PORTOFINO, Italy (Reuters Life!) - The chic Italian seaside resort of Portofino may be known for its postcard-perfect views and celebrities, but deep underwater, the rich sea life is also claiming a name of its own.
The sea off the Ligurian coast hosts an underwater treasure trove of moray eels, grouper fish, bream, mullet, red starfish, hundreds of yellow cluster sea "daisies" and red coral adding bursts of color against dark green algae-covered rocks.
In the last 10 years, since the Protected Marine Area of Portofino was founded, fish populations have grown as some activities became regulated or even banned, local officials, environmentalists, fishermen and divers said.
Although they said it was difficult to quantify, all noted a difference.
"Some fish that were not there before have now reappeared," said Giorgio Fanciulli, director of the marine protected area.
"For those that were caught through fishing when diving, something that's now banned, it means they have come back in significant numbers."
The 374-hectare (924.2 acres) protected area runs from the town of Camogli around the promontory of Portofino, where colorful houses huddle around its little harbor.
The area is divided into zone A, which no one can enter, and zones B and C, each with their own rules. Boats need to anchor in specific areas, scuba divers are limited in numbers in the 20 diving spots and sport fishermen need special permits.
"There was a lot of opposition at first, because it was feared that everything would be forbidden. Now things have changed," Fanciulli said.
Simone Gambazza, a fisherman from the town of Camogli, said he had been wary of the protected area at first but has welcomed some of the rules. Gambazza and his colleagues practice fishing net techniques that go back centuries.
"As fishermen, we are happier that we don't have boats crossing us at nights. Sometimes, they wouldn't have any lights on, or it would be people coming back drunk," he said.
"Also the fish are less disturbed now."
The Portofino promontory has been known as diving spot for years. It even has a statue of Christ, 18 meters underwater.
"The quality of the dives has improved 100 percent," said Roberto Bacigalupi, who opened his B&B diving center some 20 years ago. "Before you wouldn't see the grouper you see today."
He said that other environmental factors have also helped the fish grow in numbers.
There are 26 protected marine areas in Italy and only some have enjoyed major success like Portofino, Fanciulli said.
"Ten work well, five or six work very well, and that includes Portofino," he said.
The operation also seeks to boost tourism and launches various initiatives, such as a coastline dedicated only to swimmers.
Editing by Paul Casciato