The effective protection and enhancement of the exceptionally valuable marine habitats of the Secche della Meloria stretch of sea has come to fruition with the final approval of Italy’s twenty-sixth marine protected area by the relevant ministries. On 6 April 2010, with effect from 21 April 2010, the Decree of the Ministry of the Environment, Land and Sea, in agreement with the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, of 21 October 2009 was published in the Official Journal, establishing the Secche della Meloria marine protected area (MPA) and entrusting its management to the Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli Regional Park Authority.
The marine protected area covers an established area of 9,122 hectares and is currently divided into three zones (A, B and C), and three sub-zones (B1, B2 and B3) with different degrees of protection. The regulations in force were laid down in the Ministerial Decree of 18 April 2014, supplemented by the subsequent Decree of 18 July 2016, which defined the specific regulations for the implementation and organisation of this marine protected area.
Zone A is the fully protected zone, located approximately in the centre of the protected area as a whole. It covers an area of 560 hectares and is rectangular in shape with 4 vertex points (M, N, P and Q) identified by specific geographical coordinates (expressed in latitude and longitude). This is the section with the highest level of protection, where no human activity is carried out, with the exception of monitoring and scientific research operations. This area is currently indicated by sea marks placed at the 4 vertex points, consisting of 2 deep-sea buoys for the most offshore vertices and 2 day beacons for the most onshore vertices, all equipped with both daytime identification and nighttime light beacons.
Zone B, which covers an area of 1,280 hectares, is the part of the general reserve surrounding the zone with the highest level of protection, where only certain limited activities may be carried out. It is also rectangular in shape with 4 vertex points (F, G, H and L) identified by specific geographical coordinates (expressed in latitude and longitude). This area has been subdivided under the regulations in force into 3 sub-zones to allow commercial fishing – notably sea urchin fishing – in one part, and some limited forms of freer use for the residents of local municipalities in the other part. It is currently not identified at sea by any markers.
Zone C is the remaining part of the marine protected area, and is the outermost general protection zone, in which all activities compatible with the general requirements for the protection of marine environments may be carried out. It is roughly trapezoidal in shape, with five vertex points (A, B, C, D and E), each corresponding to specific geographical coordinates (expressed in latitude and longitude). It is currently not identified at sea by any markers.
The geographical and environmental characteristics of the Secche Meloria MPA make it a unique marine area among Italy’s protected marine areas. It is completely detached from the coast, located in an open stretch of sea approximately 3.5 nautical miles (7 km) from the shoreline, directly opposite the city and port of Livorno, extending northwards to the Pisan coastline.
It consists of a shoal of predominantly calcareous rocky shallows with a depth ranging from a minimum of 1.5–2 metres near the top of the shoal, to a maximum of 30–35 metres towards the western, northern and southern edges of the shoal, where it slopes down to sandy and muddy seabeds interspersed with dead matte. The eastern part of the shoal faces towards the land and the port of Livorno and has a maximum depth of about 9 metres – a depth that naturally decreases up to the Livorno coastline, from which the shoal remains continuously separated by a small submarine channel approximately 1 metre wide and 5 km long.
There are no onshore areas in this MPA, and currently the only parts above water are the embankments formed by small artificial reefs built on the head of the shoal, upon which the maritime signalling lighthouse and the historic tower commemorating the battle between the Maritime Republics of Pisa and Genoa were constructed. The specific configuration and location of this MPA means that it lacks any land surface and hence any land-based geographical identifying reference points, making the very presence of the protected area and the recognisability of certain distinctive environmental assets, all of which are naturally contained beneath the surface of the sea, somewhat difficult to identify.
The aims of the marine protected area are clearly expressed in Article 3 of its founding ministerial decree, which provides that the establishment of the “Secche della Meloria” MPA pursues first and foremost the environmental protection of the area concerned and seeks to:
protect and enhance its natural, chemical and physical characteristics and marine and coastal biodiversity, including through environmental restoration;
promote environmental education and disseminate knowledge of the area’s marine and coastal environments, including through the implementation of educational and dissemination programmes;
implement study, monitoring and scientific research programmes in the fields of natural sciences and environmental protection, in order to ensure systematic knowledge of the area;
promote the sustainable development of the area, with particular regard to the enhancement of traditional activities, local cultures, eco-friendly tourism and use by socially sensitive groups.
The management of the Secche della Meloria Marine Protected Area is entrusted to the Migliarino San Rossore Massaciuccoli Regional Park. It is a “historic” park in the Tuscan and national context, as it was established, after a lengthy political, social and cultural process, by a specific law of the Tuscan Region on 13 December 1979. The onshore Regional Park covers an area of approximately 230 square kilometres along the coast between Viareggio and Livorno. Although the park is located in the heart of a heavily urbanised area, it has retained remarkable natural features, and a rare example of a wild northern Mediterranean coastal area, with marshlands, dunes and coastal forests, can be found here. The statutory aims of the Park Authority are to protect the environmental and historical characteristics of the Pisan and Lucchese coastline, in relation to the social use of these assets; and to promote scientific research and nature teaching, environmental education and training, and the enhancement of local economic activities, with particular reference to the performance of the duties delegated to it by the Tuscany Region.