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RIP Mare Nostrum: Ground Zero of the Climate Crisis

In this series of reports, La Vanguardia navigates the Mediterranean waters and visits the coasts of Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Greece and Spain to document the impact of global warming and massive fishing on the populations on its shores.

The last cry of the Mediterranean

In the village of Abu Homos, in the heart of the Nile Delta, the elderly Abdel Rasik clutches his rebellious yellow galabiya against the wind and squats in front of his dead crops. "Malih, Malih," he whispers. He touches the barren earth with his hand and brings his index finger to his lips. "Malih! Do you see? Salty! The land is salty, that's why the crops don't grow!"

At the other end of the Mediterranean, aboard the sailboat Va de Bon Coeur, marine biologist Alex Jonson scans the waters south of the Balearic Islands with binoculars in search of a phantom killer: abandoned fishing gear that the current carries out to sea and traps thousands of turtles and cetaceans every year.

Three thousand kilometers away, in the port of Amchit, Lebanese fisherman Emili Hershey hides his frustration under a green cap and clicks his tongue in desperation. "The nets are empty," he laments. He is clear about the culprit: the lionfish, a tropical invasive species from the Red Sea that has entered through the Suez Canal and has conquered the increasingly warm Mediterranean currents over the past decade.

Although geographically distant from each other, the cries for help from Rasik, Jonson, and Hershey share the same root cause: the climate crisis that threatens the survival of the Mare Nostrum.

The Mediterranean is not only the fastest-warming sea but also the most overfished and the one with the highest concentration of plastic pollution. Despite the global threat and the different consequences between the northern and southern Mediterranean, there is a common denominator: time to react is running out. The spiral of degradation is alarming, warn experts.

The climate crisis and human activity are suffocating the Mediterranean. Being a semi-closed sea, its waters heat up three to five times faster than the global oceans. This increase leads to irreversible changes in its ecosystems and harms the lives of millions of people living along its shores. The proliferation of harmful fishing techniques, which cause the disappearance of native species and reduce marine diversity, only adds more pressure. With waters already besieged by overfishing, climate change accelerates this process of degradation even further.

The neighbors living along its coasts are the first witnesses of the change. In the Egyptian village of Maadiya, 61-year-old fisherman Hamdi casts his line from a row of white rocks and points with resignation to another climate impact looming over some Mediterranean coasts. "We're going to sink. Every year, the sea rises more, sooner or later, we'll have to leave here." According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the level of the Mediterranean will rise between 30 centimeters and one meter before the end of the century. The rises in recent decades have already begun to salinate farmland and engulf parts of the coast in especially vulnerable areas such as the Nile Delta in Egypt.

Surrounded by 22 countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the Mediterranean is a laboratory for the impact of climate change. It is also a laboratory for its solutions.

"This is a crucial moment to see if socially diverse countries can come together to address a common problem," explains Jofre Carnicer, a climate change specialist in the Mediterranean at the Center for Ecological Research and Applied Forestry.

He talks about a window of opportunity: "The speed of temperature rise and sea level rise will depend on global action in the next 20 or 30 years." And that response should take into account the most vulnerable.

On the island of Kerkennah, in eastern Tunisia, the socio-economic factors behind the climate crisis are a desperate justification: "We are forced to do this. It hurts my heart, but I have a family." On a secluded beach, fisherman Rami Yahya admits with shame that he has abandoned traditional fishing for trawling, an aggressive form of capture that destroys the seabed and depletes the region's fishing grounds. "I couldn't take it anymore," he admits, "there are fewer and fewer fish, and this way you can make ten times more money than the traditional way."

The economic impact in North Africa of the successive crises of the Arab Spring, the COVID pandemic, and rising food prices due to the war in Ukraine has pushed thousands of unemployed young people to seek an outlet at sea. The ocean bears the consequences. In addition to the proliferation of small trawl boats that turn the seabed into a desert, there is the extensive use of drift nets, a deadly trap for turtles and cetaceans. "Every year, thousands of animals die trapped in these abandoned fishing remnants that drift at sea," says Alex Jonson aboard a scientific sailboat from his NGO Alnitak, which sails in the waters south of the Balearic Islands and the Alboran Sea.

fisherman holding a turtle untangled in a net
Tunisian fisherman Najt Hdidar releases a turtle caught in his nets in the waters of the Kerkennah archipelago, Tunisia, July 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.

Marine life is at the frontline of climate change, and local fishermen are the first to notice it. The increase in temperature has turned the Mediterranean into a perfect ecosystem for thousands of tropical fish, which have conquered its waters with their voracious appetite and lack of predators. In Tunisia, crates full of blue crabs offered in the country's markets are a cry for help. Dubbed "Daesh" among Tunisian fishermen, an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, because it massacres other fish, this crustacean from warmer seas is advancing in North Africa and the western Mediterranean, especially in the Delta del Ebro area.

"Before, when tropical species entered, they encountered cold waters that prevented their advance. Now they encounter a heated Mediterranean that adapts to their needs," explains Joaquim Garrabou, a member of the CSIC at the Institute of Marine Sciences. On the Lebanese coast, efforts are also being made to address the problem. The complaints of fisherman Hershey in the port of Amchit, north of Beirut, have garnered a response: the organization Diaries of the Ocean has created the first program to mitigate the impact of lionfish on the ecosystem. They work together with divers, fishermen, and restaurateurs to promote the hunting and consumption of this species. "Its effect is devastating; in just five weeks, it decreases native species by 90%," warns Jiina Tajl, a marine biologist and director of the NGO.

The blue crab or the lionfish are just two examples from a longer list that extends throughout the Mediterranean, including the rabbitfish or the pufferfish, among many varieties of algae. For Tajl, the defense of the Mediterranean ecosystem should not be a matter of flags. "The problems facing the Mediterranean will affect us all. Borders are on land, not in the sea, and the climate crisis does not distinguish between one country and another, so we have to act together before it's too late."

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in La Vanguardia on 20 August 2023 in Spanish. It has been translated to English and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Several families watch the sunset in Alexandria, Egypt, on cement blocks acting as breakwaters to contain sea level rise, July 2023 / Credit: Xavier Aldekoa.