The marine protected area around the island has been increased by 20%, Environment Minister Jose Herrera said on Tuesday evening.

The move, which came as part of a Natura 2000 project, will see the total protected marine area increase from 3,487 square kilometres to 4,138 square kilometres reaching over 35% of Maltese waters.

Speaking at the closing of the latest Natura 2000 conservation project which coincided with World Environment Day, Dr Herrera said the designation of an additional eight Marine Protected Areas made up the bulk of the increase.

Three new inshore sites, he said, had been added as an extension to the area covered by existing coastal protection sites, which include a variety of coastal caves and reef habitats.

Dr Herrera told reporters that experts had identified a number of species of conservation interest which inhabited these areas, including the star coral, the long-spined sea urchin, and the Mediterranean slipper lobster.

The project also led to the designation of two completely new areas. These include offshore reefs which are home to extensive and diverse communities of cold-water and other types of corals including many species of conservation interest.

The project, known as LIFE Ba─ŽAR, also extended three offshore sites which had previously been designated as protection areas.

The areas had been highlighted as being important for both loggerhead turtles and bottlenose dolphins.

Surveys carried out for the projects had already highlighted hundreds of marine species in the areas, including some 75 species of fish; 55 types of corals, sea pens, and anemones; 35 crustaceans; 32 molluscs; 21 echinoderms (starfish, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea-lilies); and 15 sponges.

“Now more than ever we are recognising the need to preserve our seas which is our asset to be passed on to future generations,” Dr Herrera said.

He later pointed out how 80% of marine litter was land-based and ended in the sea either by accident due to weather or on purpose by illegal littering.

To combat this, the government had recently launched two public consultation papers aimed at addressing the littering challenges; the amendments to the Littering Regulations and the introduction of the Beverage Container Refund Scheme.

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