Environmental restoration

As part of its planning and management, the marine protected area has in recent years also set up active environmental protection strategies; attention has therefore also been paid to direct environmental restoration actions.

What has been done?


A very first environmental restoration intervention became necessary in 2019, when a French-flagged sailing yacht ran aground on the shoals and sank on the night of 14–15 January, near the Torre della Meloria, and was abandoned by its owner, who went missing and could not be found. It was therefore necessary for the Park Authority that manages the MPA, with the cooperation of the Coastguard and the Guardia di Finanza, who were the first to intervene at the scene of the accident, to carry out an immediate emergency environmental protection intervention, first of all to prevent the initiation and spread of pollution.

It later became necessary to carry out a full-scale environmental clean-up operation, with the recovery and complete removal of the wreck, which, after only a few days, was badly damaged and had begun to scatter parts onto the seabed and surrounding reefs, with even the risk of releasing hazardous substances into the marine environment.

The intervention was carried out by a large local company specialising in maritime works.

The operations, made complex by the location and morphology of the sites, required special work to dismantle and disassemble the various parts of the yacht, to quickly remove them, to secure and confine the various materials, so that a complete and effective environmental clean-up could be achieved and no pollutants would be released into the environment.

Once all the bulkiest and heaviest materials had been removed and removed, a detailed clean-up of the area was carried out, both on the surface and underwater, with the identification and removal of all materials foreign to the natural environment, as well as all those factors that could constitute degradation or risk to the marine area.

All the materials removed were collected and sent for disposal in accordance with the law, mainly as special waste.

Once all the clean-up operations had been completed, specific monitoring of the area was carried out in order to verify the state of the environments following the disaster, with particular regard to the Posidonia oceanica meadows, which are the predominant environment in the area. The inspections, which continued for two seasons, showed that, in the end, the Posidonia and the biocoenosis associated with this habitat had not been damaged, probably thanks to the timely intervention and the thoroughness of the clean-up operations carried out.

Despite the circumstances and urgency of the case, this was a significant pollution containment and environmental clean-up operation, implemented directly by a marine protected area management body, which involved specialist work and complex interventions, and which are not common in the management of an MPA.

Thanks to this direct and active protection intervention, the area around the Torre della Meloria is now clean and there is no longer any trace of the incident that occurred in January 2019.


What is being done?


Among the ongoing or planned activities are three important actions: two being studied and tested, and one being implemented progressively.

The restoration of macroalgal forests
The first important action being studied and tested is one of the two ambitious, and no less complex and difficult natural environmental restoration pilot operations that this MPA is attempting to carry out.

This involves experimenting and then implementing, where conditions make it possible, the restoration of target species of particular ecological and conservation value, such as the Mediterranean brown alga Cystoseira brachycarpa.

Cystoseira brachycarpa

This species of alga lives close to the surface, in shallow waters with plenty of light and limited hydro-dynamics, where it develops dense and large populations. It has an arborescent development with specimens whose “crowns” rise up from the bottom for several tens of centimetres, forming a kind of forest appearance. It was once widespread in the Mediterranean: it covered large swathes of the infralittoral plane; whereas today it is in a state of severe regression, and in some situations in a threatened condition with the risk of disappearance, due to pollution or habitat-altering factors, mainly caused by the expansion and pervasiveness of human activities and, lastly, also to climate change with the invasion of predominant alien species. It is still present in the Secche della Meloria, although in circumscribed and sometimes specific forms, probably much smaller than in the past; however, the geo-morphological characteristics of the Secche could and should favour the development of these macro-algal formations.

Macro-algal forests populate the rocky coasts of all seas, from tidal limits down to a maximum depth of 10 metres. Their presence is very important and in some respects vital. Indeed, they can be defined as the “sentinels” of the sea, as they generate an environment that provides shelter, food and reproduction for many species of marine animals: from the smallest invertebrates and hydrozoans to sponges, molluscs and many species of fish, for which they constitute real nurseries. They also perform the vital functions of cleaning and oxygenating the sea, as well as providing a natural barrier to erosion. Together with Posidonia meadows, they form irreplaceable reservoirs of biodiversity.

