The origins of the Commission go back to July 1908 when the 9th International Congress of Geography, meeting in Geneva, agreed to a proposal advanced by Prof. Vinciguerra that, in the interest of marine fisheries, it was opportune to promote the oceanographic exploration of the Mediterranean Sea. A special committee composed of Prince Albert I of Monaco (President), of Professors Cori (Trieste), Vinciguerra (Rome), Regnard (Paris), and of Cdr Navarete (Madrid) was mandated to lay the foundations of a future Commission of the Mediterranean. It is worth noting that at the same Congress the creation of a Commission for the Scientific Exploration of the Atlantic was recommended, but history and fate decided otherwise.
On 30 March 1910, in Monaco, under the chairmanship of Prince Albert I, and with the addition of Professor Krümel from Kiel (Germany) the special committee met for the first time in the splendid, brand-new Musée Océanographique, which had just been inaugurated. The Prince further invited 11 illustrious scientists – who were among his guests at the Museum inaugural celebrations – to join their work. Two main concerns were expressed: the desire that countries be represented at the governmental level in order to give more weight to the recommendations of scientists, and the need to free the Commission from any political interference. It was then agreed to meet in Rome the following year, but armed conflicts postponed the meeting till February 1914 when the bases for a Constitutive Assembly composed of the States bordering the Mediterranean and the Black Seas were laid. The advent of the Great War prevented Spain to welcome the Inaugural Meeting later in the year.
Madrid, November 1919: CIESM is at last able to hold its Constitutive Assembly, following preparatory meetings in Rome and Paris (June, October 1919). The opening ceremony, on 17 November, is presided over by King Alfonso XIII of Spain, with Prince Albert I of Monaco – who would lead the working sessions through the next days and serve as first President of the Commission – at his side. The Conference is attended by Representatives of Egypt, France, Greece, Italy, Monaco, Spain and Tunisia - the seven founding Member States of the Commission - together with observers from Turkey.
Five scientific committees are rapidly created to serve the Commission: Marine Physics; Chemistry; Meteorology; General Biology; Applied Biology (Fisheries).
Among the very first recommendations of the Commission to its Member States figure the creation of marine stations, the consolidation of existing ones, the systematic exploration of the Mediterranean Straits, the preparation of a bathymetric map, and studies on the biogeography of "useful species".
These recommendations soon lead to the foundation of Marine Stations in Algiers (1921), Castiglione (1921) and Salammbô (Tunisia, 1924). At the same time, oceanographic campaigns are carried out by three Member States on behalf of the Commission: two Italian scientific vessels – the Tremili and the Marsigli – explore the Bosphorus and then the Strait of Messina; the Giralda from Spain studies the Strait of Gibraltar, while the French vessels La Perche et l’Orvet focus their investigations on the Gulf of Gabes.
On 15 January 1920 appears the first issue of the "Bulletin de la Commission Internationale pour l'Exploration Scientifique de la mer Méditerranée", later to be replaced, in 1926, by the series of "Rapports du Congrès" which continues until now. The ambitious publication, sheet after sheet, of the "Faune et Flore de la Méditerranée" is also decided then.
Folllowing the death of Prince Albert I in 1922, Italy is elected to the Presidence of the Commission in the person of Senator Volterra; it will retain this preeminent role through other representatives until 1938.
This period is also one of geographic consolidation, as the founding Members are joined by Romania (1925), the Kingdom of Serbs (1927), Turkey (1928) and by territories then under British, French or Spanish mandate: Cyprus, Palestine (1929), Syria, upper-Lebanon (1930), Spanish Protectorate of Morocco (1933). CIESM now covers most of the Mediterranean perimeter as well as a good part of the Black Sea coast.
The Second World War nearly signaled the end of the Commission. In its immediate aftermath, the United Nations Council was seriously tempted to impose a new world order in the region, favouring a scenario whereby newly created UN agencies would operate alone in the Basin. The Mediterranean nations, primarily concerned to oversee the interests of their region, managed to resist the pressure. The combined efforts of their National Committees, spontaneously reborn after the war, and of France – then host country of the Secretariat – allow a new start for the Commission. In February 1951 at last, the 12th CIESM Congress can take place in Paris.
