ISSN 1108-8931


Year 6 - Issue 65

Sponsored by: Zante Feast Discovery Holidays, Purple Valley Yoga Centre, Hana Maui Botanical Gardens

Index of Interviews

Mr Vassilis Kouroutos

Mr Vassilis KouroutosSince May 2004 Vassilis Kouroutos BSc is the Executive Director of MEDASSET, the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles. He is a Greek marine biologist specialised in the Monk Seal with 20 year experience and involvement in environment related issues. Mr Kouroutos has also been the Founder, President and Director of the Hellenic Society for the Study and Protection of the Monk Seal (Mom), the Program manager of the ecotourism and nature conservation programs in Alonissos Marine Park, carried out by the 25m-ecotourist boat of which he was the owner and licensed Captain and was a part of the Organising Committee for the Symposia Religion, Science & the Environment under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I.

MEDASSET, the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles, is the only organisation working exclusively on the conservation of sea turtles throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Their aims are to conserve and protect the remaining Mediterranean Sea Turtle populations and associated marine ecosystems, through scientific research programmes, education, political liaison, publicity and fundraising. MEDASSET has played a significant role in the constitution of the legal framework for the protection of sea turtles in the Mediterranean, especially in Greece. Since 1988, MEDASSET has been present as an Observer at Bern Convention Meetings (Council of Europe) where it has been fighting to save nesting beaches in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey.

The Athens 2004 Olympics closing ceremony balloons were (wastefully) spectacular, but did they also end up in the stomach of turtles and seals? If so, what has / should be done to inform (dare we say punish?) the ignorant and prevent a repetition?

Undoubtedly the remains of balloons are a danger to wild creatures including sea turtles, just as plastic bags are. There have even been deaths of domestic farm animals caused by ingesting plastic bags.

Greece's Ministry of Environment & Public Works managed to assist in the
organisation of a perfect Olympics (cost - latest estimate - EUR 12 billion), while at the same time the seemingly easy task of protecting a small marine 'protected' area and paying wages to its few employees continues to prove a daunting task for the same Ministry. But what is the main reason that Zakynthos Marine Park (ghost website at: is falling apart? Lack of funding, lack of interest from tourists, hostility from a minority of local but vocal, small business or - taboo - mismanagement by environmentalists? And what can be done? Is state compensation (in effect bribing / extortion) of some local businesses, the cure, or is it a case of treating the symptom and not the illness itself?

The main causes of the problems of Zakynthos National Marine Park are the lack of political will to make the Park a success, and the fact that the Greek government has never addressed any form of compensation to the inhabitants and landowners within the Park boundary, either by direct payment or by compulsory purchase. This has led to hostility from the local population. I do not see payment of compensation as bribery, but as the rightful due of those suffering from planning blight.

The basics: In how many ways can a tourist and a parasol on a sandy beach harm a turtle? How about jet-skis? And are monk seals more or less immune?

A tourist and a parasol can harm turtles in a number of ways, sticking the parasol in the sand could possibly damage a nest, activity around the parasol can compact the sand affecting both the ability of a turtle to dig its nest and the ability of hatchlings to dig their way out of the nest. The shade cast by the parasol can affect the sand temperature that is influencing the sex of the hatchlings. Tourist activity at night disturbs turtles wishing to come ashore to nest, and beach furniture left on the beach at night can block and frustrate attempts to nest. Finally even footsteps in the sand can trap tiny hatchlings as they try to make their way to the sea. Jet-skis and power-boats severely disturb turtles waiting along the shore to nest, or resting after the previous nights nesting on the other hand can and do cause serious injury and often death by collision with the turtles. Also the collision can induce a shock response resulting in the turtle in taking water causing it to drown.

MEDASSET's founder last year called 'Mediterranean Coastal Tourism' a 'plague'. Has your criticism of Tourism been productive for your organisation in relation to building support (moral and financial) from the agents of the 'plague', i.e. tourists and tour operators? At this point in time, is "turtle tourism" helping 'greek' sea-turtles or does it simply add to the problems of ordinary tourism? Would MEDASSET then prefer to supervise or engage in "turtle tourism"?

