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Standing Guard Over Plemmirio

Commentary by Captain Peter Hammarstedt

The city of Syracuse in Sicily was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status because of its famous Greek, Roman and Baroque architecture, but beyond the city limits is a marine reserve of greater global significance with its natural cathedrals that serve as sanctuary for Sicily’s endangered fish populations. The waters of the Plemmirio Marine Park hide an underwater amphitheater as spectacular as the cavea of the famous Siracusan Greek Theatre. And just as the nymph Arethusa of Greek mythology took shelter from Alpheus at the Fountain of Arethusa, the endangered Dusky Grouper hides in the underwater caves amongst the submerged cliffs of Plemmirio’s spectacular sunken world. It is a subaqueous realm that would have received equal attention from Milton and Virgil had they peered under the surface to realize that the true treasure of the ancient city of Syracuse is the waters that surround it, waters now designated to protect the endangered Dusky Grouper which reproduces there.

The Dusky Grouper is endangered because of the qualities that make it such a unique fish. Their extremely slow rate of reaching sexual maturity, and their ability to change sex from female to male at the age of about twelve, results in the sex ratio heavily favoring females to males. Furthermore, because the Dusky Grouper forms small spawning groups that generally stay in one area, such as the Plemmirio Marine Park, they are incredibly vulnerable to overfishing, especially spear-fishing. The Groupers are easy to spear. It is not uncommon for underwater photographers to assume that the Groupers are actually posing for their pictures.

Few people are more credible witnesses to the diminishment of life in the Plemmirio Marine Reserve than world-renowned free divers Enzo and Patrizia Maiorca. It is the waters surrounding the Maddalena Peninsula that made the Maiorca family legendary, where they submerged to record depths and surfaced as two of the most vocal advocates for ocean conservation in all of Italy. Enzo vividly recalls the last time that he fired a spearfishing gun as a young man. The first shot fired only managed to wound the Grouper, which instinctively fled behind some rocks to hide. As Enzo reached behind the rocks to grab the terrified fish, he felt its heart beating fiercely against his hand as blood enveloped it. It was that connection between skin and scale that made Enzo put down his spearfishing gun forever – he realized that the fish was a living creature.

An underwater statue of Enzo’s daughter (and Patrizia’s sister) Rossana, who also dived competitively until she tragically passed away, permanently and vigilantly guards the big blue from thirty meters depth. The bronze statue of a woman, half fish and half human, monumentalizes the memory of Rossana and perfectly embodies the spirit of the Maiorca family who, like the Bluefin tuna for which they also passionately advocate, always have one eye looking towards the land, and one eye gazing out to sea [as they migrate past the Sicilian coast].

It was at the request of the Maiorca family, and the Plemmirio Marine Park, that Sea Shepherd has converged upon the Plemmirio Marine Reserve. Dozens of volunteers, like so many Groupers, hide among the cliffs, as sirens keeping a watch over Plemmirio. Working together with local law enforcement, including the Coast Guard, the Guardia di Finanza and the Environmental Police, Sea Shepherd volunteers report any illegal activity that they find. At the time of writing, six poaching operations have already been busted due to the perfect combination of Sea Shepherd alertness and the quick action of Italian law enforcement. Spearfishing guns have been confiscated, illegal long lines have been seized and one thousand sea urchins have been re-released into the sea. Criminal operations have been shut down and lives have been saved.

Operation Siracusa is what Sea Shepherd is about. Every night, watchful eyes continue to stand guard over the Plemmirio Marine Reserve, eyes that look forward rather than looking away. As these passionate volunteers work to spot the next poacher, I look upon them and I imagine that this is what Captain Paul Watson meant when he envisioned Sea Shepherd not as an organization but as a global movement.

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