Data from the 2006 Albanian National Capacity Self-Assessment shows that within the past 25 years, two species of plants and four species of mammals have become extinct in Albania. Furthermore, approximately 122 species of vertebrates and four species of plants are expected to have lost 50% of their populations during the same timeframe.
This is currently the highest rate of biodiversity loss in Europe.
In Albania, where the Adriatic and Ionian Seas converge, the presence of marine turtles has been known for several years, but there has never been a systematic assessment of their distribution, feeding grounds, nor the true scale of bycatch by fisheries, which are mostly artisanal. This lack of assessment gives the public no tangible will to actively or legally protect the species.
In 2008, The Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET) designed a three-year marine turtle research program to suit local conditions in the Patok region. Data collected include population dynamics, genetics and migratory routes. Important components of the project include local capacity-building, lobbying with the national authorities for protection of marine turtles, and environmental education and public awareness-raising in Albania.
Through their work, MEDASSET hopes to alter public agendas to include protection for sea turtles and their environments.
One of the first challenges the project leaders faced was to find a way to safely capture and tag sea turtles in order to collect the data. Their solution was to involve local fishermen in the project by using their traditional stavnike fish traps to safely catch turtles for study.
Stavnikes are traditional stationary fish traps that consist of a number of pylons that are hammered into the ocean floor and connected by nets. As the nets get closer together, they create smaller and smaller chambers and it gets harder for the fish—and any other marine species that goes in—to find their way out (although it isn’t impossible). Stavnikes are usually placed in shallow coastal waters with a small tidal range.
The most interesting thing about stavnikes from a sea turtle researcher’s point of view is that they don’t impede turtles’ ability to surface for air, and they also leave enough room for the animals to swim and even forage in the trap until a researcher is able to tag and release them.
Since the research began in 2008, MEDASSET has tagged over 400 turtles in Patok. Their work has shown that Patok is a significant foraging area for loggerhead turtles in the Mediterranean, as well as an important area for adolescent male loggerheads to forage and grow into adulthood. MEDASSET also launched the first satellite tracking program on 3 turtles in Albania, which continues to provide data on the local turtle population, and also creates an engaging platform for communicating with the public.
MEDASSET completed their third and final year of research in the Patok region last June.
What locally focused work has MEDASSET done that might translate to the global scale for conservation?
First, MEDASSET focuses on involving locals and empowering them with responsibilities that help to guide them toward sustainability. Cooperation with fishermen and local stakeholders has proven to be important in educating the local community about the importance of these endangered species.
Second, MEDASSET invests in younger generations. By training and engaging young people in their program, MEDASSET hopes to ensure that these concepts of conservation get carried into the future, that biodiversity is kept on the public agenda, and that turtle-friendly behavior is well woven into the culture.
Finally, stavnikes are a unique opportunity that MEDASSET has taken advantage of in Albania; they have fused local traditional practices with their desire to conserve wildlife, a process that leaves everyone happy.
Looking to the future, MEDASSET believes that turtle-friendly behavior can eventually become the social norm. In the meantime, however, the understanding and patience MEDASSET has demonstrated through the initiative has helped them to lay the foundation for what they hope will be long-term, positive relationships with local stakeholders and future allies.
MEDASSET’s overall strategy, while locally derived, has clear implications for conservation beyond Albania. At the end of the day, while fostering turtle friendly mindsets and practices within a culture isn’t a quick fix, it has great potential for long-term success. And, as the saying goes, “slow and steady wins the race.”