Initial studies were carried out in 2020 on the current environmental status of the Secche della Meloria, and in particular on the condition of the existing biocoenosis. Through both field work and laboratory analyses, the environmental challenges and opportunities for embarking on any potential reforestation of Mediterranean brown algae were assessed, with analysis of this species’ potential for establishment and survival given the physical, chemical and biological conditions at the MPA site.

The first field experiments were thus carried out: sampling thalli in the Isola di Capraia marine protected area and using specific scientific procedures to carry out 3 transplants in two points in the northern part of Zone A, of the fully protected reserve of the Secche Meloria MPA.

The transplanted algae were placed under monitoring to check the progress of the experiment over a significant period of time, assessing their health status through specific scientific measurements. The evidence showed no signs of distress for the transplanted algae, which displayed a well-pigmented thallus with no signs of necrosis, as well as good physiological data, maintaining levels of maximum photosynthetic efficiency comparable to those of natural stands under optimal conditions throughout the experiment.

The first objective was to assess the ability of the algae to survive the various stages required for transplantation. This is a key step in large-scale restoration measures. No matter how effective the transplantation technique is, the prospect of blanketing large areas of substrate with adult organisms is unrealistic, not least to avoid causing environmental damage to the sampling areas. The alternative tried out was to transplant only a limited number of adult organisms and to allow, with appropriate protective measures, these organisms to reach the reproductive stage so that they could act as propagule reservoirs to colonise the surrounding areas, enabling them to spread over a large area.

The transplants carried out have demonstrated the initial feasibility of this environmental restoration operation. The MPA will therefore commit to continuing the pilot project, with the consolidation of the experiments carried out and, most importantly, the start of a larger-scale project to spread Cystoseira within the marine protected area, in order to recreate favourable conditions for the return of Mediterranean brown algae forests.

The reintroduction of Patella ferruginea

The second important environmental restoration project dedicated to target species of particular ecological and conservation value focuses on trialling the introduction of Patella ferruginea into the environments of the Secche Meloria MPA.

This gastropod mollusc is not currently found in the area of the Secche; it is characterised by a conical shell similar to the common limpet and, like the limpet, it attaches itself to rocky substrates in the intertidal belt that are subject to strong hydrodynamics.

Patella ferruginea

This species was also once widespread in the Mediterranean, much more so than today, and was perhaps even found in the Secche della Meloria. Today, however, it is in a state of severe regression, and in some situations is endangered or at risk of extinction, mainly due to the pervasiveness of human harvesting activities; this species of limpet is indeed highly prized for food consumption and for use in fishing.

During 2020, the first environmental characterisation studies were carried out to assess the presence of suitable habitats to host this rare species in the Secche della Meloria MPA. The assessment combined scientific knowledge on the environmental requirements and characteristics favourable to the species with data directly collected in the field.

The results of the studies have shown that, unlike brown algae, there are currently no environments immediately suitable for a potential reintroduction of Patella ferruginea; this environmental restoration project does not, therefore, seem immediately feasible in the area of the Secche della Meloria.

The main limitation noted was precisely the lack of an appropriate habitat in all respects to host this species. P. ferruginea inhabits the intertidal zone of rocky coastlines, and therefore requires periods of submersion as well as prolonged periods of emersion from the water. In the study area, the only environment with these characteristics are the artificial reefs that now surround the main Faro delle Secche lighthouse and the historic Torre della Meloria tower, within Zone B of the MPA.

As well as the fact that they do not provide a natural substratum, the existing reefs have very limited potential for spatial development, which is critical for the natural development of a biocoenosis related to P. ferruginea. They are also located outside the Fully Protected Reserve Zone, a factor which, should the introduction of new specimens of P. ferruginea be trialled, would expose the experiment to potential disturbance and harvesting by visitors, given that this area of the MPA is open to public use.

The expectations regarding the establishment of P. ferruginea are therefore different and more complex.

In the absence of a sufficiently extensive rocky intertidal habitat, maintained in an actively protected condition, any transplantation of specimens of this species must be considered to be at risk of failure, as it is subject to removal or damage by users of the area. In this regard, there is useful evidence from research institutes on the experience of monitoring biodiversity along the Calafuria coastline south of Livorno. This is an open-access coastline, not subject to active protection and not far from the MPA, where in 30 years of operations, only three small specimens of P. ferruginea have been identified.

