Mal­tese marine bio­di­ver­sity: as rich as it is frag­ile

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE -

Flo­rian Lan­glet and Vicky Louis The sea around the is­lands of Malta abounds with an amaz­ing wealth of dif­fer­ent species in­clud­ing marine mam­mals, fish, crus­tacean to in­ver­te­brate species. As vol­un­teers, with the Bi­o­log­i­cal Con­ser­va­tion Re­search Foun­da­tion (Bi­cref), to as­sist in the long-term mon­i­tor­ing ef­forts of this en­vi­ron­men­tal NGO, we have learned so much about this in­ter­est­ing di­ver­sity of life so unique to this sea and the Mediter­ranean. In­deed, every day, us­ing a sim­ple snorkel mask and tube, any tourist or lo­cal can ob­serve this won­der­ful bio­di­ver­sity too. It is pos­si­ble to ob­serve both an­i­mal and plant species: some very com­mon while oth­ers very rare.

The Or­nate wrasse, one of the more wide­spread fish species seen in Mal­tese wa­ters, is one of the most colour­ful coastal species. Its in­cred­i­ble colours are no less im­pres­sive than any aquar­ium fish com­ing from trop­i­cal wa­ters. Though it is known to be found in the east­ern At­lantic Ocean it also in­hab­its the Mediter­ranean and rep­re­sents one of the di­verse wrasse species found in these wa­ters. How­ever, some of these species are far from com­mon and Bi­cref is col­lab­o­rat­ing with the Con­ser­va­tion Bi­ol­ogy Re­search Group of the Univer­sity of Malta in aid of the many species re­quir­ing con­ser­va­tion through ac­cu­rate sci­en­tific knowl­edge.

A typ­i­cal view seen from the end of Au­gust and Septem­ber is the harm­less jel­ly­fish, Coty­lorhiza tu­ber­cu­late. It is yel­low and wears pur­ple ten­ta­cles which seem to in­vite lit­tle fish to use it as a refuge as it trav­els past. Its top colour and shape clearly re­minded us of a fried egg, hence its com­mon name. Bi­cref pro­motes the CIESM Mediter­ranean Jel­lyWatch pro­gramme ef­fort of for­ward­ing jel­ly­fish bloom in­for­ma­tion to the na­tional con­tact for Malta, Dr Adri­ana Vella, so that data may be col­lated and an­a­lysed at Mediter­ranean re­gional level as well. It was great to be part of such an in­ter­na­tional ef­fort too.

The Mediter­ranean mo­ray eel ( Mu­raena he­lena) is a species as in­trigu­ing as it is im­pres­sive. It can reach 1.5m in adult size. Its long body al­lows it to move be­tween the rocks and to shel­ter in crevasses. En­coun­ter­ing a mo­ray re­mains dif­fi­cult be­cause it hunts dur­ing the night, mainly fish and oc­to­puses, thanks to its two thin and sharp teeth. It is a soli­tary and ter­ri­to­rial fish. To ob­serve one of them, you will have to care­fully ob­serve the rocky seabed and be pa­tient. It is worth it!

Among the var­i­ous in­trigu­ing minia­ture jew­els of this sea we were grate­ful to have come across one of the most beau­ti­ful and brightly coloured Mediter­ranean sea slug, Fe­lim­ida lu­te­orosea. It only mea­sures be­tween 0.5 and 3cm in length usu­ally and can there­fore eas­ily be missed among the al­gae on the rocky seabed. It is re­ported to feed on sponges and to in­habit Posi­do­nia ocean­ica mead­ows − still a lot needs to be dis­cov­ered about the bi­ol­ogy and re­pro­duc­tion of this species. There­fore, be­ing able to spot this species at dif­fer­ent times of the year and to fol­low its dis­tri­bu­tion and abun­dance is use­ful to de­crease the gaps in knowl­edge.

Un­for­tu­nately, mass tourism and a high pop­u­la­tion den­sity that gath­ers on the beaches of these is­lands in sum­mer has harm­ful con­se­quences on marine bio­di­ver­sity if left unchecked. In­deed, a lot of peo­ple pol­lute the sea by throw­ing their lit­ter in the wa­ter or on the seashore. Bi­cref has been record­ing species di­ver­sity side by side with com­mon wastes found on the shore. Among the most com­mon wastes one finds cig­a­rette butts, plas­tic bot­tles, plas­tic bags and food wrap­pers. We were shocked to see so much pol­lu­tion con­trast­ing with the won­ders of these spec­tac­u­larly unique is­lands.

This pol­lu­tion has a dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on bio­di­ver­sity be­cause it in­tro­duces ex­ter­nal el­e­ments with toxic and path­o­genic ef­fects in the life of many marine species. As a con­se­quence, fish and other or­gan­isms can be hurt or killed by it. More­over, the degra­da­tion of the habi­tats has a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the species which may eas­ily lead to a dras­tic de­crease in the num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als of each pop­u­la­tion. So it would be re­gret­table to lose such im­por­tant nat­u­ral wealth of the Mal­tese nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment just be­cause of some­thing that we are all able to avoid: dump­ing wastes care­lessly and ac­cu­mu­lat­ing pol­lu­tion.

We of­ten limit our en­vi­ron­men­tal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties by think­ing “What will it change if the Or­nate wrasse or any other or­gan­ism dis­ap­pears?” Well first of all as species de­crease in pop­u­la­tion size they lose their re­silience to sur­vive in an ever-chang­ing en­vi­ron­ment. When Mal­tese bio­di­ver­sity rich­ness is re­duced it can no longer re­main a touris­tic at­trac­tion, such as the very im­por­tant scuba div­ing in­dus­try that these is­lands en­joy. Tourism rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant part of the Mal­tese econ­omy. Ad­di­tion­ally, one may need to ap­pre­ci­ate that each or­gan­ism has an im­por­tant role to play in the net­work of marine life and the loss of an in­di­vid­ual species or pop­u­la­tion, as lit­tle as it may seem, im­pacts the food chain and the goods and ser­vices marine life pro­vides us with. The scarcer these re­sources are the more ex­pen­sive such re­sources be­come and the more prob­lem­atic the shar­ing among the many dif­fer­ent en­ti­ties that ex­ploit nat­u­ral re­sources. Also we need to un­der­stand that ac­cu­mu­la­tion of pol­lu­tants may in­crease the amount of toxic sub­stances found in our en­vi­ron­ment, food and our bod­ies too lead­ing to hu­man health prob­lems.

Con­ser­va­tion re­search and mon­i­tor­ing is vi­tal to the future of Mal­tese nat­u­ral cap­i­tal and nat­u­ral her­itage for lo­cals and tourists to en­joy. We are thank­ful to the NGO Bi­cref for giv­ing us this great op­por­tu­nity to learn while dis­cov­er­ing hun­dreds of species on and around these is­lands.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malta

© PressReader. All rights reserved.