Posidonia oceanica meadows are a priority habitat listed in Annex I of the Habitats Directive. In Andalusia, Spain, around 95% of these meadows are found in six Natura 2000 marine sites (SCIs). Conservation actions within these SCIs would guarantee the conservation of almost all of the Posidonia oceanica meadow. The strategic management of the meadows is, however, still limited. A management plan is therefore required for the marine meadows that harmonises nature conservation with the area’s economic and social development needs. Stakeholder participation is crucial if the management plan’s design and implementation is to be successful.
The Life Posidonia Andalucia project’s main objective was to improve the conservation status of Posidonia oceanica meadows in Andalucia. This was achieved by undertaking research and then applying appropriate protection measures. The current state of the meadows (in regression, stable or in expansion) was identified through studies and this information was used as baseline data for the designation of indicators to monitor conservation gains.
Threats to these ecosystems (including pollution, boat anchoring, uncontrolled trawling, traditional local fishing and the expansion of invasive alien species (IAS)) were also investigated. Mechanisms were then assessed for mitigating the negative impacts of these threats on the meadows, as well as on the species they support (listed in annex II of the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive). Further research clarified the broader benefits linked to the meadows as well as the costs of their loss, such as impacts on fish populations, beach regeneration and the deterioration of tourist attractions.
All this information was then used to inform the design of new management plans for natural areas in Andalusia. These new plans will make the implementation of a regulatory framework over a longer time period possible, which will in turn guarantee the conservation and sustainable use of these areas and the species living there. The management plans would be monitored via a collaborative network of biology technicians and diving volunteers that would be set up during the project. They would assess the risks and report on the conservation status of meadows and associated species.
Stakeholder participation featured strongly throughout the project. It involved close liaison with fishermen, professional ship owners, tourism providers and users, sports divers and students. The aims of this outreach work were to secure support for conservation actions; to facilitate the introduction of early warning systems against threats; and to encourage a balanced sustainable development within Andalusia’s marine Natura 2000 sites.
Posidonia oceanica is a seagrass or marine plant species that is endemic of the Mediterranean Sea. It lives in areas of between 0 - 50 m in depth and occupies a surface area of approximately 35 000 km2. It forms slow growth meadows considered to be a priority habitat type for conservation in the Annex I of the Habitats Directive. In Andalusia, the seagrass is found in the provinces of Almería, Granada and Málaga. The project area of Life Posidonia Andalucia focused on nine Natura 2000 sites located in these provinces which contain 95% of the total cover of Posidonia oceanica meadows in Andalucia.
The first aim of this project was to identify the present state of the Posidonia meadows and their temporal evolution. This was achieved in a number of ways: Firstly, a total of 27,022 ha of habitat were mapped (152% of the area initially planned). The results showed that the regional distribution of this habitat type is considerably higher than initially predicted. Secondly, a network was set up to monitor the species in the long term consisting of a network coordinator and 230 volunteers. Finally, tools to aid the monitoring of the species were developed and put into action.
This LIFE project was a cornerstone in the way the monitoring of the seagrass species was organised and in the methodological approach taken. Thanks to the project, the beneficiaries now have standardised and improved the methodologies and protocols they use to monitor this habitat type. This includes the start of a set of demographic studies of the meadows at regional level that which provide a good starting point for the evaluation of population trends over a longer period of time. In addition, diversity inventories were developed and carried out in 13 locations, identifying a total of 204 taxa (39 fish; 124 invertebrates and 41 algae) and confirming the fact that this habitat type is home to a huge diversity of species.
The second aim of the project was to reduce the main threats to this habitat type: invasive alien species, trawlers and free anchoring. Firstly, an early detection network (29 control points) was set up for particular species of invasive alien macroalgae considered to be a threat. The network has helped the beneficiaries to update information on the distribution of these species, including the creation of maps of the invasive seaweed species Caulerpa cylindracea in each. Unfortunately, none of the actions carried out to eradicate invasive species proved successful. The experience gained demonstrated that eradication efforts are only worthwhile at the very early stages of invasion, when the size of the population is still limited. One of the main lessons learnt from this project is the need to devote more means to the early detection and eradication of these species and to carry out continuous monitoring.
In addition, two artificial reefs were created in two of the SCI to reduce the impact of illegal trawling. Further, 41 ecological mooring buoys were installed to reduce erosion and the dispersion of IAS, which is aggravated by free anchoring. An information campaign regarding the location and use of these buoys that was specifically addressed to potential users took place prior to installation and an “Anchoring Code of Conduct” was created. Meetings were held with users of the buoys after they had been put in place which established that they are pleased with them. In addition to the practical facilities that the buoys offer, the diving centres believe they are a sign that the natural areas are now being managed properly.
The third aim of the project was to promote the seagrass amongst stakeholders and the general public in order to get them involved in its protection. The first step here was an analysis of the socio-economic impact of this habitat type on the local economy. It included a productivity study, an analysis of the species socio-economic impact, a study on the impact of the degradation of the meadows and of their economic role as CO2 sink. The results obtained demonstrated the socio-economic importance of the Posidonia meadows in Andalusia, however the high complexity of this kind of study, the lack of finely tuned methodologies, the scarcity of similar research and gaps in information mean that the final figures obtained are only approximate estimates.
A number of dissemination materials and events were also organised. Project partners used the events not only to promote the importance of the habitat but also to get people to participate actively in the development of the management plans for the SCIs. Several meetings were held with the objective of involving the local stakeholders in the phases of information, diagnosis and proposal and 30 interviews with key stakeholders were done. Events included the development of three terrestrial tours (visiting 37 localities with 22 052 participants) and three marine tours (visiting 14 localities with 726 participants). Professional fishermen were reached through 42 workshops, seven meetings, nine project presentations, nine informal interviews and the distribution of dissemination material in ports. In addition, several guided visits to the itinerant exhibition and seven sea trips reaching 52 people were organised for their families. Three Posidonia festivals were also organised (attended by 1000 students and 4700 other individuals).
The final goal of the project was to ensure the long-term protection of Andalusian seagrasses. To do this the spatial protection figures applied to Marine Protected Areas with Posidonia meadows were revised and they were assigned with figures from the World Commission on Protected Areas. Further, changes were proposed to facilitate coherent management strategies. Finally, management plans were written for all nine project sites on the basis of the project results and with regards to the participation from stakeholders. All of them were officially approved apart from the management plan of the Cabo de Gata-Níjar site.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).