A prominent place of marine biodiversity
The natural reserve of Scandola and particularly its integral part (80 ha) are regarded by the scientific community as a world reference in terms of protection of the biodiversity. Among the steep red-granite cliffs, sculpted peaks and enchanting inlets, one can find a number of remarkable species, some of which have almost gone extinct in the Mediterranean region. “Over 450 species of algae and nearly 200 species of fish have been identified in the reserve and new species are discovered every year,” proudly says Jean-Marie Dominici, the reserve’s manager since 23 years. “One can still find species that have become rare today such as the ‘badrêche’, the dentex or even the brown meagre, without forgetting the grouper. Not less that 160 specimens of the latter species have been spotted over 150 metres!” enthusiastically says the reserve’s guardian. “It is the highest concentration of fauna in terms of species and all age groups are represented. Adult fish having reached the maximum size are well present, which is something rare in the Mediterranean region.”
The longest lithophyllum ‘pavements’ in Europe
Even if he is a mountaineer at heart, Jean-Marie Dominici knows by heart the crossings among the peaks and rocks of the reserve. Aboard his dinghy, he cleverly finds his way into the caves, passes under the red rhyolite arches and glides along the cliffs that dive theatrically into the azure waters. However, the achievement he is the most proud of is the lithophyllum ‘pavements’. He considers this construction formed of limestone algae in the mediolittoral zone of the cliff, namely the surf zone, to be the reserve’s main attraction. And rightly so as these ‘pavements’ that are at times immersed and at times submerged can reach up to two metres wide at places! “These blocks have developed over 1,000 years, which is a record in Europe!” says the guardian with unfeigned enthusiasm. These magnificent natural sights contain an important biodiversity that has survived regular drought periods. Moreover, in his capacity as manager of the reserve, Jean-Marie Dominici has presented a request to the Regional Environment Directorate (DIREN) to prohibit access to certain inlets to jetskis and boats in order to protect this unique ecosystem. The reserve is also reputed for its impressive basaltic organs. Unique in the world, these horizontal rhyolite prisms are one of the reserve’s major attractions and stand witness to the movement of the tectonic plate and the primitive position of Corsica.
The spectacular ecosystems of coralligenous and red coral
From their very first splash in the water of the authorised swimming zones, freedivers are surrounded by schools of saupes, white and saddled seabreams as well as surmullets. They can admire numerous blue tangs and black urchins clinging firmly to the rocks. Beyond 30-40 meters, the coralligenous is the major ecosystem in the Mediterranean sea. Made of pink to violet-coloured calcified algae, this construction is home to a considerable number of species and is a focal area of biodiversity in coastal regions. In this immeasurably rich biocenose, along the hangings, divers can admire the spectacular gorgonia with their red, orange or white fan-like branches, contrasting with the cluster anemones. These candelabra-shaped sponges are superbly dressed in yellow and can reach a metre high.
Success of the red coral recolonization
Further down into the sea, rare and precious colonies of red coral called “The Blood of Corsica”, can be found. After centuries of damaging harvesting practices, namely with the use of the Saint Andrew’s cross (an iron bar hung with chains), only ten professional coral fishermen are still in activity. Licensed fishermen are the only ones allowed to collect this prized gem as from 50 metres deep and in conditions that respect the preservation of this slowly growing animal (quotas, fallow periods and minimum size limits). Although the red coral (Corallium rubrum) has become extremely rare in the Mediterranean, it is in full bloom in the Scandola reserve as from the 15-metre deep zone, namely due to the clever actions of CNRS research director Jean-Claude Romano, who designed a process enabling the repopulation of this species that is seriously threatened by global warming. “You only need to attach a piece of coral to a Kevlar prop and screw them on a rock,” explains the guardian, who has lived every minute of this fascinating scientific adventure. “It may seem like makeshift repair but it works! And the repopulation is even faster in darker areas, where the coral develops faster to reach the light.” For once, the living laboratory of Scandola is in the headlights. It goes without mentioning that the news of this inventive process that “revives” the red coral is not merely of interest to the scientific community.
