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A whale near a large vessel at sea.
Barcelona, Spain

Soundscapes of the Mediterranean Sea Podcast Episode 3: Decisions

In the last episode on the soundscapes of the Mediterranean Sea, we highlighted two projects that have direct consequences. The first is about a request to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) from the governments of Spain, Italy, France and Monaco that seeks to reduce the speed of maritime traffic in the western Mediterranean Sea. The second is the projected construction of a macro offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Roses. Among the innumerable environmental and social consequences as yet undetermined with this park, there is one in particular of special interest in this podcast series: the migration of cetaceans in this area of the Mediterranean.

The decisions around these two projects are not exclusively political issues. In this podcast episode, we find that decisions involving international regulations are favorable and in a spirit of evolution according to the specific needs of the Mediterranean. However, they depend, for example, on the goodwill of maritime operators in one project and, in the other, caution in the face of wind power generation projects. To understand this, let us start with the specific case of maritime traffic regulations.

The first words highlighted by Carlos Bravo when we asked about the underwater noise situation in the Mediterranean, were, according to the EMTER report of the European Environment Agency: 

"In the last five years and during the period covering 2014 to 2019, the level of underwater noise has doubled in all seas in all European waters".

Carlos is the representative of Ocean Care in Spain. It brings together researchers on the world's oceans to generate political and scientific advocacy in the decisions of conservation of the sea since 1989.

In this context of excessive noise, a project that proposes the reduction of the speed of maritime traffic was presented last September 2022 to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) by the governments of Spain, Italy, France and Monaco. They call to convert an area of the western Mediterranean Sea into a Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA). This voluntary compromise invites all ships of the western Mediterranean Sea to reduce their speed to below 10 knots. Vessels such as ferries, ships containing tanks, and other cargo ships sail between 14 and 20 knots. High-speed vessels go up to 35 knots. This speed reduction measure aims to protect cetaceans from collisions with these vessels and provide a quieter environment for their protection and preservation. On January 13, 2023, the IMO agreed with this request and appointed an internal committee to deal with this case. 

Although we can consider this project as a relevant action for the protection of the marine environment, the measures that IMO seeks to establish are substantiated by the voluntary implementation of the companies that own the vessels. Carlos Bravo of Ocean Care in Spain and Txema Brotons, scientific director of the Tursiops Organization, agree that this voluntary measure is insufficient. Brotons adds that this Particularly Sensitive Sea Area is poorly designed because it excludes the most relevant sperm whale breeding area. Specifically, the northern area on the island of Menorca.

We interviewed Arsenio Dominguez, Director of the Marine Environment Division of the IMO, regarding the uncertainty generated by a voluntary measure of an important economic sector of the Mediterranean Sea that also concerns several countries. Arsenio comments that IMO is not an international organization that can force ships to reduce their speed. However, he emphasizes that it is an organism that is part of the United Nations and, therefore, according to similar experiences in other parts of the world, such as on the Boston coast in the United States, the decisions taken were adopted by the maritime traffic companies with plenty of requirements and recommendations from IMO. 

The demands of the “Stop Macro Parc Eolic” platform

Last March, we visited Rosas, a town located on the Costa Brava road and about 150 kilometers north of Barcelona. This place offers the best perspectives about the future of the Gulf of Roses if the political decisions allow the construction of a wind farm there.

According to the spokesperson of the Stop Macro Parc Eolic platform, Ferran Vallespinos, the project “consists of installing wind turbines over 220 meters high, with a production power of 18 megawatts, which will be floating in the sea, that is, they are not affixed on the bottom. And there will be not one, but 60, 70, or 100 of these devices." In declarations to the media outlet Tv3, the third vice-president of the Spanish government for Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge, Teresa Rivera, stressed that the Maritime Space Management Plan, which was approved by Spain on February 28, is not an automatic authorization for the construction of this park. 

Despite what the Minister said, the Stop Macro Parc Eolic platform does not consider it appropriate to continue advancing the construction of this park at the government level when there are not enough studies to determine the environmental consequences of the installation, maintenance and operation of this park. Ferran emphasizes that this area is a corridor for cetaceans and other marine species. Hence the consequences of building the unprecedented Eolic Park remain to be seen.

The truth is that the construction of this park overlaps with the declaration of the Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA), which obliges vessels to reduce their speed. In addition, the Gulf of Roses is close to the 46,000 square kilometers cetacean corridor that is currently protected by the Barcelona Convention. In short, Spain expects the effective protection of the underwater environment, the generation of clean energy and the regulation of maritime traffic. All this is taking place in an area of influence between the Gulf of Roses and the immensity of the western Mediterranean Sea, a place that represents 1% of the earth's marine surface and where 15% of the world's maritime traffic is concentrated. 

Listen to the second episode in English: 

And in Spanish: 

This podcast was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Carijonas on 29 March 2023 in Spanish; this version has been adapted by EJN's Mediterranean Media Initiative.

Banner image: Humpback Whale photographed in Vitoria, Capital of Espirito Santo. Southeast of Brazil. Atlantic Ocean, 2019 / Credit: Unknown via Adobe Stock Photos.