Conserving the cetaceans of Ischia: Our time with Oceanomare Delphis Onlus
On last weekend of October, the T-CPI team made the journey from the UK to the island of Ischia located 19 miles off the coast of Naples in Italy. We went to learn about the incredible research of Oceanomare Delphis Onlus (ODO) – a non-profit organisation that has been collecting data and working to conserve cetaceans, and the ecosystems they inhabit, in the Mediterranean Sea since 1991. The T-CPI team spent the day with the ODO research team, Barbara Mussi, Carlotta Vivaldi and Rosanna Tenerelli, aboard the Jean Gab, the beautiful 1930s-sailing boat which serves as the ODO headquarters and research vessel.
The research of ODO is focused on the Mediterranean sub-populations of the five species of cetaceans that are present in the waters around Ischia: fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba), Rissoʹs dolphins (Grampus griseus), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). In addition the common dolphin ( Delphinus delphis) is also a species studied by the project, although it hasn’t been sighted since 2013. These local populations, as all the Mediterranean cetaceans, are genetically distinct and are thought to have different behaviours to their neighbours of the same species in the adjacent North-Atlantic.
Throughout the summer, with the assistance of volunteers who come from all over world to participate in the research of ODO, Barbara and her team go out on the Jean Gab and use a range research techniques to collect information about the cetaceans they encounter. Photo‐identification gives important information about population size, movements and habitat use; behavioural sampling leads to greater understanding of activities such as feeding habits and social communication,and finally;underwater acoustic recording allows everyone on board to listen to the sound of the cetaceans in real time and provides fascinating insights in to the unique ‘dialect’ of the whistles and clicks of the Mediterranean sub-populations.
Beyond improving scientific understanding, the data ODO collects about Mediterranean cetaceans is published and shared with local and international authorities and environmental organisations. This is with the aim that it will inform policies to improve the conservation and management of these species. Indeed, the project contributed a significant amount of data to support the establishment of a conservation area dedicated to cetaceans (zone D) within the marine protected area (MPA) Regno di Nettuno (Neptune’s Kingdom) in 2007, located around Ischia and the neighbouring islands Procida and Vivara. More recently, the area has been identified as an Important Marine Mammals Area (IMMA) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
However, despite the incredible work of ODO and the designation of the MPA, the populations of cetaceans around Ischia are falling rapidly.“When the project started in 1991 we saw seven species of cetacean, now we only see five” explained Barbara (who has been with the project since it began in 1991). Critically, the remaining five species feature on the IUCN Red List as endangered, vulnerable, or data deficient, the latter owing to a lack of sightings.
What are the main threats to these animals? The same threats that cetaceans are faced with globally: plastic and chemical pollution, underwater noise, risk of boat collision and overfishing. In particular, the ODO team is concerned with the impact of fishing depletion and driftnets. As an example although driftnet fishing was made illegal in the EU in 2002, it still occurs illegally throughout the northern Mediterranean. Moreover, fleets are still present in the southern Mediterranean and the driftnet fishery is carried out by several countries along the northern coast of Africa. “The whales and dolphins don’t recognise borders, they travel through the whole of the Mediterranean” Carlotta tells us, expressing concern that the cetaceans are at greater risk from driftnets when they migrate southwards.
Another problem, which also impacts the waters off Ischia, is the lack of regulation for boating activities, which causes disruptive levels of underwater noise and increases risk of boating collisions. We were shown evidence of the harm boating collisions have caused around Ischia with several photos of whales with devastating propeller injuries along their back and dolphins with damaged dorsal fins. One of the main issues linked to this threat is the lack of education and awareness from boat users about safe and appropriate behaviour when they spot cetaceans in the water.
Despite the institution of zone D in the MPA Regno di Nettuno cetaceans are still being impacted by these kind of threats. As the ODO team explain, complicated local government arrangements on the island make it extremely difficult to gather support from the politicians which have the power to enforce the MPA regulations. Therefore, although it is an MPA on paper, the conservation actions in zone D remain unchallenged. Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar narrative, as it is quite common for robust scientific evidence in of support conservation to be unable to break through complex political or social situations which maintain the status quo – which is often detrimental to the environment. A key weapon to break through this barrier is to educate local people and inspire them to take action. Something, which over the years, ODO have worked hard to undertake with the community of Ischia.
Nevertheless, even if education and improved regulations in Regano di Nettuno reduce the local threats to the cetaceans; nothing other than international action against the global threats of marine plastic and climate change will truly safeguard the marine ecosystem and ensure the next generation have the opportunity to see cetaceans in the Mediterranean.
Our day aboard Jean Gab came to an end as we continued to share our stories, ideas and concerns about the ocean. It was truly inspiring to hear about the work of the researchers at ODO and it is reassuring to know that there are people like Barbara, Carlotta and Rosetta dedicating their lives to protecting a small but very significant part of our vast oceans. As the state of our oceans continues to deteriorate, it is crucial that scientific evidence is utilised to inform efficient and effective marine conservation policies. At T-CPI, we hope to help this happen by continuing support and promote the incredible research of organisations such as ODO.
Oceanomare Delphis Onlus is completely funded by the volunteer programme they run from May to October this year. To find out more information visit
An article by Amber Lucy