Greece plans 2 marine protected areas. But rival Turkey and environmental groups aren't impressed

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece aims to create two large marine parks as part of a 780-million-euro ($830 million) program to protect biodiversity and marine ecosystems that includes banning bottom trawling and tackling plastic and microplastic pollution, the prime minister announced during an international oceans conference Tuesday.

But the plan for the marine parks has irked Greece's neighbor and regional rival, Turkey, while environmental organizations say the initiative doesn't go far enough, noting that the country also allows environmentally harmful practices such as energy exploration in sensitive marine environments.

“The ocean has paid a heavy price for its service to humankind. It has been a vital source of life and livelihood. We have not been kind to it in return,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a speech at the Our Ocean Conference in Athens “So we meet today with a new sense of urgency. Our world is changing faster than our capacity to adapt to change. And this is creating immense pressures: political, economic, physical and social.”

The creation of the new marine parks, one in the Ionian Sea and one in the Aegean Sea, will increase the size of Greece's marine protected areas by 80% and will cover 30% of the country's territorial waters, Mitsotakis said. Greece has thousands of islands and islets, and one of the longest coastlines in the Mediterranean.

Bottom trawling will be banned in all marine protected areas by 2030, while a surveillance system using drones, satellites and artificial intelligence will be set up by 2026 to patrol the areas, the prime minister said. He also pledged that by 2030, Greece will reduce plastic pollution in the water by 50% and microplastics by 30% compared to 2019 levels.

About 300 representatives from more than 100 countries and international organizations are participating, Greek government officials said, with announcements set for new commitments amounting to about $10 billion for environment-related projects.

But environmental organizations have called for stronger commitments.

Under a slogan of “the sea is not for sale,” Greenpeace urged leaders attending the conference to take concrete measures to protect marine environments.

The conference “must not be simply an opportunity for governments to congratulate themselves for what they have said until now,” said Nikos Charalambidis, head of Greenpeace in Greece.

Police banned a planned protest at the venue by environmental organizations. About 20 protesters turned up at a nearby location holding banners calling for an end to deep-sea mining and for the protection of the seas.

Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and other organizations have long leveled particular criticism at Greece for allowing deep-sea seismic exploration for energy and mineral resources in the Hellenic Trench, which includes the deepest waters in the Mediterranean at more than 5,200 meters (17,300 feet).

The trench, which stretches from southwestern Greece to Crete, is a vital habitat for the Mediterranean’s few hundred sperm whales and other marine mammals already threatened by fishing, ship collisions and plastic pollution.

Asked whether the Greek government planned to extend protection to the entirety of the Hellenic Trench, Theodoros Skylakakis, Greece’s minister for both the environment and energy, stressed that adapting to a green economy requires significant funds over the coming decades.

“We need to be a lot more efficient in everything we do. And not trigger our reaction by ideology but rather trigger it by science, by efficiency and by investment,” Skylakakis said. “And for that, we will need money. If anybody thinks we can meet this challenge of paying for the adaptation … and at the same time don’t have economic growth, they don’t live in this world.”

Greece’s plan for the two marine parks also has irked Turkey. When the plan was aired last week, Turkey's foreign ministry accused Athens of exploiting environmental issues to push its geopolitical agenda. The countries, both NATO members, have been at odds for decades over a variety of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean, and have reached the brink of war three times in the last 50 years.

Relations have improved somewhat over the past year following a period of heightened tensions that saw the countries’ warships face off in the eastern Mediterranean. But Ankara responded with annoyance to Greece's plan for a marine park in the Agean.

“It is known that Greece has long been trying to benefit from almost every platform in the context of Aegean problems,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. “Despite the recent softening in our relations, it appears that Greece is exploiting environmental issues this time.”

Greece's foreign ministry retorted that Ankara was “politicizing a clearly environmental issue.”