A living laboratory of biodiversity
The reserve is a true natural laboratory and an exceptionally preserved site that is ideal for all kinds of scientific observation of fish, algae, corals or birds. “Major French, European and American universities and highly reputed scientists have shown interest for our reserve. We need to give priority to the most urgent actions to maintain our efficiency,” says Jean-Marie Dominici, who set up multiple submarine stations with his team of keepers to ensure the regular scientific monitoring of water salinity, temperatures and sea currents or even of some protected species.
Some ten projects pertaining to problems relating to the management of the reserve are thus undertaken every year by scientific workgroups with the support of the reserve’s agents. Many Mediterranean tapeweed and Cystoseira myriophylloides meadows are being monitored since the 1970s while a programme for the repopulation of the dusky grouper has been implemented.
Growth in the number of groupers from 6 in 1975 to over 600 currently
Over 600 groupers and brown meagres have been identified since the setting up of the reserve in 1975. At the time, only 6 groupers had been reported following a first inventory and no brown meagre had been spotted in this 1,000ha region, which was then overfished. Besides the exceptionally high concentration of groupers, which are mainly present in the 75ha wilderness area, biologists from the Groupers Specialist Group (GEM) have noted the presence of 5 different species, which is quite remarkable in the region. They have also noted a significant improvement in the distribution of juveniles and adults, with declining numbers of the latter. These results are highly encouraging and are considered as a sign of the good health of the reserve. Groupers are higher up the pyramidal food chain and are used as management indicators for the Protected Marine Areas.
But one of the most crucial studies relates to the impact of climatic change and atmospheric pollution on the marine environment. Scandola is the only site in Western Europe to be part of this major international programme. “The heat waves in 2003 have had a harmful impact on certain very fragile marine ecosystems such as the cnidaires, the gorgona and the red coral and scientific teams from the CNRS in Marseilles and Barcelona University have identified necroses that caused mortalities corresponding to worryingly high temperature peaks recorded that year at 30 metres deep,” explains the guardian.
The unanimously acknowledged effect of the reserve
Every summer, nearly 300,000 people visit the region to admire the Scandola reserve which, after initially getting a lukewarm welcome, has been rapidly accepted by the local population. Namely nine boat trip operators that are busy all through the season and the Incantu de Galeria dive centre, which has made its way to second place among French dive centres. The twelve professional fishermen are certainly not the last to be convinced of the ‘reserve’ effect and even call for its extension. They are allowed to fish in the reserve, except in the integral zone, under the condition that they use selective fishing methods and abide by quotas and specific size limits.
A project to extend the reserve to curb the number of tourist
“After ten years of existence, the growth ratio of the fish biomass was already 1:10!” says Jean-Marie Dominici with a smile of contentment. However, he regrets the delay in the extension project recommended by scientists, which was launched six years ago and should include an integral reserve with four times the actual surface area of 80 ha. “We must give ourselves the means required to succeed in our conservation efforts;” adds the guardian of this magical setting, who also points out the legal void regarding the regulation of tourist activities within the reserve. “The regulation has not evolved since the setting up of the reserve in 1975 and at the time, there were no promenade boats, charter crafts, dive centres or jetskis. All these activities have a damaging impact on the biodiversity of Scandola and if nothing is done, the situation could become irreversible in the 10 years to come.”
Even if tourism is a seasonal activity, the number of tourists keeps growing, namely with an increase in boating traffic and garbage thrown out at sea is a real problem. The increase in traffic also causes disturbance to the fauna, especially with the haphazard mooring of boats, which degrades the sea bottom habitat. Furthermore, its relatively isolated location makes it hard to keep a close watch on the Scandola reserve. Hence, the Regional Natural Park of Corsica is increasingly gearing towards sustainable tourism development to enhance the value of the biodiversity all the while reinforcing the sanctuary status of its integral part.