Scuba divers work to save the Great Blue sea
By Cecilia Seppia, Vatican City
“Oceans not only contain the bulk of our planet’s water supply, but also most of the immense variety of living creatures, many of them still unknown to us and threatened for various reasons.” (LS 40)
53 year old Antonio Chiarenza lives in Catania, a Sicilian city at the foot of Mount Etna. He is involved in the Pope John XXIII Association and runs, together with his wife and four children, one of the many family homes that offer shelter and welcome to children and young people in difficulty. A geologist by training, a certified scuba diver working in environmental monitoring and the repopulation of the Mediterranean Tapeweed, he decided to put his skills at the service of the Common Home. "I was just a child," he says, "when, in a dark room and with the help of a ball and a candle, my father explained to me how the Earth's rotation created the alternation of day and night. Since then, the Earth, or rather I would say Creation and its wonders, have invaded my thoughts, ignited my insatiable curiosity, which is why once I got my diploma, I enrolled in Geology: I wanted to know everything, to understand everything.
My great passion, however, has always been the sea, and having the opportunity to dive into its depths is something extraordinary. There is another world down there, other forests, other inhabitants, but we humans are destroying that too. And I, who always had my eyes on the sky as a child, thought at a certain point in my life that I could no longer just watch, I had to do something. This need led me to the Laudato si' Movement, the Catania Circle in particular, which has an ecumenical and interreligious flavor in which representatives of other faiths also participate, including the Imam of Catania’s mosque, and here I became an animator. And an animator cannot sit still; by nature, and with charisma, he must act, to help others in the process of ecological conversion, to spread this commitment to the environment. So, in addition to theory, I wanted to put into practice what I had learned over the years and decided to participate in the Mediterranean Tapeweed reforestation project under the Italy-Tunisia program. I took the course run by ISDA, the International Scuba Diving Academy, linked to a project of the Regional Agency for Environmental Protection (Arpa)."
The reforestation project
This endemic plant with enormous ecological value is disappearing in our seas. Consider that every square meter of regressing seagrass causes the erosion of about 15 meters of sandy coastline and a lethal loss of oxygen. Tapeweed, in fact, is considered the lungs of the Mediterranean, and in the last 50 years we have lost 35 percent of this habitat resulting in the disappearance of biodiversity. So, through an international partnership, the goal of the project is to encourage the planting of new Mediterranean Tapeweed seagrass beds and to create environmentally friendly protective barriers to allow its proliferation with the aim of improving the marine environment. Studies, analysis but also the choice of sustainable materials are the focus of the project whose lead partner is Arpa Sicilia, with its department Arpa Mare, and its partners are the Institut Supérieur de Biotechnologie de Sidi Thabet, the University of Catania with two departments involved, the Faculté des Sciences of Tunis, the Ecole Supérieure des Ingénieurs de Medjez El Bab, Mediterraneo Consulting, and the FLAG Golfi di Castellammare e Carini.
"The project aims to reinforce and restore the Mediterranean environment," explains Vincenzo Ruvolo, director of Arpa, "by transferring to countries with marine habitats similar to ours, the research and projects already underway in Europe. So, with the help of Tunisian partners and the University of Catania, suitable areas will be identified and Mediterranean Tapeweed will be replanted in situ, plus protective structures will be put in place to allow for maintenance. Innovative materials will be used for this purpose - recycled waste products to be reused in an environmentally friendly way. Thus, the project will not simply be limited to the implementation of a valuable Tapeweed barrier, but it will also aim to enrich the fish fauna."
The benefits of Mediterranean Tapeweed
Mediterranean Tapeweed, and all marine plant ecosystems in general, are very efficient in mitigating water acidification and carbon storage. In particular, this species, which thrives at a depth of up to 40 meters, captures the sunlight that penetrates underwater, and is able to process chlorophyll photosynthesis through its long, green ribbon-like leaves, helping to produce oxygen (it is estimated that each square meter of healthy seagrass can release up to 20 liters of oxygen per day), absorb CO2, and counter greenhouse effects and seabed and coastline erosion. Banquettes, piles of organic material from the Tapeweed that forms on beaches, hindering the erosive action of waves, also play an irreplaceable protective role on sandy shorelines.