Professors Petit and Furnestin assume in succession the position of Secretary General of the Commission, then seated in Paris. They restore CIESM on solid foundations, and help Prince Rainier of Monaco, its newly elected President (1954), to develop his vision whereby marine science more explicitly integrates marine protection concerns. After a silence of 16 years, the Series "Rapports du Congrès" resumes in 1954.
In the following decade the Commission welcomes as members the newly independent nations of the Basin. In 1966 a modification of the statutes allows non-coastal States with a long-standing commitment to research in the Mediterranean Sea to join. This enables Germany and Switzerland to become members in 1969 and 1970 respectively.
Besides its regular Congresses, CIESM organizes the International Symposium on Marine Pollutions caused by Microorganisms (Monaco, 1964).
During the 1966 Congress held in Bucharest, a record number of 270 scientific communications are presented. Commandant J.Y. Cousteau is elected Secretary General of the Commission and represents CIESM at the First International Congress on the History of Oceanography held in the same year in Monaco. He will serve in this function until 1988, when Professor François Doumenge is elected to succeed him, a post he will hold until 2007.
During this period, the activity of the Commission very much reflects that of its scientific committees, now ten in total: Physical and chemical oceanography; Marine geology; Marine radioactivity; Microbiology, biochemistry and marine pollutions; Plankton; Benthos; Marine vertebrates and cephalopods; Lagoons; Island environments; Man under the sea.
In 1991, the Board creates the post of Director General of the Commission to oversee, on a permanent basis, the international research and policy activities of CIESM. Prof. Frederic Briand, a marine scientist formerly head of Unesco programs for population and environment, is appointed by the Board. There follows a period of rapid scientific extension and reforms.
1992 – Adhesion of three new Member States: Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine. In June of the same year, Prince Rainier addresses the World Summit of Rio as President of CIESM, calling the attention of the Heads of States gathered there to the fragility of the Mediterranean world.
1993 – CIESM publishes an in-depth assessment of Mediterranean Marine Pollution at the request of the European Parliament.
1995 – Creation of an Advisory Board of eight countries. Launch of CIESM Science Series. Adhesion of Lebanon.
1996 – Restructuration and fusion of CIESM scientific committees. They are now six in total, allowing a better integration of cross-disciplinarity in research strategy and planning.
1998 – Launch of CIESM Research Workshops: these exploratory seminars produce authoritative, largely diffused monographs on emerging issues. [The series now numbers 43 volumes.] Creation of Expert task forces on Exotic Species, monitoring the introduction and distribution in recent decades of marine species, most of them of tropical origin, and resulting in the publication of authoritative CIESM Atlases on Exotic Fishes, Crustaceans and Mollusks.
2000 – Present: launch of first CIESM cross-Mediterranean monitoring programs. These today include MedGLOSS, Mussel Watch, Exotic Species, Hydrochanges, PartnerSHIPS, Tropical Signals, JellyWatch, relying on the cooperation of 180 researchers scientists and 45 research Institutes.
2001 – Election by secret ballot of Prince Albert II of Monaco to the Presidence.
2001 – First of CIESM / Ifremer high-resolution multibeam maps of the Mediterranean seabed.
2004 – Adhesion of Portugal.
2005 – Following a break of 80 years, CIESM resumes its oceanographic explorations with two pilot multidisciplinary, multinational campaigns (focused on the deep South Tyrrhenian Sea).
2007 – The triannual CIESM Congress (Istanbul) reaches over 700 scientific presentations. The presidency of Monaco is renewed.
2008 – Launch of CIESM initiatives in blue biotechnologies.
2009 – Launch of CIESM Program on Tropical Signals, investigating the links between global warming and changes in Mediterranean biodiversity.
2010 – The 39th Congress held in Venice (Lido) welcomes some 1,000 scientists, and a record number of communications (over 900). For the first time the participation of women scientists exceeds that of men.
2011 – CIESM represents Mediterranean marine research in advising European Commission instances on marine policy.