The recently launched consultation process for marine protected areas (MPAs) around Malta will provide very limited opportunity for truly active participation of stakeholders, posing questions on the effectiveness of the process.

The conservation of marine protected areas requires in-depth conversations that bring together the views and needs of various users of the sea. According to governance theories, any proposed management measure for marine areas that ought to affect human activities and practices need to be formalised through a consensual process.

Such approaches are known to increase the success factor of marine conservation initiatives and reduces the risks related to non-compliance and anthropogenic conflicts. Malta’s mari­time territory is congested with a plethora of activities that require more than a mere two-month consultation process. Moreover, the strategy for marine conservation would benefit from inclusive methods of conversations rather than technical documents which are not yet available in Maltese.

Studies focusing on MPAs in Malta have highlighted that stakeholders, especially those emanating from fishing communities, find it difficult to engage with such technical documents and such processes tend to exclude rather than invite effective participation in the promulgation of marine policies.

The process towards MPAs still leaves much to be desired in what ought to be equitable, fair and inclusive conservation – three elements which are key to conservation effectiveness and sustainability according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The recently launched consultation process for marine protected areas around Malta will provide very limited opportunity for the active participation of stakeholders- Alicia Bugeja Said

To date, in Malta, no studies have as yet been commissioned to investigate how best to incorporate different levels of stakeholders in the process, especially those whose livelihoods thoroughly depend on the marine resources and, thus, are directly affected by what will come of marine conservation. If in the case of fisheries, fishing community livelihoods are not protected by conservation policies through equity-based measures that guarantees their participation in the formulation of management measures, fishers may regard conservation as a threat to their way of life and resist policy measures.

This can easily compromise conversation efforts and can make the enforcement of the MPAs more expensive. The last time I was speaking to fishers, they raised questions on what could become of the fishing sector should the reserves be enforced. Even if the intention was to increase the fish stocks through MPAs (although no sufficient fish stock assessments are in place to be able to determine this ecological equation and, hence, this goal cannot be attained), the fishers and other sea-users, including leisure seekers, still feel aliena­ted and underinformed about the processes.

Malta needs a revision of the community consultation policies of the MPA to allow broader and more representative participation from the local community by encouraging engagement throughout the process as part of a consensual approach to effective marine conservation. Facilitation and assistance through social science experts, such as sociolo­gists or anthropologists, would also help to elicit the main concerns as well as ideas of fishing communities.

Ultimately, the decision-making behind marine conservation would benefit from a co-management system in the form of inclusive partnerships as an alternative to the current top-down governance approach, where the various knowledges (expert and local) come together to inform the best way forward for marine conservation.

Co-management has worked in various EU member states such as Spain, Italy and Ireland and it is time that Malta adopts such a participatory governance approach. If not, the MPAs will become mere paper parks and a social failure lacking broad participation in management as well as a missing opportunity for the generation of socio-economic benefits.

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