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F - 238 : Greek Fish love Plate Tectonics

Sailing from Istanbul to Athens next summer, where Genovese galleys once roamed, will take us to many tiny ports where fishermen still go after their daily business. We are all familiar with the idyllic photos of Greek fishing villages. No Greek PR campaign could do without them. One of the pleasures of sailing in Greek waters is waiting for the boats coming in at 8 am with fresh catch. There is always something good to buy. And the bargaining is hilarious!

The small harbour of Tinos, a small and not yet discover Island north of Mykonos

The Aegean is an ideal place for fish. Large shallow plateaus alternate with deep basins - all the creation of the relentless plate tectonics pushing the African continental plate into Europe. We are used to see the faults and ridges on land. The same mechanism is also at work below water - we just can't see it. Thanks to modern technology, the sea floor is now meticulously mapped and the same basins, plateaus and ridges as on land are visible.

Depth of the Aegean Sea Floor

The shape of the sea floor has a big impact on marine life. 90% of the ocean's bio mass lives in shallow waters. Down to 200 meters, sunlight enables photosynthesis. Run-offs from land pour valuable nutritious into the sea. The upper sea levels are thus full of life. The food chain begins with microscopic algae, corals and the tiniest, little planktons. It feeds the little reef fish we know from the animated movie Nemo. Larger predators in turn feed on them until we reach the level of voracious tunas, dolphins and sharks. The presence of top predators indicates a rich biosphere. Due to its shallowness, the Aegean is full of marine life. There is a lot of sun. And Greece's more than 2'000 islands ensure ample supply of sediments and organic matter thru their little creeks and small rivers. It is fish paradise!

Greek Plate with Fish Motives (Sea Perches) dating from 300 BC

It is thus no surprise that fishing and seafaring played such an important role in classic Greece. With the exception of the few costal plains, there are only a few fertile areas suitable to agriculture. Two third of Greece is dominated by mountains where shrub, pines, olive and almond trees grow but not much else. But the sea was always is full of life! It had an abundance of fish which could be caught, cured or dried and traded for cereals from abroad. The Greek had almost an unlimited source of protein right in front of their doors. Olive oil and cured fish became Greece's staple export products and financed everything they had to import. The prominent role that the sea played in Greek mythology is easy to understand. The sea was giving life! You could say, no fish - no Greece!

Roman Mosaic showing Fishermen - Fishing was not a Sport but a Way to earn a Living

That such a rich environment attracted our ancestors, the hunter-gatherers who roamed Europe, is no surprise. We do not know when the Aegean was settled. Recent finds of obsidian, the flaky, sharp material, which was used for tools and weapons in the Stone Age, give us some clues. It was mined 20'000 years BC on the volcanic island of Milos and found on several Aegean islands which could only be reached by boat. These early humans were probably fishermen who used the obsidian to make harpoons for fishing. With many of the islands still linked together, the sea journeys were relatively short and no challenge for boats made from tree trunks or hides sewn together.

Greek Coastline 15'000 BC when Sea Levels were 120 m lover & the Black Sea not connected

During the last ice age, the islands of Kos, Samos, Chios and Lesbos were part of Anatolia. Paros and Naxos formed one single island, Euboea was attached to the Greek Mainland and the Golf of Thessaloniki did not exist. The climate was colder and wetter than today which would have facilitate the growth of large forests. With more rain fall, more organic matter was swept into the sea. It is reasonable to assume that the sea was booming with life - even richer than during antiquity. No permanent settlement was found yet. But being a fisherman in Greece has a long tradition.

Overfishing of the Hake - could not find any Figures for the Aegean but the Situation is as dire as in the Rest of the Mediterranean. The Chart is from the EU Task Force on Overfishing

With the industrial revolution came steamships, trawlers, mile long big fish nets which swept the sea clean of fish. Today, the Mediterranean is so overfished that many fear it will never recover. Pollution from modern cities with no waste water treatment make things worse.

Modern Trawler Fleets with their Schlepp-Nets have the Efficiency of Vacuum Cleaners - there is nothing left on the Sea Floor once they passed

Anybody who scuba dives in the Mediterranean knows that there are very few fish compared to the Pacific or the Indian Ocean. The Mediterranean is a shadow of its former self. On our trip around Corsica in 2020 we watched tuna hunting sardines - but they were much smaller - maybe a meter long - than the tuna we saw on photos in the Tonnara Museum of Favignana. These tunas were 2 - 3 meters long and 600 - 800 kg heavy. There was still abundant fish stock only 150 years ago.

Tuna Fishing in Favignana in 1851 on the western Tip of Sicily (see blog D + 23)

So far, there has been a lot of talking about fishing quotas and cleaning up the waters but little action. The fact that the Mediterranean States all have different agendas and many are politically unstable makes the task challenging. But it can work as the EU's Dolphin project in the Adriatic demonstrates. All Italian and Dalmatian Towns now have waste water treatment plants and quotas are enforced by the local maritime authorities. The dolphins returned which indicate that their pray returned as well. Similar efforts to protect the cod in the North Sea were equally successful. But time is running out.

Yannis Tsakirios, a local fisherman on the Aegean Island of Leros, catches today 10 kilo of fish rather than 40 - 50 kg as in the past

Plate tectonics created the marine environment which gave rise to the Greek civilisation. It is to hope that our generation who stands on the shoulders of our Greek ancestors does not spoil this gift of nature.

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