint declaration leading to the designation of a marine mammal sanctuary by the ministers of the Environment of France, Italy and Monaco, negotiations for a trilateral Agreement started. After several negotiation meetings, an agreement text was developed and the Agreement was signed in Rome in November 1999. The Agreement came into force in 2002.
Enabling factors
Political support by the Prince of Monaco and others.
Lesson learned
More stringent agreements leading to implementation of management plans and proper funding commitments.
Adapting international law to novel conservation requirement
The revision of the Protocol on Specially Protected Areas to the Barcelona Convention, concluded in 1995, allowed to include the possibility for Mediterranean States to extend place-based protection to the Mediterranean high seas. This inclusion was proposed by legal experts who had been involved in the Pelagos Sanctuary negotiations, and eventually led to the listing of the Pelagos Sanctuary as a SPAMI.
Enabling factors
Simultaneous revision of the Barcelona Convention and its Protocols; coincidence of Pelagos Sanctuary negotiators with Barcelona Convention revision negotiators.
Lesson learned
This building block was in large part serendipitous, as it wouldn't have been possible to plan it ahead of time. However it demonstrates the advantages of ensuring that there is cross-cutting communication among the conservation and policy actors at the regional level.
Improving Sanctuary policy and management practice
As the concerned governments started implementing the Agreement during successive Meetings of Parties, it had become clear that the countries had no intention of creating a proper management body for the Pelagos Sanctuary, and that, as a consequence, management action was insufficient to contrast the existing threats to the area’s cetaceans (shipping, disturbance, noise and chemical pollution, etc.). This stimulated the NGO and scientific communities in France and Italy to exert pressure on government agencies and promote awareness action through the media and other means, the communication of scientific results, and the dissemination of a petition to increase the Sanctuary conservation effectiveness.
Enabling factors
Engaging NGO community
Lesson learned
political will for MPA designation is not necessarily followed by sufficient commitment on ensuring that the MPA achieves its goals; dropping the initial Biosphere Reserve proposal was a mistake.

The Pelagos Sanctuary Agreement has attracted international attention to the plight of Mediterranean cetaceans. This has stimulated: a) substantive field research efforts which have produced new ecological knowledge of cetaceans in the area in subsequent decades, specifically as it pertains to the identification within its boundaries of what will soon be considered Important Marine Mammal Areas (IMMAs); and b) a prominent visibility of the ecological importance and uniqueness of the area, a driver of subsequent processes leading from widespread concern to conservation efforts. The negotiations on the Pelagos Sanctuary have stimulated the inclusion in the parallel negotiations on the revision of the Barcelona Convention Protocol on SPA and Biodiversity (signed in 1995) of a clause allowing Parties to establish SPAMIs (Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance) in the Mediterranean high seas. As a consequence, upon its declaration, the Pelagos Sanctuary became the world’s first MPA on the High Seas (ABNJ). The Italian driftnet fishing industry honoured the drift-net ban but the French industry, even after France signed the MPA designation, persisted and had to be stopped through EU law.


Cetacean populations which have become better known ecologically (e.g., through identification of IMMAs), and under greater conservation attention as a result of the Pelagos Sanctuary Agreement; coastal communities of France, Italy & Monaco

Sustainable Development Goals
SDG 14 – Life below water

In the 1990s, data from Italy's national stranding network revealed that the Ligurian Sea was the theatre of a cetacean massacre of unprecedented magnitude due to the perverse practice of fishing with driftnets. As hundreds of vessels from southern Italy invaded rich northern summer fishing grounds in pursuit of swordfish, they were placing tens of thousands of km of deadly nets in the water every night – fully encouraged by the FAO. The nets impeded navigation and killed many protected species such as cetaceans and devil rays. Thus came the idea of creating an international marine protected area in the Ligurian Sea to preserve the entire pelagic ecosystem, where not only driftnets but also other human activities were presenting threats to cetacean survival. At the time, mainstream legal thinking dismissed as laughable the idea that international waters – such as those that contained most of the cetaceans’ critical habitat in the Ligurian Sea, beyond 12 nautical miles from the baseline – could be protected. With sponsorship of the Rotary Club, which was instrumental in raising the attention of Prince Rainier III of Monaco, and together with Fabio Ausenda from Europe Conservation (an NGO), I drafted a document, called "Project Pelagos", which proposed the creation of a large cetacean sanctuary in the area. In March 1991 the proposal was presented in Monaco to Prince Rainier III, who endorsed it and helped make it happen. For 8 years, the Sanctuary concept made slow progress through bureaucracies, surviving thanks to the support of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace, until formal agreement of the “Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals” among France, Italy and Monaco was signed in Rome in 1999. The Sanctuary became the world’s first High Seas MPA, and thus met with much acclaim in the marine conservation community. Unfortunately, in the 17 years since its creation, Pelagos has failed to fulfil its goal of significantly improving the conservation status of the area’s cetacean populations, mostly because of the lack of political will to establish a proper management body. Yet the notion of Pelagos is alive in the minds of local people who believe that the area is protected. A growing number of French and Italian coastal towns have proudly formalized their partnership with the Sanctuary, while scientists from both countries continue to work hard to build robust ecological knowledge of its mammalian fauna (Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara].

Conectar con los colaboradores
Other contributors
Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara
Tethys Research Institute
Erich Hoyt
Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force