Maltese Marine Conservation Areas and Conservation Management:
Will the Urgent Needs be Met?
Malta has adopted numerous legal structures and signed countless conventions….but how well are we equipped in practical terms to protect our marine environment?
Coastal areas are extremely important for the economy of a country. Locally the coast and the marine environment provide important resources and areas for local industries, such as fisheries, tourism, coastal sailing races and SCUBA diving.
Sometimes different anthropogenic activities taking place on coastal areas exert excessive pressure on the environmental quality of these areas. It is therefore very important to optimally manage the resources found in both terrestrial and marine habitats along our coastal areas. Local awareness and improved behaviour by all persons visiting these areas are necessary in order to prevent rubbish accumulation and degradation of the natural environment. Businesses and Authorities have their share of the responsibilities in this too: a responsibility which will increase as both the environmental pressures and legal obligations to safeguard natural resources and environment increase.
The Maltese Islands have adopted numerous environmental legal structures, but how well have the authorities equipped these legal structures with implementation measures and human resources required for inspection and enforcement, thus ensuring that indeed the laws are known and respected? How well are current policy and legislation developed to address the numerous anthropogenic pressures along our coasts and in our seas? How well have local human expertise and participation been used to address these issues and to critically assess conservation risks of constant development and change of our coasts?
Both the Environment Protection Act (2001) and the Development Planning Act (1992) allow for and enable the setting-up of marine protected areas. Fourteen sites were proposed as candidate marine conservation areas in the Structure Plan for the Maltese Islands elaborated in 1990. At present there are no formal marine protected areas, however, in the past, the 1 nautical mile around the islet of Filfla may have served as a similar purpose through the regulation of fishing activities there. This regulation is no longer in force and as yet, nothing has been done to re-establish it. Therefore we are still far from what must be done to safeguard our marine biodiversity. BICREF (Biological Conservation Research Foundation) believes that areas such as these should be promoted as conservation areas and this voluntary environmental NGO has also forwarded its interest to MEPA to assist in the research, monitoring and management of such Marine conservation efforts. An area being proposed by MEPA as an MPA is the Rdum Majjiesa to Ras ir-Raheb. Though the initiative is indeed a positive step, MEPA needs to rectify the manner in which it operates, if it has to compare to the European and international level. Indeed a case in point is how MEPA contradicted its own public consultation initiatives and excluded NGOs in its management discussions.
Since 1992 Malta has signed an impressive number of international conventions, treaties and agreements that bind us and local authorities to take action toward effective conservation of our seas and the vulnerable species dwelling there. These include: the Convention on Biological Diversity; the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (Bonn Convention); the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area (ACCOBAMS); the Protocol concerning Specially Protected Areas and Biological Diversity in the Mediterranean of the “Barcelona Convention” (SPA Protocol); which provides, among other things, for the establishment of Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Importance (SPAMIs); the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS); the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 – as amended by the Protocol relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution by Ships (MARPOL 73/78).
Malta also worked in collaboration with other Mediterranean countries. This collaboration has lead to new laws including: The Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (2001); together with several local legal notices that focus on mammal protection and pollution control amongst others. Unfortunately, some of these legal notices are still vague and may tend to change according to fancy. One case in point includes the quick amendments that came into force prior to the importation of six wild bottlenose dolphins from CUBA for the local dolphinarium last year. How can sustainable use of biodiversity include the use of vulnerable species without adequate rigour in assessment of its impacts?
Though marine life is so valuable to us all and we utilise the sea in so many ways, there is still very limited information regarding the biodiversity and the state of the marine environment. There is also an increasing pressure from the NGO’s, fishermen, the diving community and conservation biologists to start taking concrete steps toward filling the gaps of knowledge. To be effective, legislation has to bear in mind the interdependence between species, this being the basic functioning of ecosystems. Hence, more resources need to be allocated towards scientific conservation research and extensive monitoring programs. Local human resources and expertise should be involved to the full so as to reach this important objective as soon as possible.
The Malta Environmental and Planning Authority (MEPA) has in fact submitted a substantial number of applications to the EU to obtain funds for environment-related projects, in addition to those that it already enjoys from pre-accession funds. It is therefore hoped that such funds will be allocated in an equitable and transparent manner to assist valid environmental initiatives.
