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Europe and Central Asia
13 Jul 2016

Malta’s commitment to protect marine life

A Yelkouan Shearwater chick. Photo: Benjamin Metzger
By Edward Jenkins, Janina Laurent and Bruna Campos

Malta is an island nation in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Tunisia. Despite its size (300 sq km), Malta punches above its weight both culturally and ecologically. With a long human history that spans 7000 years, modern Malta has much to offer: the capital Valetta is the upcoming EU city of culture in 2018.

Malta also boasts beautiful coastlines, including sandy beaches and impressive limestone cliffs. Endemic species include the Maltese freshwater crab, Maltese wall lizard, Maltese ruby tiger moth, and a host of diverse plants. It’s also a great spot to birdwatch during migrations because of its position on the Central Mediterranean Flyway.

Marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) designated by BirdLife Malta (BirdLife’s national partner there) protect habitat used by fish, turtles, dolphins, and seabirds. Snorkeling and diving are popular activities and initiatives such as LIFE Bahar and the LIFE Migrate Project are working on identifying and designating more areas for marine conservation. This includes the small island of Comino and its surrounding ocean, an important breeding site for seabirds.

Cool birds to see  

 

Three seabird species have internationally important breeding colonies on Malta, making it a fantastic holiday destination for seabird enthusiasts. The Yelkouan Shearwater (top left; photo: Benjamin Metzger) is found only in the Mediterranean and around 10% (2,000 pairs) breed in Malta. Named after its habit of “shearing” above the water, it flies low over the waves, soaring from side to side with few wingbeats, wingtips almost touching the surface. It has been the focus of two EU LIFE projects, including the newly launched Arcipelagu Garnija which aims to secure the future of this vulnerable species.

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The Scopoli’s Shearwater (top right; photo: Edward Jenkins), a larger cousin of the Yelkouan Shearwater, is more abundant with 5,000-7,000 pairs, while the tiny Mediterranean Storm-petrel breeds primarily on the tiny islet of Filfla where 5,000-8,000 pairs make up over 50% of the world population. The EU LIFE+ Malta Seabird Project, which ends this month, has been instrumental in expanding understanding of these species and working towards their conservation.

Beware of rats, cats and light

Rats introduced by humans are the greatest suppressor of breeding success among Maltese seabirds as they can access even the steepest cliffs to eat eggs and young chicks. Light pollution attracts newly fledged chicks to strand on land, making them vulnerable to cats.

This high chick mortality combined with the death of adults offshore from irresponsible fishing practices has resulted in steep declines of the species. Arcipelagu Garnija is working to reverse these declines by controlling rat populations, educating the public to use environmentally-friendly lighting at night and to promote ecotourism so visitors can enjoy these enigmatic birds while investing in their future.

When exploring Malta’s marine environment and natural sea, always watch out for injured wild birds. In case you see one, contact BirdLife Malta and they will take care of it as part of the bird rescue programme.

What’s happening in Malta?

The Ta' Cenc Cliffs. Photo: Edward Jenkins

 

Want to see some shearwaters? Try a sunset shearwater boat trip around the Ta’ Cenc Cliffs. Looking to support conservation efforts in Malta? Try volunteering for BirdLife Malta – they’re always looking for help at events or in nature reserves where you can spend time talking to other people, including children, about the great outdoors of Malta.

Tips from a local: Nicholas Barbara

"Hear the colonies of Scopoli’s Shearwaters come alive at night, as pairs visit their nesting sites calling out for each other between June and August. See if you can distinguish the baby-like harsher call of the female in comparison to that of the males. The cliffs of Ta’ Cenc on the island of Gozo are teeming with life after sunset.

Take a walk along the western cliffs of Malta and Gozo in the summer evening and attempt to spot rafting groups of Scopoli’s Shearwater awaiting nightfall to feed their young at the cliffs. You might even be lucky enough to spot feeding aggregations along the coast as tuna, dolphins and shearwaters often splash in to feed on shoals of fish together.

Charter a boat and venture into the surrounding Mediterranean Sea. Loggerhead Turtles can often be spotted basking at the surface soaking up the morning sun, while Storm-petrels are harder to spot when they come to the shore at night."

 

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.