Nature Directives

The Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, together known as the Nature Directives, were put in place to safeguard against the loss of nature, and they are the cornerstone of the EU nature protection policy.

The overall objective of the two directives is the conservation of habitats and species across the EU, and these two laws have led to the creation of Natura 2000, the world’s biggest network of protected areas.

The habitats and species that are targeted by this legislation are considered to be of Community interest and include a wide range of rare, threatened, endangered, vulnerable or endemic animal and plant species as well as around 200 rare and characteristic habitat types.

To quote the legislation, “…conservation means a series of measures required to maintain or restore the natural habitats and the populations of species of wild fauna and flora at a favourable status…”.

To this end, sites that are important for the conservation of key habitats and species are identified and designated as protected areas. These sites are then proposed to be included in the Natura 2000 network and Conservation Objectives are developed. These define the overall target for the habitat types and/or species (for which the site has been designated) in order for it to contribute to maintaining or achieving favourable conservation status of the habitats and species concerned.

Once the sites have been accepted into the Natura 2000 network, there is a six year period within which Conservation (management) Measures need to be developed and implemented, with the aim to achieve the Conservation Objectives that have been set.

While the identification of sites for designation as protected areas must be based solely on scientific principles, the Conservation Measures subsequently developed must take into account socio-economic factors so as to ensure that a balance is achieved and that there is support from the various stakeholders and users of these sites.

The habitats and species of conservation importance for which protected areas need to be designated are listed in Annex I and Annex II of the Habitats Directive, and Annex I of the Birds Directive.

In Malta’s context, there are four marine habitats, three marine species and three seabird species, for which marine protected areas had to be designated:

  • Habitats: Posidonia beds, reefs, caves and sandbanks
  • Species: Loggerhead turtle, Bottlenose dolphin and the Maltese topshell
  • Seabirds: Scopoli’s shearwater, Yelkouan shearwater and Mediterranean storm petrel.

The EU Nature Directives have been transposed into Maltese law via the Flora, Fauna and Natural Habitats Protection Regulations (S.L. 549.44) and the Conservation of Wild Birds Regulations (S.L.549.42).

Protected areas designated pursuant to this legislation are published as Government Notices, the most recent being G.N. 682 of 2018 through which the network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) was expanded in 2018.

The legislation also provides for other avenues of protection, separate from the protected areas process:

  • Annex IV of the Habitats Directive (Schedule V of S.L.549.44) lists animal and plant species that are strictly protected, i.e. they cannot be caught, picked, handled or killed, irrespective of where they are found within the European Union. These include all cetacean species (i.e. all dolphins, whales and porpoises); various species of turtles including the loggerhead turtle; various molluscs, including the date mussel, the Maltese top shell and and noble pen shell; and the long-spined sea urchin.
  • Annex V of the Habitats Directive (Schedule VII of S.L. 549.44) lists animal and plant species of Community interest for which management measures may be necessary in relation to their taking in the wild and exploitation, such as the Mediterranean slipper lobster and selected maerl-forming algae.

S.L. 549.44 also provides for the implementation of, among others, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention), the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, and the Protocol for Specially Protected Areas and Biological Diversity in the Mediterranean of the Barcelona Convention.

In this regard it should be noted that the Regulations also list (in Schedule VI) species of national interest that are strictly protected, including various species of sea horse, rays, skates, sharks, molluscs, starfish, corals, sponges, algae and sea firs, many of which are also protected under the SPA/BD Protocol of the Barcelona Convention and the Bern Convention.

Species of national interest for which management measures may be necessary in relation to their talking in the wild and exploitation are also listed (in Schedule VIII). These include a number of fish and echinoderms commonly caught in Maltese waters, such as the dusky grouper, swordfish, blue fin tuna, brown meagre, rock urchin, European lobster, and flat lobster.