Living on an Island State with a larger marine territory than land mass, make the protection of our marine and coastal environment a high priority. Dr Alan Deidun discusses the current state of affairs.
The Maltese Islands have a marine territory that spans over nine kilometres from its coast, covering an impressive 3000 square kilometres and, as an island state, our beautiful coast is also a feature that makes up part of our socio-economic and cultural fabric. So the need to protect our delicate marine and coastal environment is practically a foregone conclusion.
However, Malta's coastal and marine environment is often placed under considerable pressure from certain activities such as bunkering (Malta has a total of 12 bunkering sites, 5 of which are outside ports and 7 are within existing ports), dredging for port access maintenance or for coastal developments, yacht marina development and unsustainable fishing methods (such as the indiscriminate use of trammel nets within bays and the use of explosives), and also small-scale (but more widely dispersed) impacts, such as anchoring on sea grass meadows and operational discharge of oils and other hydrocarbons.
Another, yet often overlooked, impact on our marine and coastal environment is the influx of marine non-indigenous species, many of which thrive in high temperatures, making the ever warmer water of the surrounding waters of the Mediterranean the ideal breeding ground and habitat for these ‘alien’ species. Although the marine and coastal environment must content with their fair share of challenges, there is a lot that can be done to safeguard them and improve their holistic management. Some challenges are obviously relatively easier than others to address. For instance, Malta is party to conventions and protocols aimed at curbing the discharge of oils out at sea and the most detrimental of anti-fouling paints have been banned.
The necessary legislative framework is in place and Malta has transposed EU directives, such as the Habitats and Water Framework directives. Hopefully, the Marine
Framework Strategy Directive will also be transposed in the very near future. Malta is also party to the Barcelona Convention and MEPA has developed a designation framework for Marine Protected Areas, which was bolstered by financial assistance from the Greek government for formulation of a rolling plan for the designation of marine Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
However, there are also a number of inherent difficulties when it comes to regulating activities within the coastal and marine environment. How do you legislate against crabbing (dragging of anchors along the seabed) which is rife within bunkering areas? How do you safeguard sea grass meadows against constant anchoring of boats during the summer season? I would say that greater awareness is the only feasible tool to curb such contraventions.
Other infringements, such as the deployment of trammel nets within bays, need constant surveillance and monitoring and a more conscientious and a vigilant public that is willing to report such instances to authorities. The authorities, on the other hand need to ensure that the voluminous legal infrastructure is translated into concrete enforcement and management. For example, there is no obvious surveillance for Rdum Majjiesa, Dwejra in Gozo and for our two Marine Protected Areas, to curb against illegal fishing methods and other infringements.
It will be positive should MEPA engage itself in funding research on the current influx of alien marine species and should work to speed up the process of uploading information on all marine habitats and species that is gathered through Environment Impact Assessments on its website for public dissemination. Education also plays an essential role in ensuring the protection and proper management of Malta’s coastal and marine environment. A recent survey conducted by the European Union revealed that just 18 per cent of the Maltese population is familiar with the term ‘biodiversity’, showing that increased efforts to raise awareness and to educate the public are needed.
While MEPA had initiated a commendable initiative aimed at familiarising the public with marine species through the production of a set of posters and leaflets, it is important that such initiatives are not sporadic but are taken on a regular basis. It is also worth considering involving marine researchers in such an initiative, as their added expertise and ideas would only serve to strengthen any educational initiatives that are planned.
I also believe that the two local Marine Protected Areas should have their own website and visitor’s centre, with the aim of promoting sustainable tourism and generating much needed revenue to support conservation projects within these areas. We should also take a leaf out of our neighbours’ books, mainly Syracuse in Sicily, to identify best practice initiatives that would further enhance the public’s understanding of how they too can participate in the protection of our precious marine environment.