A time to recolonize the Pinna Nobilis
By Cecilia Seppia
At first glance, the Pinna Nobilis does not inspire particular sympathy; it is certainly not one of the most beautiful or "alluring" creatures that God has shaped, but this bivalve mollusk, the largest in the Mediterranean Sea, plays a fundamental role in the marine ecosystem. Today, however, it is in critical danger of extinction due to an epidemic, unleashed by a parasitic protozoan of the genus Haplosporidium, which has caused serious damage to the digestive tract of these creatures, killing thousands of them within a short time. Hence the need to take immediate action to protect it.
In Italy, the "Life Pinna" project has gotten off the ground to do just that, aiming to reduce the risk factors that threaten its conservation; it has also launched an innovative recolonization program. The project officially kicked off last October, supported by the European Union's LIFE financial support program for the environment, with entities such as ARPAL, the Regional Agency for Environmental Protection of Liguria, Asinara National Park, NIB - Slovenian National Institute of Biology, the Shoreline Cooperative, the University of Genoa and Sassari, and finally Triton Research, which is responsible for communications and raising awareness about the project and the need to safeguard this species. Four Italian regions are also involved in the four-year initiative, which will end in 2025: Liguria, Sardinia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Tuscany, as well as the Obalno-kraska region in Slovenia.
The importance of the Pinna’s ecosystem
Similar to a large mussel, more commonly known as a "fan mussel," the Pinna Nobilis has a shell that exceeds one meter in length, a rather hard shell covered with encrustations and microorganisms. It can live up to 45 years, growing on sandy seabeds from 3 to 60 meters deep or among underwater meadows of Posidonia, also known as Mediterranean Tapeweed. Incidentally, the Pinna is one of the oldest species, formed in our seas 20 million years ago, from the Strait of Gibraltar to the threshold of the Black Sea, and in the past, it has also attracted the attention of shell collectors and collectors of byssus, a set of filaments produced by adult specimens and highly prized for its use in valuable textile fabrics.
As early as the late 1980s, pollution, overharvesting and other factors such as anchoring and fish trawling had triggered a gradual decline in Pinna populations, forcing the European Community to formalize protection measures for the species. After an initial revival phase, the Pinna population has been decimated since 2016 due to the epidemic caused by the pathogen. But if this precious mussel were to disappear altogether, it would be a real tragedy for the sea. First, for the loss of biodiversity, secondly, for the role it plays in the ecosystem. The Fins are in fact "filters," that is, they filter and clean the seawater of waste, residue, dirt, restoring its purity. They are also important to counteract seabed erosion, an unstoppable process that is increasingly extensive. Each mussel is also a micro-habitat in its own right, because with its "scaffolding," it allows many other filtering organisms, such as sponges, crustaceans and marine worms, to enjoy an ideal location to feed. There is even a shrimp, the Pontonia Pinnophylax, that completes its entire life cycle inside the Pinna, effectively making it its home.
How to defend God’s creations
"First of all, to save the Pinna Nobilis," explains Stefano Picchi, Executive Director of Triton Research, "it is necessary to identify resistant specimens, that is, those still alive that are not lying dead on the seabed. For this we have experienced divers who perform reconnaissance; then we need to investigate safer and more suitable places among the Posidonia Tapeweed meadows where we can reintroduce the animals, making sure that pathogens are not present. Then, and this is perhaps the most important point, we try to experiment with captive breeding with pioneering procedures, never used so far, to create nurseries where young ones can be raised. The last step in the process is to move the new mollusks to four already selected areas.
Apart from the practical activities, it is crucial to raise public awareness about the species and the marine habitat. There is an underwater world that we do not know about but that is the work of God's hands and it’s an integral part of that Common Home that He has entrusted to us and which increasingly needs to be protected. This is why we have also launched a photo contest on the lifepinna.eu website, precisely to invite everyone, young and old, to observe, portray and be fascinated by the nature hidden on our seabeds or among the rocks on the surface. Sometimes, improper behavior toward the environment comes from a lack of knowledge of it, from a kind of detachment that instead needs to be bridged by working on a new alliance between us and the world around us. One removes a coral from the seabed to decorate one's home, without thinking about the damage that seemingly insignificant but selfish gesture can cause."
Listening to and taking inspiration from the Pope’s words
Picchi reiterates how much Laudato si' has inspired and continues to inspire the work of Triton Research and beyond. "Finally," he adds, "we have an encyclical that does not speak generically about the environment; it also speaks about species, with their peculiarities and in their infinite variety, bringing us closer to a universe almost completely unknown to most people. In this sense, we feel incredibly responsible, without ever feeling 'superior' or masters, but as human beings, especially considering that today, many of these species, either directly or indirectly, are in trouble or risk extinction precisely because of us: even the bacterium that mowed down the Pinna Nobilis is due to global warming and therefore to climate change, at the origin of which are mankind’s unregulated actions and greed. The idea of not being able to act on a global level should not be a deterrent for doing something; on the contrary, it is precisely by starting small, from individuals in need, that we can and must act.
Another principle contained in the encyclical that we apply is to work together at various levels, being connected; interconnection is fundamental to saving the Planet, because as Pope Francis says, no one is saved alone: divers, researchers, biologists, communicators, but also the simple citizen who volunteers in any action to save the marine environment."
The four-year LIFE Pinna project aims not only to protect and monitor surviving populations, but to recolonize the species in target habitats. Already in the early stages of the project in the Upper Adriatic Sea, several dozen surviving specimens were found, which, after being genetically analyzed, are now being constantly monitored. Those most exposed and threatened by human activities have been moved to safer sea areas or to laboratory aquariums where they grow in protected conditions. Also, researchers have begun careful genetic analyses to rule out the presence of pathogens at candidate sites deemed the most suitable for restocking the species. The success of these activities will not be of exclusively local interest, as the project is designed to be replicated in other contexts, while developing best practices for all stages, from monitoring to breeding in captivity, to reintroduction into the wild. To support the research activities, communications projects have been developed, including the production of a nature documentary and "citizen science" campaigns aimed at involving ordinary citizens, divers and snorkelers, who on the project website can report to researchers the presence and location of live specimens not yet surveyed.
Raising awareness and getting involved
The four target areas suitable for the repopulation of the species belong to the network called "Natura2000," which the EU has asked member states to safeguard precisely because they are rich in biodiversity and better from a naturalistic point of view, but they are also areas protected by regional and national legislation, where fishing is not allowed and there are no other elements which could disturb the growth of new specimens. "At Triton Research," concludes Stefano Picchi, "we have realized that environmental issues are widely accepted, especially by younger people who follow us on social networks and want to know more and to participate, and so we have also thought of kicking off, next year, a sea protection summer school that will take kids into the Big Blue to get to know up close the work of researchers, divers, also of fishermen and all those who embrace it because only in this way can we have an overall and loving view of our Common Home. Today, also in response to the Pope's invitation, it is necessary to get involved, not only to be aware, to know something about it, but to want to contribute if it is in our power to do so. We all need to look at Creation from another perspective, not from the outside, but from within, feeling a part of it; only in this way will the awareness grow in us of wanting to live in harmony with it and with all its species."
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