Introduction

The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project (LIFE12 NAT/MT/000845) conducted research on benthic habitats in Maltese waters in order to support marine Natura 2000 site designation. The project was carried out between the 1st October 2013 and the 30th June 2018 with a total budget €2.6 million. The project was 50% co-financed by the EU LIFE+ Funding Programme.

Objectives

The main objectives of this project were to determine the distribution of marine habitats listed in Annex 1 of the Habitats Directive, namely:

  • Sandbanks which are slightly covered by sea water all the time (code 1110);
  • Reefs (code 1170);
  • Submerged or partially submerged sea caves (code 8330);
  • Increase participation and coordination of relevant stakeholders and their awareness;
  • Determine the conservation objectives for marine Natura 2000 sites.

Results

Eight new marine areas were designated and proposed as Natura 2000 sites, equivalent to an increase of 700km2 of protected areas to conserve marine habitats and the species that they support. With the designation of these new sites, Malta now protects over 4,100km2 of its waters – more than 35% of the country’s Fisheries Management Zone.

Sites were prioritised using data collected and interpreted from marine-based surveys carried out in 2015 and 2016. The eight sites are:

  1. three inshore sites (extensions to existing coastal marine protected areas) to protect reefs and sea caves;
  2. five offshore areas to protect reefs and sea caves – two completely new sites and three extensions to existing marine protected areas.

This increase in marine protected areas led to extra protection for over 100 inshore caves, 17 newly-discovered offshore caves, and the overall protection of 148 known caves in Maltese waters. The process also filled in data gaps by locating and mapping 89 caves, 37 of which are emergent, along the coasts of the Maltese islands. This data will help future management efforts.

Reef habitat coverage was extended in coastal areas and offshore, from 4.33km2 in 2012 to 107.63km2 at the end of the project. Offshore reefs account for 94% of all reef habitat. Offshore areas were chosen based on the presence of geological and biological reef structures and offshore caves in deep waters. These areas comprise coral frameworks formed by cold-water corals such as Madrepora oculata, Leiopathes glaberrima, Lophelia pertusa, and Corallium rubrum, and communities formed by gorgonians, in particular Callogorgia verticillata.

Coastal site coverage increased by 12.88km2, or 7%, compared to 2012. This was the result of extending the marine protected areas and better delineation of the geogenic reefs. Apart from geogenic reef habitats, coastal sites include habitat-forming species like the orange coral Astroides calycularis. Total coverage of coastal MPAs now stands at 203.66km2.

Hundreds of species were observed during underwater surveys by SCUBA divers and using research vessels equipped with remotely operated vehicles (ROV). Surveys covered depths of 1,000m below sea level and extended up to the Fisheries Management Zone 25 nautical mile boundary. A bathymetric survey of selected deep-water areas using multibeam echoscounder was also carried out to complement the habitat data collected.

Species variety identified included:

  • 75 different species of fish
  • 55 cnidarians (such as corals, sea pens, anemones)
  • 35 crustaceans
  • 32 molluscs
  • 21 echinoderms (starfish, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sea-lilies)
  • 15 sponges, as well as various tunicates, bryozoans, brachiopods and annelids

Sandy areas, which could potentially host sandbanks, were also targeted, although the coverage for this habitat was later deemed sufficient. All sandy elevations recorded were found within previously designated Sites of Community Importance (SCIs), however the data collected will serve to inform and guide conservation measures for these areas.

Project Details

PROJECT REFERENCE LIFE12 NAT/MT/000845
PROJECT TITLE LIFE BaĦAR for N2K – LIFE+ Benthic Habitat Research for marine Natura 2000 site designation
DURATION 01-OCT-2013 to 30-JUN -2018
TOTAL BUDGET €2,612,810
EU CONTRIBUTION €1,306,405
PROJECT LOCATION Malta

Beneficiaries

LEAD Environment and Resources Authority
PARTNERS University of Malta; Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture; Fundación Oceana, Spain; Ministry for the Environment, Climate Change and Planning (formerly known as: Ministry for the Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change).

Further information on the project can be accessed through the following links: