The marine park οf the Northern Sporades

The National Marine Park of Alonissos and Northern Sporades was declared in 1992. It is a member of Med PAN (Network of Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean). The aim is the protection of the monk seal, and the habitats of other rare and endangered species, and even more the protection, maintain and management of wildlife, landscape, cultural heritage and marine resources of the region. The park provides the opportunity of volunteering service to those who wish. It is a place of environmental education and public awareness on environmental issues.

The efforts to protect the area began in the 1970s. In 1986 the first decision for the protection of monk seal and its habitats was signed. New decisions followed in 1988 and 1990. After the declaration of the marine park by a presidential decree in 1992, ten years passed until in 2003 the management framework was established formally, and the management authority of the protected area was created. Meanwhile, in 1997 the entire island of Kyra Panagia and the sea around had been proclaimed as an archaeological site.

The Marine Park of Northern Sporades is the largest marine park in Europe. Of the 2,200 sq km of its area, 94% is sea. It is divided into two zones, Zone A and Zone B. In each zone, a different protection status applies.

Zone A is divided into nine regions and covers an area of 1,480 sq km. In this, there are strict rules for the environment protection. However there are some differences from island to island and from region to region.

It includes seven small islands, several smaller and the rocky islets among them. The islands from north to south:
- Psathoura and the small Psathonissi.
- Youra, Kyra Panagia (or Pelagos or Pelagonissi) and the small Pappous (Grandfather), Strongylo or Koumbi (Round or Button), Phagrou or Pelerissa, Muiga (Flies), Melissa (Bee), Spheka (Wasp), Grammiza or Prasso (Leek).
- Piperi (Pepper).
- Skantzoura and the small Korakas (Crow), Skandili, Polemika, Prasso (Leek) or Paraos, Lachanou (Vegetables), Kassidis and Strongylo.
The core of the zone A and of the entire marine park is the islet Piperi and the sea area within three nautical miles around its coast, a total area of 70 sq km. In this area any human activity is prohibited except for scientific research and the necessary actions to manage the region.

The zone B consists of four regions and covers an area of 650 sq km. In this area the restrictions are not many. It includes the islands of Alonissos and Peristera (Dove), the islets Lechousa, Mikro Adelphi (Little Brother), Megalo Adelphi (Big Brother) and the cluster of the rocky islets Gaidouronissia or Gaidares (Donkeys), Manola and Mula.

In the marine park of the Northern Sporades all the elements create the ideal environment to protect wildlife and the many species of fauna and flora endangered both on land and sea. The area is geographically isolated and the natural environment is maintained intact. In the islands, the cliffs are nests for the birds and the caves on the shores shelters for the Mediterranean monk seal.

The main feature of the flora is the many rare endemic plants. There are also conifers such as pines, evergreens such as the wild olive tree, and low vegetation with shrubs such as bearberry, mastic, and more.
Of particular importance is the underwater flora, in which there are in excellent condition extensive underwater meadows of Posidonia, which play an important role in the reproduction of organisms and the retention and recycling of various substances in the marine environment; something vital to preserve marine life.

The marine park is an important habitat for 300 species of fish. The underwater fauna also includes dolphins, especially the common dolphin, striped dolphin and bottlenose dolphin, and some species of whales, such as the blower and zifios.
The avifauna is very rich. Over 80 bird species have been observed. There are also many species of reptiles and mammals. The most famous of the rare species of fauna are the monk seal monachus monachus, the red coral, the bird mavropetritis (falcon), the aegaeoglaros, the shag and the wild goat of Youra.

The Mediterranean seal was named monachus monachus probably by the shape of the top of its head. It's like wearing a hat of a Roman Catholic monk. Like the sea turtle caretta caretta, it appears in representations of ancient Greek coins. Homer describes the monk seal to enjoy the sun in sandy beaches.
The earliest years it lived on all Mediterranean coasts. But several factors had been the cause to disappear in recent years in more than ten countries and today it is considered as the most endangered species in Europe.

Ii is estimated that they survive 400 to 500. Two-thirds live in Greece. About 100 to 150 live in the Atlantic coast of Mauritania and less on the coasts of Madeira, Morocco, Cyprus and Turkey. The life of the monk seal is 35 to 40 years. It is among the largest species of seal in the world. It has a length of 2 – 3 meters and a weight of an average of 250 kg. Its skin is covered with short glossy coat, usually gray or brown on the back and lighter on the belly. There are no visible differences between the male and the female.

Today the Mediterranean seal breeds mainly in caves, since it was forced to abandon its sandy beaches. The period of birth lasts from May to November with a peak in September and October. It gives birth to one baby seal every time. Gestation lasts 10 to 11 months and lactation 4-8 weeks. All this time is long, so births are usually every second year. The baby seals have a length of one meter and a weight of 7 to 10 kgs. Their skin is covered with long black hair with a white distinctive feature in the belly. In the first days of their life they don’t swim well, but it only takes a few weeks to become excellent swimmers.

The monk seal feeds on all kinds of fish and cephalopods in the area where it lives. The amount which the adult seal eats per day corresponds to 5-10% of its weight. It is considered as a competitor of the fishermen and sometimes causes damage to nets for food. But this can be explained. Fish stocks are steadily reduced by overfishing and illegal fishing and the monk seal is obliged to seek its food where it can. This competition is the main threat to its life. Monk seals are still dead, because they did damage to fishing gears, but the phenomenon is seen declining. In the park area such incident has not been reported in recent years.

Apart from the deliberate killing, lethal threat is its involvement in the nets. Crucial problem is also the loss of suitable habitats. In recent years, tourism, recreational boating and other human activities have forced the monk seals to stop spawn on sandy beaches and large caves, and resort to inappropriate caves. This poses increased risks to the lives of newborns, which are inexperienced in swimming the first weeks of life. They can easily be injured or drown from the intense waves when there is bad weather.

Before visiting the sea park of the Northern Sporades, we must know exactly what is allowed. We may contact the Management Authority of the park in its offices in Patitiri, port of Alonissos. At the Information Center they will give us all the necessary information.

The Management Authority is responsible for issuing permits for entry to the sea park and permits for activities allowed.
Those traveling by yacht can communicate for information to the Coast Guard Station of Alonissos at the channel VHF 12. It is very likely to be approached by one of the boats patrolling the park daily, controlling activities, and checking the condition of the environment.

If we see an injured or dead seal or dolphin or bird, or if we observe pollution at sea, we must inform the Management Authority or the Coast Guard Station of Alonissos. Those responsible advise us that if we notice an illegal action, we must communicate with them and not to approach those who break the law.
Across the park area are prohibited the free camp, use of fire and throwing or abandoning garbage. Certain types of refuse, especially plastic bags, can conceal the death of small animals.

Zone A is strictly protected. Special regulations apply to certain islands and marine areas depending on conditions and the natural environment.
The entrance to Zone A is permitted only with special permission of the Management Authority of the marine park.
Special rules apply to both professional and recreational fishing. Strictly prohibited are the scuba and underwater fishing; also prohibited is hunting. In the areas of the islands, where access of yachts and tourist boats is permitted, are allowed the mooring, swimming, observation of fauna and flora, photographing, filming and visiting cultural sites. In some areas is allowed to stay during the night inside boats.

The observation of wildlife is permitted from a safe distance. Not allowed the harassment in any way of the monk seal, like any other animal. A prerequisite is to avoid noises. Especially careful must be the pilots of speed boats. Also is prohibited the cutting or destruction of plants.
In Piperi, most important breeding site of monk seals, it is forbidden to approach within 3 nm around the shores. And that goes for local fishermen, too.

In Zone B, where is Alonissos, the only inhabited island of the park, there are no specific rules. It is prohibited, however, the free camping and use of fire. In some areas there are rules for the speed of high speed crafts, and special rules for sport and middle professional fishing.

In 2011 there was a new delimitation of maritime archaeological site. According to this underwater fishing is allowed only:
- On the coastline north of Steni Vala of Alonissos, from Cape Apythmenos up to the area north of the beach Aghios Dimitrios.
- At the bay Spartina of Alonissos.
- At the bay Klema of the island of Peristera.
- On the coastline east of the small island Megalos Adelphos (Big Brother).