BirdLife Malta launches its third EU-funded project

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BirdLife Malta launches its third EU-funded projectBirdLife Malta launches LIFE Arcipelagu Garnija, another €1.3 million project co-financed by the EU.

BirdLife Malta has today launched its third EU-funded project related to the conservation of seabirds in Malta.

BirdLife Malta said that over the past 10 years, together with its partners, they have made various efforts to understand and tackle the main threats causing the decline of protected seabird species both at land and at sea, breeding in Malta.

LIFE Arcipelagu Garnija, the project launched today, will focus on the Yelkouan Shearwater (Garnija) with the main objective of improving the conservation status of Puffinus yelkouan populations in the Maltese Islands and safeguarding their breeding colonies in Natura 2000 sites and the adjacent areas.

From studying the species and understanding the threats …to identifying the solutions and tackling the decline both at land and at sea

This is the third in a series of projects linked to each other, the first of which was the LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater Project (2006-2010) which focused on the conservation, research and awareness of this same seabird with special focus on the largest colony of Yelkouan Shearwater in Malta which is found at Irdum tal- Madonna in Mellieha.

BLM said that, this was followed by the LIFE+ Malta Seabird Project which is nearing its completion (2011-2016) and which, through extensive and innovative research, has identified the most important areas at sea essential for Malta's seabirds and created an inventory of marine Important Bird Areas (IBAs) which are to be legally protected after being designated as Malta's first marine Special Protected Areas (SPAs) by the Maltese Government after being proposed for approval by the European Commission.

This second project targeted three species of seabirds in Malta – the Yelkouan Shearwater (Garnija), Scopoli's Shearwater (Ciefa) and the Mediterranean subspecies of the European Storm-petrel (Kangu ta' Fifla). The Maltese Islands are home to 10% of the Yelkouan's global population, 3% of Scopoli's Shearwaters and 50% of Mediterranean Storm-petrels.

LIFE Arcipelagu Garnija, the third project which was launched today, seeks to complement the findings of the first two. By building upon the achievements of the first two projects, Arcipelagu Garnija aims at securing the Maltese Islands for the Yelkouan Shearwater.

BirdLife said that this will be done by identifying and fully understanding the species distribution and assessing the specific threats these seabirds face in each nesting site. Then, by directly reaching out to various stakeholders such as fisheries, boat operators, policy makers and the public, the project will encourage a change in their behaviour and thus significantly eliminate the threats caused to these birds.

"LIFE Arcipelagu Garnija – Securing the Maltese Islands for the Yelkouan Shearwater Arcipelagu Garnija's duration is five years (1st September 2015 – 31st August 2020). BirdLife Malta is the co-ordinating beneficiary of the project and the project partners (associated project beneficiaries) are Transport Malta and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) of the UK."

Besides the three main project partners, important players in the implementation of this project are the Maltese Ministry for Sustainable Development, Environment and Climate Change (MSDEC) and Malta's Environment and Resources Authority (ERA).

The project was approved by the European Commission for funding under the LIFE programme for the environment at the end of 2015 and the total investment amounts to €1.26 million.

The European Union is the main co-financer of the project under the LIFE programme with 60% of the funds. 26.1% of the funds are being contributed by the Maltese Government through the Ministry responsible for the Environment, 9.2% are BirdLife Malta funds, 3.4% are RSPB funds and the remaining 1.3% are Transport Malta's contribution to the project.

BirdLife Malta said that its LIFE Project Arcipelagu Garnija aims at securing the Maltese Islands for the Yelkouan Shearwater (Garnija), a small shearwater species that can only be found in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean region.

This medium-sized seabird flies with rapid wing beats, shearing over waves only with stronger winds. During its breeding season, from February to July, individuals may be observed resting at sea alone or in small rafts. BLM said that, "with an estimate of between 1,660 and 1,980 pairs, 10% of the world's Yelkouan Shearwater population breeds in the Maltese Islands. Protection of this local population is important on the global scale, especially with the drastic declines Puffinus yelkouan has been facing globally over the last decades."

"The Maltese population has declined in recent years, mainly due to predation by rats, loss of breeding habitat, disturbance and light and noise pollution. Bycatch in fishing gear and the pollution of seas (e.g. microplastics) are also believed to contribute to the decline. The species has recently been up-listed as 'vulnerable' in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and is protected by several international conservation agreements, as well as local legislation."

It is listed under Annex I of the EU Birds Directive and Annex II of the Bern Convention, making it the subject of special conservation measures across Europe. The project will set ground for a long-term recovery of Yelkouan Shearwaters on the Maltese Islands.

The most common threats identified to Yelkouan Shearwaters include rat predation. For instance, one of the main colony sites is Comino where rats are knows to predate on seabird eggs and chicks. A long term vision for this offshore island is turning it into a rat-free sanctuary for Yelkouan Shearwaters.

BirdLife said that this would require removal of the invasive rodents and effective bio-security measures, as well as directly engaging the island visitors responsible for organic littering that rat populations feed upon close to the nesting colonies. Predator control will take place in up to thirteen sites.

"Other threats, directly and indirectly caused by humans, include light pollution, offshore bunkering of ships close to seabird colonies, recreational boat rides and commercial boat trips along the nesting sites during the breeding season and others. With an input from architects, for instance, the project will provide an example study on light pollution, its effects on the seabirds and ways to reduce it," it said.

BirdLife Malta said that the actions will be as follows:

o predator control in up to 13 Yelkouan Shearwater colony sites

o engaging with people responsible for the organic littering of areas close to nesting colonies that results in the maintenance of rat populations in these sites

o creating a safe haven on the island of Comino through invasive rodent removal and effective bio-security measures and transforming the island into a sanctuary for the species

o significantly reducing light pollution at the Cirkewwa Ferry Terminal, a location close to 3 significant shearwater colonies

o investigating threats from bunkering (ship fuelling) close to colonies and taking concrete conservation action

o addressing additional maritime threats resulting from disturbance of colonies through the behaviour of recreational boat owners and more organised boat trip operators

o ensuring wider support for the protection of the species among the Maltese population

The objectives/expected results

o To achieve a considerable reduction of the main threats per site by one third

o Threats at 13 nesting colonies will be considerably reduced

o To achieve an overall increase in the number of breeding pairs by approximately 10%

o To increase significantly the reproductive output of the majority of the breeding colonies by 25%

o To support key targets in Malta's National Strategy and Biodiversity Action Plan (2014-2020)

o To ensure the management of Natura 2000 sites in line with existing management plans

o To inform reporting processes for the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, the Birds' Directive and the Integrated Monitoring Programme of the Barcelona Convention

o To produce a National Species Action Plan for the Yelkouan Shearwater in Malta

o To serve as guidance to other EU and non-EU countries in the region to improve the status of the Yelkouan Shearwater in the Mediterranean

o To promote the required conservation actions on an international level so that the longevity of the species across its range is secured

BirdLife Malta said that public engagement is an important part of the Arcipelagu Garnija Project. With intensive media communications and public events we will raise awareness about these secretive seabirds among a wider local public.

"A strong support for the protection of the species is needed from the Maltese population, making the Yelkouan Shearwater a mascot and flagship species for the protection and management of Malta's coastal nature sites, many of them Natura 2000 sites, to which these seabirds come back every year to breed," BirdLife Malta concluded.

Adult Yelkouan Shearwater in researcher's hands: Photo by Ben Metzger

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