Thanks to their widespread distribution, seagrass beds also play a major role in ensuring and defending the biodiversity of marine fauna: one hectare of seagrass bed can host up to 350 different species of marine creatures, resident or migrant, providing shelter and nourishment for crustaceans, fish and numerous other environmentally and economicly important species: suffice it to say that more than 20 percent of the total number of species in the Mediterranean live in Mediterranean seagrass beds. In the last 50 years, despite the fact that Tapeweed beds constitute a habitat protected by national and international laws, they are drastically regressing mainly due to the anthropization of the coasts, illegal trawling and indiscriminate anchoring of recreational boats, overfishing, and of course global warming that does not spare the seas.
From wonderworld to underwater cemeteries
Step by step, Antonio describes to us all the stages of the reforestation project that currently involves the Pozzillo seabed (but is having great success in other parts of Italy as well, such as in Sardinia’s Gulf of Oranges) and in which local divers and those from other Italian regions participated: from the collection of cuttings in the open sea and the choice of the transplantation site, to the placement of the biodegradable coconut fiber mats; then replanting and periodic maintenance, monitoring. "It takes love and care and patience, as well as skill and expertise," he says, "all qualities that man has forgotten, caught up in the rush to get rid of waste, without realizing the consequences of his actions. As Pope Francis says, in paragraph 41 of Laudato si': “In tropical and subtropical seas, we find coral reefs comparable to the great forests on dry land, for they shelter approximately a million species, including fish, crabs, mollusks, sponges and algae. Many of the world’s coral reefs are already barren or in a state of constant decline. “Who turned the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of colour and life?”
Every time I dive, I seem to get more in touch with God and with Creation: after all, diving transports you right into another dimension where everything is peace and silence, but often, instead of hearing the breath of the water, I hear a cry rising from the bottom, yet the fish, the plants, have no voice; it is that cry of the Earth of which Francis speaks! I feel that the sea that is turning into an asphyxiated lung, because it almost can’t breathe anymore, and so I would like to lend it my oxygen tanks, even though I know it would not be enough. However, it is the small gestures that make a difference as well as setting out to transplant seagrass cuttings, hoping and praying that they will grow and expand and the joy is enormous when we see that the cuttings have taken root and that a new world, thanks to them, is about to come to life.
The Pope's encyclical is my basis for inspiration and meditation, but also for action. We are all called to steward the great gift God has given us, protecting it for future generations. Everyone should commit to this, with concrete choices: recycling well, using less plastic, even organizing street initiatives or demonstrations involving the masses. The marine ecosystem is put to the test: once I even happened to find a shopping cart stuck in the seabed, it's a disgrace!"
An appeal to institutions
Converting everyone's hearts to the cause of the environment is a good start, but Antonio Chiarenza reiterates the importance of having funding in order to carry out concrete action on the ground. "Scuba diving," he concludes, "helps you to clear your mind of everything, takes you to a dimension of consciousness that immediately brings you more in touch with nature. But even more than when you walk in a forest on the earth's surface, you have to be careful not to scratch the seabed, not to damage it with your fins, not to scare the fish. There is a whole technique to be used underwater that is based precisely on respect: it is like entering someone else's house and putting yourself in charge, this is wrong! We divers certainly explore, but more importantly, we are given a chance to find an alliance with the environment, a peaceful coexistence.
The funds are there for this project; they have been allocated precisely by the European Union but I would like to make an appeal to those who decide how to distribute that money, to give resources to initiatives that protect the environment at all levels: local, regional, national, supranational!" In paragraph 42 of Laudato si', Francis says: “Greater investment needs to be made in research aimed at understanding more fully the functioning of ecosystems and adequately analyzing the different variables associated with any significant modification of the environment. Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family. This will require undertaking a careful inventory of the species which it hosts, with a view to developing programmes and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction.”