Two types of habitats, reefs and caves, are to form the basis of proposals for further protected marine areas, bringing Malta in line with EU requirements for the Natura 2000 marine network.

A diver surveys a cave using a sea scooter.A diver surveys a cave using a sea scooter.

Marine scientists recently shared their expertise on conservation of sandbanks, reefs and caves of the Mediterranean Sea at a four-day conference.

So far, Malta is about 60 per cent sufficient on designation of marine protected areas, which has lagged behind protection of land-based sites under Natura 2000, since less was known about life on the sea floor until now.

Due to limited scientific information, the existing marine protected areas (MPAs), covering an area of less than two per cent of the Fisheries Management Zone, were based on the presence of seagrass meadows. Much of the “underwater forests” of seagrass already have protected status through legislation. Posidonia beds sustain a high biodiversity, but other habitats merit designation. However, protected areas require active management plans so that they do not risk becoming “paper MPAs”.

Results of the LIFE BaHAR for N2K surveys, carried out on Maltese underwater habitats over two years, were presented to stakeholders at the conference ahead of drawing up management plans for these areas once the project ends. At that stage, another stakeholder seminar will be held to address threats and pressures to the marine environment.

Three habitat types were originally singled out for the research project, which began documenting the sea floor around the Maltese Islands in 2015 to fill in knowledge gaps and allow further site protection.

The target is to secure designation for the sites most deserving of protection. Setting conservation objectives will help ensure that the status of the features remains protected or improves. A conservation plan will be drawn up as part of the project to safeguard protected features until management plans are in place.

Elevated sandy features, such as the sandbank habitats at Għajn Tuffieħa, Mellieħa Bay and Blue Lagoon, were studied. As these areas are already covered by existing MPAs, it was decided that the project should spotlight reefs and submerged (or partially submerged) caves. A team from the international NGO Oceana collected extensive data from reefs, sandbanks and submerged or partly submerged caves. The data was interpreted by researchers from the University of Malta’s Department of Biology and will be used by the Environment and Resources Authority to propose sites for protection of these environmentally important habitats.

The 71-foot catamaran Oceana Ranger, equipped with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and on-board laboratory, recorded and assessed new habitats down to 1,000 metres. Their team of professional divers filmed biodiversity inside caves in the presence of safety divers. Most of the caves found were previously unrecorded.

No two caves are alike. Their depth, size and structure determine what type of marine life is found within. Some were small fissures inaccessible to divers, and the deepest cave discovered during the ROV offshore surveys was at 795 metres.

The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) assessed new habitats down to 1,000 metres.The remotely operated vehicle (ROV) assessed new habitats down to 1,000 metres.

An Atlantic starfish species was recorded for the first time in the Mediterranean. Another surprise was finding coral at a site below 800 metres in the Malta Graben trough

Information was not collected on caves below 40 metres, as surveying them would have meant doing a technical dive. Biological samples were collected from the seabed with the help of fibre optics and multi-beam sonar.

An Atlantic starfish species was recorded for the first time in the Mediterranean. Another surprise was finding coral at a site below 800 metres in the Malta Graben trough. The presence of critically endangered bamboo coral added to the reasons to conserve a certain area of seabed. Analysis continues on some sponges, which the team have so far been unable to identify.

This research builds on previous knowledge which provided the impetus for protecting areas offshore for seabirds, loggerhead turtles and bottlenose dolphins.

An upcoming stakeholder seminar will discuss what conservation objectives are needed for the new protected sites. Further consultation with fishermen, divers, fuel suppliers and others is expected to buoy sustainable management of the existing and extended N2K network.

Threats and pressures to these important habitats come from a number of activities competing for space and from fishing lines and discarded plastic. They cannot be tackled only by site-specific measures when they originate elsewhere.

“Overfishing in the Mediterranean Sea is prevalent, and there is a lack of knowledge on fish stocks. It is expected that adequate MPA management can assist in addressing this issue,” said an ERA officer.

Discarded or lost fishing gear is among the deadliest threats for underwater life. Climate change and associated coastal squeeze may trap shallow water habitats between a fixed landward boundary and rising seas as they suffer increased storm intensity. There is no evidence for the taking of red coral in Maltese waters, although illegal operators using modified fishing gear are active on the nearby Ragusa Bank.

A diver attending the conference expressed alarm over the destruction of Sikka il-Bajda, where ships are breaking up the reef, dropping their anchors at depths as shallow as 15 metres. ERA insists that talks are ongoing with Transport Malta to identify possible solutions to this problem.

Relevant to its size, Malta is already the largest contributor to Europe’s marine protected area network. The new proposals on reefs and caves will go to the Ministry for Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change for approval before being sent to the European Commission for consideration.

Management plans and measures for all MPAs would improve long-term chances of survival for many marine species and the unique habitats in which they live.

The current marine monitoring program will benefit from the €3 million European Maritime Fisheries Fund. At the same time, the environment authority is trying to rope in other entities to carry their share of the responsibility under their respective obligations. “The future of Europe’s and Malta’s seas concerns all actors,” concluded acting CEO for the Environment and Resources Authority Louise Spiteri.

The conference was organised by the ERA, as part of the LIFE BaHAR project in collaboration with Oceana, the University of Malta, the Fisheries Department and the Ministry for Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change.

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