Credit: Slaven Vilus

The Adriatic is vital for Montenegro: groundbreaking monitoring programme throws new light on ecosystems


The marine environment requires increasingly careful and coordinated management in the face of growing human pressures and to undertake this effectively depends primarily on data.

An ecosystem-based approach to marine spatial planning (MSP) offers the best route to a secure long-term future for Montenegro’s marine resources. In fact, one of the aims of the GEF Adriatic Project is to create awareness of the full range of pressures on the marine environment, and manage them collectively, not in isolation, in order to help restore the Adriatic Sea’s ecological balance. But management begins with monitoring and assessment: the first stage is to gather data to build a detailed understanding of what’s really going on in the waters of the Adriatic.

Montenegro has signed up to the Barcelona Convention, which guides national policy in this area. The Parties of the Barcelona Convention agreed to follow a jointly adopted ‘Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme’ (IMAP), based on 11 ecological objectives. IMAP – and the extensive data and information which it generates – provides a strong foundation for building an assessment of the environmental status of the Adriatic Sea.

To remedy limited information and data, GEF Adriatic carried out an extensive marine survey in Montenegro, the first of its kind to take place in the country based on IMAP requirements. Data collection took place in October 2019, systematically monitoring marine environments at various locations right out to the limits of territorial waters. The work revealed a range of important information on characteristics of biodiversity, hydrography, eutrophication, and contaminants in the water.


Aerial view of Boka Kotorska Bay in Montenegro. Credit: Slaven Vilus.



Underwater grasslands

One of the focuses of GEF Adriatic’s marine survey was on Posidonia oceanica, an aquatic plant similar to terrestrial plants with leaves growing up to one metre long. It is one of the most important species in the entire marine ecosystem. Forming vast meadows on the seabed, this endemic seagrass provides a habitat for some 20% of all Mediterranean marine species, as well as protecting the coastline from erosion. What’s more, Posidonia, commonly known as Mediterranean weed, is a vital carbon sink, fixing carbon in a thick mat of roots, rhizomes and dead matter up to 4m deep. 

Posidonia thrives in good conditions, so it’s a useful bio-indicator of coastal marine water quality. With this in mind, GEF Adriatic researchers monitored Posidonia meadows at three different sites: the Hrid Ðeran, literally a small rock jutting out from the sea on the southern coast; Buljarica Bay, with its marshland rich in flora and fauna; and Cape Crni in the central region. Depending on the area, local ecological conditions in the Adriatic coast can vary and therefore affect the development of Posidonia meadows.

Divers measured the density and depth distribution of the meadows, and found different values across the three monitored sites. These values were then used to calculate a conservation index (CI) for each meadow, revealing their ecological condition. The meadows at Cape Crni revealed the best values (at medium depths density was good, at lower and upper depths density was medium). Next best was Buljarica Bay with medium density values at a medium depth and low density at lower and upper limits. The lowest density values for Posidonia meadows were found in Hrid Deran where density was generally low and at one upper limit actually very low.

Overall, these results help show that Posidonia meadows in Montenegro are in a good environmental state.

Counting coral 

Corals are particularly sensitive organisms, and as such are valuable indicators of marine ecosystem health. GEF Adriatic researchers also surveyed some of Montenegro’s most important coralligenous assemblages, aiming to collect data on species and habitats for use in future research projects. 

Significant research took place in a stretch of open sea in Boka Kotorska Bay. This bay with its 105 kilometre long coastline is the widest in the Adriatic Sea and is considered the southernmost fjord in Europe. The research activities took place in September 2019 and took into account the characteristics of the terrain, GES (Good Environmental Status) species and the presence of visible signs of anthropogenic activities. The MAES index (Mesophic Assemblages Ecological Status) was selected for the assessment. The index considers the community's structure, the conditions of the dominant erect species, and the presence of visible signs of anthropogenic influence. 


Savalia savaglia and Acanthella cannabina in Drazin Vrt, Montenegro. Credit: Egidio Trainito


The project researchers investigated coral colonies in three specific locations where monitoring shed new light on the importance of Savalia savaglia, a tree-like gold coral.

Important colonies of Savalia savaglia were observed in Sopot and Dražin vrt: it appears that these Montenegrin colonies are twice as large as all the other known colonies in the Mediterranean and close to the consistency at the Atlantic sites. In addition, Spinimuricea klavereni was observed for the very first time in the Adriatic Sea, which confirms the special environmental conditions in Boka Kotorska Bay. Unfortunately, at all three locations in Boka Kotorska, colonies were under significant pressure from marine litter and urgent measures are needed to preserve their outstanding environmental value.

They also visited Rt Mačka and Ponta Veslo, both on the Luštica Peninsula, a peninsula on the South Adriatic Sea, located at the entrance of the Bay of Kotor, and the Velika Krekavica cave in the Platamuni area, now a protected area. At each location, they photographed and analysed the structure and abundance of coral species along with the degree of complexity of the coral habitats, and studied the various pressures affecting each environment. The analysis, based on the collected photo squares, of all species present in the Velika Krekavica cave interior identified 48 species, of which 11 are protected based on national and international law. In Ponte Veslo, the species analysis showed 54 taxa, of which 9 are included in the protection lists, whereas Caulerpa cylindracea, a seaweed native to the Australian coast, is an invasive species. In Rt Mačka, identification showed the presence of 43 plant and animal species. These investigations provided insight into the quality of the ecological status of Montenegrin coral habitats.

Cruising for water quality

The marine research ship BIOS TWO hosted GEF researchers for a three-day cruise in October 2019, to monitor the quality of the water of the Adriatic – which is obviously of critical importance to the health of the entire regional ecosystem. They performed a range of measurements at 17 stations along five transects from Boka Kotorska Bay to the delta of the Bojana River. Investigations provided a better understanding of temperature, salinity and transparency of water. Extensive testing for the possible presence of contaminants was also performed, focusing on sediments of both organic and inorganic contaminants such as organochlorine pesticides and heavy metals, using a range of criteria to assess the level of contamination. 

The findings were encouraging: in the vast majority of cases the presence of pollutants was very low, the assessed parameters showing good or very good values. Eutrophication – nutrient richness in water which can create deoxygenated ‘dead zones’ – was low, with minimal concentrations of critical compounds including phosphate, phosphorus, ammonia, nitrates and orthosilicates. In addition, five groups of phytoplankton organisms have been recorded: Bacillariophyceae (diatoms), Dinophyceae (dinoflagellates), Prymnesiophyceae (coccolithophorids), Chrysophyceae (silicoflagellates), and Chlorophyceae (chlorophytes).

All these data provide really important insights into the current ecological status of Montenegrin waters. As well as helping to pinpoint areas where marine monitoring needs to continue on an annual basis in future, the findings provide an invaluable foundation for practical MSP actions to protect and improve the health of the marine environment in Montenegro. Based on the findings of this research, the Ministry for Ecology, Spatial Planning and Urbanism, together with Morsko Dobro and the Institute for Marine Biology, embarked on legislation and awareness-raising activities to protect these important marine areas.

The results and full texts describing the marine survey activity are available for download.