Four new marine protected areas, covering over 18,000 hectares of the Maltese marine environment, have recently been designated and given new protection by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA). The sites, which include a significant stretch of area along the North East of the Islands and three smaller areas at Mġarr ix-Xini, Dwejra and an area between Għar Lapsi and Filfa, are being protected so that the underwater habitats in the area are preserved in all their beauty, for the enjoyment of the present and future generations.
These newly designated sites were primarily identified because they provide protection for over 80 per cent of Posidonia beds found in the Maltese Islands. Posidonia beds commonly referred to in Maltese as mergħat tal-alka is a priority habitat which is given special importance by the EU, as it is in danger of disappearing. In the Mediterranean this habitat provides both food and shelter for a number of marine species, acts as a carbon sink and protects sandy beaches from sand depletion. These sites were also chosen for their geographical representation and good conservation status of this habitat.
Hon Mario de Marco, Parliamentary Secretary for Tourism, the Environment and Culture, said that of the 28 Special Areas of Conservation of International importance which have become Natura 2000 sites, only one is a marine protected area. For this reason MEPA, as the competent authority responsible for the Habitats Directive that obliges member states of the European Union to identify protected areas in accordance with a specific set of criteria, has been working intensively to identify further marine sites.
The Director for Environment Protection, Mr Martin Seychell said “During 2010, the Year dedicated to Biodiversity by the United Nations, the Authority has actively been working on various fronts to make sure that the safeguarding of our biodiversity is one of our top priorities. The designation of four new marine protected areas comes just a few days after MEPA scheduled the two valley systems of Wied il-Miżieb and Wied tax-Xaqrani located along the Mellieħa ridge.”
He added “while it is crucial for us to protect our natural and marine sites, it is essential for us to also provide management plans which effectively allow for the sustainable use of natural resources in these areas with the full involvement of all stakeholders.”
Mr Christopher Cousin, Environment Protection Officer within MEPA explained that while the designated Marine Protected Areas will enjoy a high degree of environment protection, this does not mean that all activities occurring or proposed to occur in such protected areas will automatically be prohibited. It means however that any proposed activity will have to be assessed in terms of the likelihood and significance of their impact on the biodiversity for which the site was protected.
The first marine Natura 2000 site in Malta was designated in 2008 when the Authority granted protection status to the coastline along the area off the North West coast of Malta, between Rdum Majjiesa and Ras ir-Raħeb. This area is characterised by sandy and cobbled beaches, boulder scree and cliffs. The Natura 2000 Network is an ecological network of protected areas designed to protect the most seriously threatened habitats and species across Europe.