In the past, Mediterranean monk seals lived along the coasts of the Black Sea, throughout the entire Mediterranean Sea, at the Atlantic islands of Madeira, the Azores and Cape Verde. Along the northwestern coast of Africa the species lived from Morocco in the north all the way south to present Senegal and Gambia. The systematic hunting and persecution of the species over the past centuries appears to have been the main reason for the dramatic decline of the Mediterranean monk seal. The intensive killings that occurred in the last two centuries appear to have driven the species to extinction in the Black Sea and in most of the Mediterranean countries (including almost all of the countries in the southern Mediterranean Basin, as well as Spain, France and Italy in the northern Mediterranean Basin).
Nowadays, the original distribution of the species has been significantly reduced and Mediterranean monk seals can be found only in four isolated, disjunct populations:
1. A small population of approximately 40 individuals in the Archipelago of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean.
2. A colony of approximately 220 individuals on the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa at the Cabo Blanco Peninsula. A mass die-off occurred in 1997 that reduced that population by two thirds, and the colony has only partially recovered.
3. A small population of perhaps fewer than 10 individuals along the Moroccan and Algerian Mediterranean coast. However, the lack of systematic monitoring and conservation actions in that area make the survival of this small population uncertain.
4. The highest number of seals can be found in the eastern Mediterranean Basin, mainly in the Ionian and Aegean Seas in Greece and along the Mediterranean coasts of Turkey.
Recently, observations of monk seal individuals have been recorded in Israel, Libya, Cyprus, Croatia and Italy. This is a hopeful sign that the species will be able to return to its oldest areas of distribution.
The largest population of the endangered Mediterranean monk seal lives in Greece and is estimated to number approximately 300 individuals. Monk seals are widely distributed throughout the entire coastline of the country and show a strong preference for isolated and inaccessible islands, islets or parts of the coastline on the mainland. The largest and most closely monitored populations are those at the Northern Sporades Islands and at the Kimolos – Polyaigos island complex. The population at the Northern Sporades Islands (which includes the National Marine Park of Alonissos, Northern Sporades) has been closely monitored by MOm since 1988 and is considered to number more than 50 individuals. Another 50 individuals are also believed to live at the Kimolos – Polyaigos island complex in the southwestern Cyclades islands. Important reproductive populations of the species can also be found at the islands of Northern Karpathos and Saria (this population is estimated to number approximately 25 individuals) and at the Ionian Islands (i.e., Zakynthos and Cephalonia). In recent years, the largest population of Mediterranean monk seals in Greece was discovered at the island of Gyaros, in the northern Cyclades Islands, and has been estimated to number approximately 60 individuals.
Studying the distribution of the Mediterranean monk seal in Greece is conducted mainly through the evaluation and mapping of information received by the Hellenic Rescue and Information Network of MOm (RINT) and through the collection of on-site information during the monitoring of important monk seal populations in the country.
The Archipelago of Madeira is located in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 600 km from the coast of northwestern Africa. For years the residents of the main island of Madeira exploited the species for its skin, meat and oil. This relentless persecution led to the disappearance of the species from the main island of Madeira and its restriction to the remote and uninhabited Desertas Islands. Research conducted in the 1980ies indicated however that even there the fate of the species was not secured; faced with the imminent extinction of Monachus monachus, the Portuguese government stepped up conservation efforts in the region and created the Desertas Islands Nature Reserve.
Protective measures in the area include a no-access zone for humans around the most important resting and pupping sites within the Park and an area of controlled human access with specific fishing restrictions.
The results of these systematic and dedicated conservation efforts have been very encouraging. From a low of 6 – 8 monk seals in the 1980s, the population has partially recovered and is now estimated to number approximately 25 – 35 individuals. Each year, approximately 3 pups are born, which, due to the absence of human activity in the area, are being taken care of by their mothers on open beaches! The most encouraging sign of recovery however is the fact that Mediterranean monk seals have returned and are sighted now also at the main island of Madeira.
Cabo Blanco region
At the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa, at the Cabo Blanco region, approximately 220 monk seals survive. This population is unique, as all animals in this area use only two particular caves for resting and pupping; it is considered that this is the last place on earth where Mediterranean monk seals still live in the characteristic social structure of a seal colony as they did centuries ago before human persecution.
It is worth mentioning that in 1997 this population numbered more than 300 individuals and was considered to be the largest worldwide. Unfortunately, a mass die-off in the summer of 1997, probably caused by a combination of a virus and a biotoxin, reduced the population by two thirds to 110 - 120 individuals. Since then the population has partially recovered.
Up until the previous century the Mediterranean monk seal was widely distributed in Turkey, along the coasts of the Black sea, the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, along the Aegean coast, and all the way south to the Cilician Basin on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. The relentless hunting and the widespread destruction and deterioration of marine and coastal habitats led to a drastic reduction in population numbers and ultimately to the disappearance of the species from large stretches of the Turkish coastline. It is believed that the species has now disappeared from most of Turkey and that it survives only in small, highly fragmented populations around the islands of the ancient town of Foça, around the Karaburun Peninsula and in the Cilician Basin.
Recent research in the Cilician Basin has shown that the local Mediterranean monk seal population numbers approximately 30 individuals and that 2 – 3 pups are born each year. The Cilician Basin is characterized by remote and inaccessible coasts and is therefore not particularly suitable for wide-scale exploitation by the tourism industry; thus, at the moment the threat of habitat disturbance or destruction does not appear to be very high. In contrast, overfishing in the area appears to have reduced the available fish resources, which is believed to pose the main threat to the local monk seal population.
In the area of the ancient town of Foça, efforts for studying and protecting the critically endangered Mediterranean monk seal have been spearheaded since 1996 by the environmental organization SAD - AFAG. The researchers of that organization have been closely monitoring this small monk seal population, which is estimated to number approximately 20 individuals and have shown that accidental entanglement and drowning in fishing gear placed near the main pupping caves is a serious threat to the survival of the local monk seal population.