Thus, despite the absence of a sufficiently extensive and natural intertidal rocky substrate in Meloria, the MPA intends to continue this study, which will certainly require greater efforts and more advanced experiments, precisely because of the significant ecological conservation importance of this species of gastropod.

To avoid failures due to the use of the area, it will be the intention of the MPA’s managing body to also prepare measures for the limitation and specific protection of possible transplantation areas, which may both become part of the existing rules of use and provide for actual physical delimitation of the repopulation points, with a view to maximising the future probability of success.

The fight against plastic and microplastic/nanoplastic pollution

Among the environmental restoration activities, we would also like to mention the MPA’s recent commitment to the campaign to monitor and sample plastics and especially microplastics and nanoplastics in the sea, which is being implemented on several fronts.

This is an ongoing action, which is being progressively implemented, and which the MPA is mainly carrying out in collaboration with the “Plastic-Buster” programme promoted by the University of Siena (https://plasticbusters.unisi.it/). The “Plastic-Buster” programme is a Europe-wide network supported by numerous partners, which includes leading Italian universities and among which ISPRA is the coordinator for Italy (https://www.isprambiente.gov.it/it/progetti/cartella-progetti-in-corso/acque-interne-e-marino-costiere-1/plastic-busters).

In this context, the Park has also entered into a specific collaboration agreement with the Centre for Instrument Sharing at the University of Pisa (CISUP) focused on studying forms of pollution from plastic waste in river and lake basins in the area covered by the Park and the effects that these forms of pollution have at sea and on coastal ecosystems, with particular reference to the qualitative and quantitative detection of macroscopic and microscopic plastic fragments in various environmental matrices: sands and sediments on the seabed and lakebed (https://cisup.unipi.it/).

The “Plastic-Buster” activities have recently involved a range of initial monitoring operations at sea within the marine protected area by researchers from the University of Siena, and collection operations both at sea and on the coast facing the Secche.

Seven sampling transects in the waters within the MPA and one sample on the beach facing the MPA in Bocca di Serchio in the municipality of Vecchiano have now been completed.

The data collected at sea provided an initial result regarding the presence of very few microplastics and nanoplastics in the waters of the MPA; however, sampling tubes have been prepared and will be examined in microscopic detail in the laboratories of the Universities of Turin, Modena and Florence.

The good result to date from the waters of the Secche Meloria is undoubtedly due to the particular morphology of the marine area and, above all, to the high hydrodynamics generated by the system of surface and depth currents from which this stretch of sea benefits.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the monitoring carried out on the coast facing the MPA!

Here, in fact, the presence of plastic pollution is very widespread and pervasive. Plastic waste of all kinds and sizes and practically a carpet of microplastics and nanoplastics are found in vast quantities, which are now closely intertwined with the organic material and natural sediments of the beach.

Sampling and analyses are therefore also being carried out on these forms of plastic pollution that affect the land coastline and do not directly concern the marine area, as a large part of this pollution spills onto the shoreline from the sea and is an important alarm bell for the state of health of the marine ecosystem in general.

Environmental restoration to eliminate or greatly reduce pollution by plastics and microplastics/nanoplastics is only just beginning and will need to be the focus of much of the environmental efforts in the marine environment in the coming years.

At present, work is necessary on several fronts: on the one hand, continuing monitoring and studies to find structured solutions, and on the other hand, launching all possible campaigns to involve citizens aimed at knowledge/awareness of this important issue and, above all, education to reduce the use of plastics and use them in an environmentally aware and respectful manner.

One of the actions to contain this pollution is to intervene at the source with a drastic reduction in the production and use of plastics, especially for single-use items and packaging, which could be reduced to zero in the near future.

In future development, the second action on which the research organisations are working is the identification of viable solutions for the on-site elimination of plastic pollution.

The Secche Meloria MPA is committed to supporting and pursuing this effort!

In terms of environmental restoration, what has been done to date is probably still not much, especially in view of the considerable needs that the worrying state of the sea often requires!

But it is as much as could be done in the current context with the powers and resources of the MPA today, and, above all, it has been important to draw attention to this aspect and to send out a message of awareness.

This is undoubtedly the beginning of a useful and necessary path, which will have to be implemented and strengthened in the near future, including by strengthening the role and capacities of marine protected areas.

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