A recent appeal by the President of the Republic for better and higher protection of our environment triggered my memory and spurred me to share publicly for the first time a proposal I had made, after months of meticulous research, to the Nationalist Party’s parliamentary group repeatedly since 2019 up until last year.

Sadly, it never made it to parliament for reasons that are not relevant to this article.

I believe it is high time that Malta declares, in accordance with maritime law, an ecological protection zone (EPZ).

Ecological protection zones are definite geographical areas beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea that shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines and in which the coastal state enjoys functional limited competences.

The coastal state that declares an EPZ unilaterally exercises jurisdiction to protect and preserve the marine environment but also employs other jurisdictional rights, say, with regard to marine scientific research.

The coastal state is given sovereign rights only for the purpose of conserving and managing natural resources. The coastal state has specific management responsibilities, especially regarding the living resources of the zone.

In the light of these management responsibilities, a coastal state which has claimed an ecological protection zone cannot pursue a policy of inaction with respect to its living resources.

In the Mediterranean, EPZs have been declared as follows: France (2004), Slovenia (2005), Croatia (2003), Italy (2006).

Note the years in which these EPZs were declared by these Mediterranean countries: exactly after the massively disastrous Prestige oil spill of 2002.

The oil spill occurred off the coast of Galicia, Spain, caused by the sinking of the structurally deficient oil tanker MV Prestige in November 2002, carrying 77,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.

During a storm, it burst a tank on November 13 and the French, Spanish and Portuguese governments refused to allow the ship to dock.

The vessel subsequently sank on November 19, 2002, about 210 kilometres from the coast of Galicia. It is estimated that it spilled 60,000 tonnes of heavy fuel oil.

The spill polluted thousands of kilometres of coastline and more than 1,000 beaches on the Spanish, French and Portuguese coast as well as causing a lot of damage to the local fishing industry. The spill is the largest environmental disaster in the history of both Spain and Portugal. The amount of oil spilled was more than the Exxon Valdez incident and the toxicity was considered higher because of the higher water temperatures.

A country declaring an EPZ is basically sending out an unequivocal message: in this defined area it will apply the rules of international, European and its national laws with regard to the prevention, response and control of all kinds of marine pollution, including pollution from ships and ballast tanks, pollution by dumping of waste, pollution as a result of exploration and exploitation of the sea bed and subsoil (the so-called ‘offshore activities’), pollution of atmospheric origin and for the protection of biodiversity and, in particular, marine mammals.

It will only take one major oil spill during a grigalata somewhere between Malta and Pozzallo to cripple our economy- Jason Azzopardi

For instance, with the establishment of an ecological protection zone beyond the outer limit of the territorial sea, the provision of the Barcelona Convention (1995) and its related protocols are applied also in this area.

For example, take articles 5, 6 and 11 of the Barcelona Convention. Contemplate their huge relevance to Malta and to our water and energy security. Yes, they are that important.

Article 5 deals with “pollution of the Mediterranean Sea area caused by dumping from ships and aircraft or incineration at sea”; article 6 deals with “pollution of the Mediterranean Sea area caused by discharges from ships...”; and article 11 deals with “pollution of the environment which can be caused by transboundary movements and disposal of hazardous wastes and to reduce to a minimum and, if possible, eliminate such transboundary movements”.

Establishing an ecological protection zone will greatly facilitate and empower Malta to effectively implement these provisions which are in our vital and national interest.

Just remember that more than two-thirds of all shipping movements in the central part of the Mediterranean pass through the channel between Malta and Sicily. Know that a huge portion of those thousands of monthly shipping movements are oil tankers.

It will only take one major oil spill during a grigalata (northeastern storm) somewhere bet­ween Malta and Pozzallo to cripple our economy. Our reverse osmosis plants would be unusable for months; no fishing industry for years; tourism dead and buried.

God forbid; indeed. Fingers crossed it will not happen; amen.

I preferred uncrossing my fingers and doing something about it. Hence, why I had taken the initiative in 2019 to draft a parliamentary motion which I shall be publishing after this article is carried.

How I wish that parliament legislates to declare an ecological protection zone to give more protection to our country from avoidable threats and dangers to our lives.

Hope springs eternal.

Jason Azzopardi is a former ­Nationalist MP.

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