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The Mediterranean Monk Seal (scientific name: Monachus monachus (Hermann, 1779)) is a marine mammal belonging to the group of pinnipeds and is one of the largest existing seal species, which can reach 3 m in length and 300 kg in weight. The pups measure between 80-120 cm, and weigh between 15-20 Kg. The morphology of these animals varies throughout their lives. They are born with a completely black fur and a yellowish umbilical spot, which later turns white. As they grow, their colouring becomes more greyish, and is accompanied by numerous scars (mainly in females). The umbilical spot is entirely visible in adult males, but in adult females, the ventral area is whitish. This characteristic, as well as the location of the genital orifice, is one of the main differences between sexes. The monk seal reaches sexual maturity at the age of 3-4, and the females in Madeira population tend to breed at the age of 6-7. Its life expectancy is around 20-25 years.


The Mediterranean Monk Seal is a species totally adapted to the marine environment, where it carries out several activities that are fundamental to its existence, including: feeding (essentially fish, cephalopods and some crustaceans), mating, resting (it takes short naps at the surface and under water) and socializing (playing and exploring). The species often occurs close to the coast, and on bottoms up to 200 m deep, but can travel up to a few miles from the coastal zone, and dive up to 400 m deep. Although it spends much of its time in the water, this species also needs and depends on land to rest, give birth and care for its young. For this purpose, it mainly occupies sheltered beaches inside caves, but may also choose to rest on open beaches. In Madeira, the monk seal's birth season occurs in October/November, and this is the time when more animals can be observed on land, together in a colony, caring for the young during the first months of their lives. When strengthened, the pups experience their first swims, always accompanied by the watchful eye of their mothers, and the first games/learning between pups and other elements of the colony.



The conservation of the Mediterranean Monk Seal in the Archipelago of Madeira began in 1988, through actions developed by the former Madeira Natural Park Service (SPNM), the institution of the Regional Government of Madeira responsible for nature conservation. At that time, it was estimated that there were only 6-8 individuals in the monk seals population of Madeira. This conservation program, motivated the legal protection of the Desertas Islands, which currently have the status of Natural Reserve of the Desertas Islands, the main habitat of the Mediterranean monk seal. 


In 2016, with the reorganization of regional services, the Madeira Natural Park Service (SPNM), merged with the Regional Forests Direction, gave rise to the Institute of Forests and Nature Conservation, IP-RAM (IFCN, IP-RAM; DLR nº 21/2016/M, of 13 May), the current guardian of the monk seal conservation projects. 


By 2014, the conservation work carried out by SPNM, suggested that the monk seal population would have grown to 40 individuals. In 2019, thanks to the new methodology applied in the LIFE Madeira Lobo-marinho project (LIFE13 NAT/ES/000974 Madeira Monk Seal), it came to reveal that the colony was made up of only 21 individuals (data from 2018). This project, culminated in the presentation of a Strategy for the Conservation of the Monk Seal in the Archipelago of Madeira. 


In 2021, the most recent project for the conservation of the Mediterranean Monk Seal began: the VECLAM project - "Mediterranean monk seal conservation status surveillance in Madeira archipelago", lasting until 2024, which aims to continue the conservation of this species and its habitat, and increase knowledge about it. 

If you want to know more about the history of the Mediterranean Monk Seal's conservation, see the chronology below.



The Portuguese discovered Madeira, where they found a colony of monk seals, which began to be economically exploited for their skin and fat (Barros, 1570; in Borges et al., 1878).

Photo: in the book «The monk seal in the archipelago of Madeira»


Since 1978, deliberate and accidental captures of monk seals have led to a drastic reduction in the population, which in 1980 reached just 6 to 8 specimens, confined to the Desertas Islands.

Photo: in the book «The monk seal in the archipelago of Madeira»



Regional Legislative Decree n.º 6/86/M is approved, which grants protection to Marine Mammals in the Coastal Zone and Subarea 2 of the Portuguese Exclusive Economic Zone (Madeira ZEE).



The Madeira Natural Park Service (SPNM) starts the first monk seal conservation project.

Photo: in the book «The monk seal in the archipelago of Madeira»

nineteen ninety

The Special Protection Area of Ilhas Desertas is created, with a subsequent ban on the use of gillnets. At this time, fishermen were offered alternative fishing gear in exchange for the gillnets they were using at the time.



Approval of DLR nº 11/1991/M, which approves the Coat of Arms of the Autonomous Region of Madeira, which includes 2 monk seals.



The Special Protection area gains a new designation and becomes the Desertas Islands Natural Reserve.



A rehabilitation unit for monk seals is built on Desertas Islands (Deserta Grande).

Photo: in the book «The monk seal in the archipelago of Madeira»



Regional Legislative Decree n.º 15/2013/M is published approving the Regulation of the Observation of Marine Vertebrates in the Autonomous Region of Madeira.



The LIFE MADEIRA MONK SEAL project started (LIFE13 NAT/ES/000974) “Conservation of the monk seal in Madeira, with the development of a surveillance system for the conservation status of the species” and ended at the end of 2019.

Photo: in the book «The monk seal in the archipelago of Madeira»



The VECLAM project - “Mediterranean monk seal conservation status surveillance in Madeira archipelago”, funded by the Monk Seal Alliance, with a duration of 3 years, began in 2021.



In nature, populations can be negatively impacted by factors of human or natural origin, these are classified as pressures – if they are occurring in the present/current time – or threats – when they are expected to occur in the future. In the population of monk seals in the Madeira archipelago, the following pressures and threats are identified:

Pressures of human origin

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Commercial fishing

Although fishermens are nowadays are more aware, there is still evidence of deliberate attacks on the monk seal and accidental catches.


These situations are mainly associated with the use of creels and illegal fishing, and although they are not very frequent, they can have a significant impact on this small population.


Tourism and recreation activities

The lack of knowledge about the species and its behaviour, leads people to adopt behaviours that disturb the animal and put its well-being at risk.


Although the Mediterranean Monk Seal looks friendly and docile, it is a wild animal, and can react unpredictably when approached by humans.

Pressures of natural origin


High pup mortality

The young are born inside caves, in the period October-November, months that are characterized by storms.


Marine storms can cause several impacts such as the separation of the young from their mothers, the death of the young by trauma, due to impact on rock, drowning due to flooding of the caves or thermoregulation problems.


 Food resources availability

The characteristics of the Madeira Archipelago, with a narrow insular platform and steep slope, combined with the low productivity of the waters (oligotrophic system), may condition the availability of food for the Mediterranean Monk Seal.



Low number of males in the population

In the Madeira Archipelago population of monk seals, the number of males is naturally lower than the number of females.


The number of males has been decreasing due to injuries and deaths of adults, which may threat the reproductive viability of the population.


Low genetic variability

In the case of pinnipeds, it is not yet clear whether low genetic diversity puts the recovery of a population at risk. However, it is a factor to be evaluated.


Habitat degradation

Due to the occupation of the coastal habitat by Man, with subsequent degradation of the same in the islands of Madeira and Porto Santo, there is less availability of quality habitat for the Mediterranean monk seal to carry out its activities (e.g. feeding, resting and reproduction).



The fact that the monk seal is attracted to the fish inside and around the aquaculture cages, as well as the expansion trend of the activity in Madeira, may turn this threat into a real pressure.


Recreational fishing

The full extent of Human - Monk Seal interactions in recreational and commercial fishing is not yet known. However, there are several records of encounters (e.g. in spearfishing), whose risk to the seals should be assessed.

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