A number of attempts by MEDASSET to elicit collaboration from tour operators have been made but not received even the courtesy of a response, even before publication of the article. While the tour operators are very happy to include reference to the turtles as an added attraction to selling their holidays, they do nothing to make their customers aware of the reasonable precautions the tourists should take on their behalf. We do not view the reference to tourism as a plague as a criticism of tourism but an attempt to raise awareness of the undoubted damage done by ill-considered tourist development to the beautiful coastal areas of the Mediterranean and their associated eco-systems. Unique and fragile sand dune eco-systems of the north-eastern Mediterranean have been bulldozed for the construction of hotels, tavernas, parking areas, roads and beach facilities. MEDASSET would like nothing more than to collaborate with tour operators, and travel industry companies to make tourists aware of their possible impact before they arrive at their destination, and with locals to ensure eco-friendly development. MEDASSET is a non-profit NGO working for the conservation of marine turtles and their associated eco-systems with a remit to report, make recommendations, and promote awareness, not to supervise or profit from any kind of tourism.

The general public impression seems to be that the Mediterranean Monk Seal is faring a lot better in the last few years, no less to your own personal efforts as the founder of MoM the first Greek NGO for the protection of the Monk Seal. But can this general impression be also a cause for concern? Do wildlife conservationists need to apply a healthy dose of bad news to keep the public interested?

If the public are not made aware of both good and bad news, how can we expect that they may regulate their activities, or impose self-restraint, in order to mitigate the impact of their actions?

You pioneered and lead for many years, marine ecotours in the Sporades National Marine Park. Do you agree that wildlife tourists NEED to see RARE wildlife? This is a contradiction in terms, but how disappointed do tourists get when they do not? What should a wildlife operator / guide do to compensate them, apart from a refund? And is it OK to create honey pots / feeding spots for wild animals (e.g. in Dadia Forest) so that tourists will be satisfied?

My experience is that eco-tourists are not so much disappointed when they do not see rare creatures as overjoyed when they do. Obviously, if the tour is conducted in a non-intrusive manner, and planned so that it is an enjoyable experience in its own right, rather than just a load of tourists being taken to see endangered species with their money back if they don't see one, then there is a better chance that they will come again in the hope that they will have better luck next time, and there is less pressure on the operator to be intrusive. I do not believe in intrusive methods such as honey pots / feeding spots as these not only change the natural activities of the creature in question, but impact on other aspects of the local environment.

So is Independent tourism in the Sporades National Marine Park any better than Package Tourism in Zakynthos National Marine Park? Is it an accident, a result of geography or policy? Having worked with the local authorities (in Alonissos), do they matter more than local business interests, in terms of enforcing environmental protection?

The Sporades National Marine Park is blessed in many ways. It is much more isolated, has no airport, many of its islands are uninhabited of have small populations, and unlike Zakynthos, many of the local inhabitants are intent on retaining their lifestyle and environment, largely showing respect for the Park regulations and the law. Tourism is at a comparatively low level, and attracts a different kind of tourist than the mass tourism of Zakynthos. It is unthinking exploitative mass tourism that is the major problem for the coastal areas, inevitably leading to a degraded and ultimately deserted environment. Spain is at the moment spending vast amounts of money to reverse the ravages of the mass tourism of the sixties, probably more money than they originally gained.

It is no secret, that some conservationists would, if they could, ban tourism, or have it without tourists, just with their colleagues. It is easy to generally blame tourism, where all of us are to blame, compared to say a hotel chain, an airline, any large polluting factory, a power plant, a mine, with deep pockets for eager lawyers and even for NGOs. In your view, is it the role of Environmental NGOs (ENGOs) to name names and take on powerful interests, and if not, what is its role? And a related question - as an ENGO founder - is there a right and a wrong way for ENGOs to be funded (e.g. from the people / environmentalists / ecotourists), or does the end justify the means? Can too much green corrupt greens?

