The European Commission is pursuing legal action against Greece for failure to protect the rare loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) on the island of Zakynthos.
Greece was already condemned by the European Court of Justice in January 2002 for this failure. The Court found that Greece was not doing enough to protect the breeding sites of the sea turtle on a number of beaches on Zakynthos.
An endangered loggerhead turtle swims near Zakynthos. (Photo courtesy Greek Tourism)
The Commission will now send Greece a final written warning urging it to comply with the 2002 ruling. This warning is the last step before the Commission can ask the Court to impose penalties on Greece.
With this action, the Commission says, it wants "to ensure that Greece protects its rich biodiversity to the benefit of their citizens and future generations."
Commenting on the decisions, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said, "Stopping the loss of Europe's biodiversity is one of the most important items on the EU's environmental agenda. The loggerhead sea turtle is a rare and endangered species, and the breeding sites on Zakynthos are its most important in Europe."
"Greece started taking measures to allow the turtle to breed undisturbed, but these efforts have stopped," Wallstrom said. "I hope Greece will resume the establishment and implementation of an effective system of protection. The country must be proud to be hosting such an important and delightful creature."
Sunbeds lined up along Laganas Bay on the Greek island of Zakynthos (Photo courtesy Zakynthos-net)
Laganas Bay in Zakynthos is the most important breeding site for the species in the Mediterranean. The sea turtle lays eggs only every two or three years, during the summer months, and when the baby turtles hatch two months later, they are very vulnerable.
In its 2002 ruling, the court declared that Greece had failed to establish and implement an effective system of strict protection, thereby violating its obligations under the 1992 Habitats Directive.
This law provides for a comprehensive protection scheme for a range of endangered and valuable animals and plants as well as a selection of habitat types.
It has established Natura 2000, the EU’s network of protected nature sites, which by now covers around 18 percent of the EU territory. Under the Habitats Directive, the loggerhead must be strictly protected. In addition, the Greek government has proposed Laganas Bay as a Natura 2000 site.
Sunbeds on a beach in the Vassilikos area (Photo courtesy Zakynthos-net)
In December 2002, the Commission sent Greece a first warning for non-compliance with the Court judgement. The Greek authorities then responded postiively and progress was made, the Commission said.
But in April 2004 the National Marine Park of Zakynthos, which is the official management body, ceased operating due to severe financial problems. During the summer of 2004, there was no staff to run the park, and the public was not provided with proper information on how to avoid disturbing the turtle sites.
Hatchling loggerhead turtle on Zakynthos beach. (Photo courtesy Greek Yackhts)
No seasonal wardens were hired, the marine area was not patrolled, and no controls were exercised over illegal activities.
As a result, there were incidents of illegal fishing and anchoring in front of the important nesting beach of Sekania, which is legally an area of absolute protection.
On Daphni beach, illegal bars and taverns continued to operate.
On the sand dunes and the beach of Kalamaki, cars, motorcycles and horses were routinely used.
And the limits set for the numbers of sun beds and umbrellas on the nesting beaches of Kalamaki and Gerakas were repeatedly violated. In summary, the Commission said, all important breeding sites on the island were badly affected, and the sea turtle was deliberately disturbed during its reproduction period.
In its warning letter, the Commission is asking Greece to urgently comply with the Court’s ruling within two months, after which the Commission may ask the Court to impose penalties.