Marine protected areas need to be upheld, says BirdLife Malta

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Marine protected areas need to be upheld, says BirdLife MaltaMarine protected areas need to be upheld, with temporary fish farm relocations requiring environmental studies, BirdLife Malta said today.

In a statement the NGO said that it “condemns the approval by the Environment & Resources Authority (ERA) and the Planning Authority (PA) of the relocation of tuna fish farming cages from an area close to Comino to a new site by l-Ahrax tal-Mellieha.”

It added that this approval was granted “without the authorities requesting the Appropriate Assessment, mandatory under the European Habitats Directive.”

The application in question relates to a temporary relocation of tuna pens from the south Comino channel to a site approximately 6km offshore near Sikka l-Bajda, until a north aquaculture zone is set up by the Department of Fisheries.

BirdLife Malta went on to say that it acknowledged the need to relocate fish farms to cause less pollution to beaches – a phenomenon which has been impacting water quality in various beaches and marine ecosystems.

“However, the application approved on Thursday did not carry the necessary prerequisites of siting such developments within marine Natura 2000 sites.”

BLM pointed out that the approval actually sanctioned an increase in the number of fish cages (from four to six) than what was originally permitted at Comino.

The NGO also stated that the ERA and PA “have raised no objection over the fact that the developer in question did not comply with a previous planning permit and have actually sanctioned a larger amount of cages in a new area.”

“The chosen location is within two designated marine Natura 2000 sites which qualify as both a marine Special Protection Area (marine SPA) for seabirds under the Birds Directive, and as a marine Special Area of Conservation (marine SAC) under the Habitats Directive,” BirdLife Malta said.

The NGO noted that, “plans can be approved only after it has been ascertained that these will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned, and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public.”

“ERA and PA did not follow this directive by not demanding any impact assessment of the proposed development,” BLM said. “In fact, according to ERA, the proposal did not qualify for the need to have an Environmental Impact Assessment or Appropriate Assessment, because the relocation is just a temporary two-year solution.”

The NGO commented that although a two-year period could be enough for the proposed fish cages to exert an impact, the proposal may also have various other concerns, such as the area is within the rafting zone of Yelkouan Shearwaters, which occupy their largest colony (estimated at 3% of the world population) at the cliffs of Rdum tal-Madonna.

“It is not known how fish farming activities will affect the species as no impact studies have been carried out,” said BLM

The NGO also said that no assessments were presented on the possible damage caused by tuna farms at Comino to the marine environment in the past, in order to predict the impacts these might exert elsewhere

Even though concerts were raised over the years from government authorities and the general public about the impact of fish farms on water quality, BirdLife Malta said that “it is understood that no changes to aquaculture practices are being imposed.”

BirdLife Malta concluded by saying that “in the end it is unclear what permit conditions have been imposed on the developer to ensure that environmental impacts are contained, and that the developer complies to permitting conditions, such conditions should be made public.”

Photos: Rdum tal-Madonna in Mellieha (Photo by Aron Tanti); Aerial view of the cliffs at Rdum tal-Madonna (Photo by BirdLife Malta) and Yelkouan Shearwaters from their largest colony at Rdum tal-Madonna use the areas at and around Sikka l-Bajda as rafting zones.

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