Biodiversity Research and Monitoring
Around 40,000 divers visit the Maltese Islands each year. Among the various marine projects, volunteer members of BICREF have set-up a useful way of encouraging greater public participation toward incrementing our monitoring capabilities. SCUBA diving schools in Malta and Gozo were invited to participate in one of BICREF’s coastal projects.
Through the use of a standard information sheet that illustrates a set of the vulnerable and indicator species, each SCUBA diver may observe and record the presence of these creatures during their dives. The information gathered is then forwarded to BICREF. Targeting locals and tourists alike, this method is cost-effective and may also be considered valid to promote local nature appreciation by foreigners and local divers. This project was initiated in summer 2002 – Eco Tourism Year. BICREF looks forward to seeing eco-conscious tourism develop and believes that the efforts that were put to the initiative in 2002 should not have been forgotten.
As BICREF is equipped with a dinghy (sponsored by Mecca & General Soft Drinks) it is in a better position to continue its commitment to coastal conservation research and awareness.
Maintaining our Biodiversity through the use of Marine Conservation Areas and Management:
Threats to marine biological diversity fall into two general classes, those that involve overexploitation of living resources and those that destroy or degrade marine habitats. Threats to marine habitats include various sources of pollution, coastal development, and other activities leading to physical alteration. Many of these threats are interrelated and have synergistic impacts. Unless mechanisms are developed for a comprehensive response to these threats, marine biodiversity is likely to be irretrievably lost. Holistic approaches to habitat assessment and management demands the involvement all stakeholders, including businesses, local residents and NGOs. These entities together with researchers in the field may know the real problems facing these particular areas. Without the full participation of local stakeholders, coastal management strategies rarely succeed. If people do not feel involved in decisions that affect their region, they can come to resent policy-makers and reject plans to improve coastal zones. The key to comprehensive participation however is not only to ensure public participation through consultation, but also to have community representatives sitting directly on the decision-making bodies. Conservation expertise is also important due to the advantage that this multidisciplinary science brings to the holistic assessment and management for effective and long-term protection.
Most often, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are seen as one means of reaching the goal of sustainable use of marine ecosystems. However conservation or protected areas serve many different purposes including:
- Conservation of biodiversity and ecosystems;
- Maintenance of genetic diversity;
- Protection of rare or threatened species and communities;
- Contributions to technology and scientific knowledge;
- Conservation of scientific reference sites;
- Conservation of cultural heritage;
- Educational opportunities;
- Contribution to sustainable tourism;
- Potential contribution to ecosystem-based management of fisheries.
The Zoning Approach
Though it is relatively easy to set a whole area aside and call it a marine protected area (MPA), it is more demanding to manage the area taking into account the various biological and anthropogenic values different parts of the area may have. Thus through a detailed assessment one may realise that the whole area may be divided into zones. The level of protection of MPAs is usually based on a zoning scheme. Zoning is one of the simplest and most commonly used tools in coastal planning and management. It provides a simple mechanism for planners to integrate complex and competing demands to a single plan or map.
Most zoning schemes usually involve three categories: Allowed; Permitted; Restricted use. These categories define the appropriate uses within a given area, which usually consist of a core zone and buffer zones which manage human impacts for sustainable use and ecological function.
The Need for Innovative Approaches
MPAs offer tremendous potential in the perennial struggle to save biodiversity still present in our seas. They supply opportunities for improving our gaps in knowledge through the various research projects encouraged in these areas. But by far, they constitute the few pockets on our planet that allow for regeneration of declining populations of marine organism thus assisting in the vital process of sustainable development in one important tangible way.
To achieve this we need to appreciate the variation in habitats and species present in our seas and target MPAs that are effective for each. Thus while small pockets of coastal protected areas may assist some sessile (non-motile) marine organisms they may not be effective for the numerous mobile organisms that find problems once out of the small protected area. Marine turtles and dolphins are such important examples.
Larger and offshore areas of protection will be required soon if we wish to allow for marine conservation, including the increasing number of vulnerable species, to become reality for future generations.
Effective conservation areas or conservation management need to become reality with the involvement of both the public and private sector. While the challenges may be high so will the rewards for both Maltese and Mankind.
Sandra Agius Darmanin, M.Sc. & Adriana Vella, Ph.D.
for BICREF (The Biological Conservation Research Foundation)
Thanks to Raphael Vassallo of the Independent for placing this article in his magazine with the Independent on the 11th of July 2004.