Maritime security in the Adriatic Sea is a major challenge for coastal regions to ensure the protection of national maritime interests. Indeed, this arm of the Mediterranean Sea is a strategic region that attracts a multitude of activities. An illegal part of this business have developed, creating threats in the area.
The Adriatic Sea, located between the Italian and Balkan peninsulas, is connected to the Ionian Sea by the Strait of Otranto. Due to the particularity of its geographical situation, many issues related to the use of the maritime territory arise, particularly in the field of security.
The area attracts a multitude of different maritime flows. Some of them are vital for the region especially maritime transport, fishing, oil and gas extraction or tourism.
Maritime trade is a key factor for the region: 19 ports are handling over a million tons of cargo each year to fuel neighbouring countries and more broadly Europe. The largest freight port is Trieste (Italy), whilst Split (Croatia) handles the largest number of passengers. However, significant infrastructure deficits remain important in the region, resulting in a lack of accessibility.
Tourism is a major economic activity along the Adriatic coast, especially for Croatia and Italy. The growing number of yachts and large cruise vessels sailing and calling the Adriatic waters represents a challenge for both navigation safety and security that neighbouring countries need to address.
Fishing has also a strong importance for both self-national consumption and export. Italy and Croatia are the main contributors to total catches. Regulation in the area mainly concerns demersal and small pelagic species. Some “fisheries restricted areas” have been settled to preserve resources natural habitats, species and deep-sea resources.
The Adriatic and Ionian Sea basins represent the second area for hydrocarbon installations in Europe (gas and oil). Several countries have already started to exploit these resources. Offshore activities are expected to grow, conflicting with the tourism development and posing a major threat to the environment protection.
Finally, the increase of maritime traffic leads to a real risk of accident, thus of pollution. To prevent such events, surveillance and coordination capacities need to be strengthened.
Alongside these legal activities, illegal ones have developed, creating other threats in the area.
Immigration: in 2018, over 117.000 migrants arrived in Europe by the Mediterranean Sea. Migrants are mainly turning to Albania trying to reach Western Europe by land, but also via the Adriatic Sea. The number of migrants trying to cross Albania in 2020 tripled compared to 2019. Smugglers send the migrants at sea through leisure crafts or small boats frequently stolen, leading to a growing number of losses at sea.
Trafficking: the Adriatic Sea is a strategic area for traffic networks and a major maritime connection on the “Balkan route” linking Afghanistan to western and central Europe. Cross-border criminal activities include drug trade, cigarette, firearms or counterfeit medicines smuggling.
Maritime borders tend to overlap, requiring coastal states to work together for their individual and mutual interests. As a result, they put in place several strategies at various scales.
Leveraging first on national forces, the Adriatic Sea bordering countries have set up maritime surveillance organizations, to carry out protection of national maritime interests. These include Navies but also Coast Guards (Italy & Croatia) or the maritime law enforcement force (Albania).
In addition, to meet specific maritime security needs, coastal States have established bilateral or regional agreements. Among these, the Italian-Yugoslav agreement on cooperation for the protection against pollution of the Adriatic Sea and coastal areas signed in 1974, which led to the creation of a Joint Commission (Italy – Slovenia – Croatia – Montenegro).
At European level, one can notice the Adriatic Ionian Initiative, established in 2000, organizing the cooperation between EU members situated along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas for the entire region’s development and security. The EU is also deplying troops in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Operation Althea (formally the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina EUFOR). This peace enforcement mission, composed of 600 troops, has seen its capabilities recently reinforced by the French Carrier Strike Group and its fighter aircrafts Rafale, which spent a month in the Adriatic Sea supporting EUFOR among other tasks.
More recently, FRONTEX has become a key player, coordinating Europe efforts to secure its borders in the Adriatic Sea. In 2019, the Agency signed an agreement for the first time with a non-EU country, Albania, followed later by Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, to help local authorities fight organized crime.
The Adriatic Sea is an area full of resources that requires a better coordination to ensure its maritime safety. The INTESA project works on this purpose. It creates a network between Italian and Croatian administrations, and a link with major ports of the Adriatic Sea in order to make a more efficient and safer maritime transport system in this area. The project aims three objectives: strengthening maritime safety and security; developping a resilient transport maritime network; and creating a competitive Port System.