In my opinion, in the modern world trying to ban tourism is like trying to ban breathing. As explained in the "plague" article, there are many different kinds of tourist and tourism, and locations differ in their ability to cope with those various kinds. It is totally unacceptable to develop mass tourism in an area with a unique and fragile eco-system. This does not mean no tourism at all! The "Sun, Sea and Sex" brigade will be just as happy away from such fragile eco-systems. What is important is that before tourism is developed in an area, decisions should be made as to what sort of exploitation the area can absorb, and what volume. This of course also applies to industrial and other development. In a perfect world, all human beings would be self-regulatory, refraining from causing adverse effects on society in general and on the environment in particular. Unfortunately we live in a world that has allowed money to become the primary arbiter of policy and activity, where governments tend to lack the political will to act in the best interests of humanity in general. This creates a climate where some independent organisations are needed to act in the best interests of society. NGOs have evolved to fulfill this role. Although MEDASSET has noticed a tendency for NGOs that are reliant on government funds to prepare their reports in line with government policy, often glossing over unpalatable facts, the truth is that in general any funding for NGOs is good given one overriding proviso, that the total independence of the NGO is not compromised. We have also noticed that large, rich NGOs tend towards concentrating on matters of a broader more global spectrum, such as global warming etc, while the smaller ones tend towards a more local and specific interest. There will always be those in the environment community as elsewhere who put monetary ambitions above principles.

What happens when whole populations' eating habits include "turtle meet" or "turtle eggs". Is it more effective to 'protest', 'arrest', try to 'educate' or to give financial incentives through tourism to those that live off poaching to change careers and become guides?

All of the above as appropriate. Different individuals respond differently to the various approaches. It is a matter of finding the right approach for each individual.

From your experience, how effective have Greek Environmental NGOs been in bringing about change in the last 30 years. Are they efficiently managing conservation funds and cooperating with each other, or rather spending personal fortunes on fame-vehicle basis?

Speaking for ourselves, MEDASSET has been very successful in bringing about a legal framework for conservation, and unfortunately so far, less successful in engendering implementation of these laws. Unfortunately, despite many attempts by MEDASSET to set up Mediterranean wide collaboration between NGOs, results have been largely patchy. NGOs are staffed by human beings, therefore it is only natural that those various entities involved in conservation display all the human frailties common to all mankind. Success is the only real measure. Incidentally I don't think anyone could claim that vast amounts of money have been made available to conservation. Competition for meager funds is fierce.

A few years ago, a former head of Greenpeace Greece, managed to become a
vice-Minister of "Environment & Public Works" (another contradiction in terms), with high ideals and expectations, but in his own words, little impact. If you were to be appointed as an Environment & Public Works Minister in a future government, and if you were able to fix just one thing, what would you do and how? And would you rather merge the Environment Ministry with the new Ministry of Tourism?

Until the day that environmental considerations take a definitive role in all aspects of government decision making there is little doubt that political, economic and commercial interests will continue to over-ride environmental concerns, and the Minister of the Environment will remain a sinecure. At the present time the most critical need as far as the environment in Greece is concerned is the establishment of sufficient guaranteed funding to ensure the future of the National Parks, together with the empowerment of the National Parks Agencies to enforce the laws and regulations within the Parks. That is what I would choose. Whether the Ministry of the Environment is merged with tourism or anything else is of little consequence in the present political scenario.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about your current and future projects?

MEDASSET will continue lobbying for the conservation and protection of the endangered Mediterranean Sea Turtles and their associated marine and terrestrial habitats. Ongoing projects in Lebanon and Albania will be pursued, we will maintain our contacts and collaboration with environmentalists and environmental organisations in all the countries around the Mediterranean. Our Environmental Education Kit "The Mediterranean Sea, A Source of Life" is being published in Arabic for distribution to schools in the Arabic speaking countries, and in association with the (RAC/SPA) Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas of (UNEP/MAP) we have just published a Fishermen's Guide on the treatment of marine turtles caught in their fishing gear.

Thank you very much

Further information about Mr Kouroutos and MEDASSET  is available at:

or contact: MEDASSET-Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles
1c Licavitou St., 106 72 Athens, GREECE
Tel: + 30 210 3613572, + 30 210 3640389 / Fax: + 30 210 3613572

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