Fisherman warns of major catastrophe from land reclamation

Fishermen fearing that land reclamation plans may have a direct impact on their livelihood have expressed disappointment at not being consulted by the government on its plans.

James Grixti, the secretary of the National Fisheries Cooperative, warned of a “major socio-economic catastrophe” if land reclamation is carried out in the sites identified by the Environment and Resources Authority’s experts in a memo to board members, published by MaltaToday last Sunday.

The map, which identifies a long stretch of coastline between Xghajra and Portomaso for large-scale land reclamation and a number of other sites along Malta’s northern coastline – including Qalet Marku in Bahar ic-Caghaq for smaller projects – was described as “indicative” and a “starting point” for other studies by ERA’s director for the environment Michelle Piccinino, who insists that ERA’s main aim is to exclude the most environmentally sensitive areas.

But Grixti expressed his disappointment at having been kept in the dark about the site selection exercise for land reclamation. “It a shame that we only learned of the proposed sites from the media… As a major stakeholder representing 90% of Maltese and Gozitan fishermen we expect to be consulted.”

Grixti, who spoke to MaltaToday on his own personal capacity as the matter still has to be discussed internally by the cooperative, insists that fishermen have a lot to contribute to the debate on land reclamation.

“While not against any form of land reclamation, I am sceptical on the sites identified by ERA so far. If the land indicated on the maps gets reclaimed, we will assist to a socio-economic catastrophe,” Grixti claimed, fearing a massive loss of fishing grounds for the industry.

“Fishermen can contribute to the site selection due to their knowledge of barren areas, which may be ideal for this purpose,” Grixti said, lamenting the lack of appreciation of marine ecology in the way the debate is taking place on land reclamation.

“As fishermen we are aware that under the sea there is a diverse environment consisting of valleys, hills and plains, which has its own forests in the form of posidonia meadows which contribute to the regeneration of the sea…”

He compares throwing rubble into the sea to levelling valleys on land.

“The only difference between levelling a terrestrial valley with rubble and throwing rubble in the sea, is that one is visible and the other is not. But if the sea were to evaporate, people would see that the impact is exactly the same.”

His other concern is on the impact on the livelihood of fishermen.

“We are already squeezed into narrower fishing grounds thanks to oil bunkering, tuna pens and other coastal activities, let alone having more of the coastal areas rendered inaccessible.”

Gritxi fears that land reclamation could impact on many artisanal fishing activities, which occur in shallow waters within 30 metres of the coastline. This includes fishing with trammel nets (parit). Fish caught with this type of net include red mullets and   octopus.

Grixti expressed concern that some of the sites included in the ERA’s site selection exercise are located in or very close to marine protection areas. The Qalet Marku site, which is identified for small or medium-sized projects, is definitely located in a marine protection area. According to the memo, development in this area may include “breakwaters, marinas, touristic development, creation of natural habitats.” So that would mean the coastline of Bugibba and St Paul’s Bay being identified for small projects.

Grixti fears that small-scale land reclamation could eventually lead to larger-scale reclamation.

The Marsalforn harbour was also identified for medium-scale reclamation and the much larger zone between Xghajra and Portomaso, identified for large-scale reclamation are both located in the immediate vicinity of the marine protection area stretching from St Julian’s to northern Gozo. Posidonia meadows are also found in Sliema and St Julian’s, even if these are just outside the marine protection area.

In an interview with MaltaToday, ERA director Michelle Piccinino claimed that while the entire stretch of southern coastline had to be excluded due to the nature of the terrain, the “whole area between Marsaxlokk and the north of Gozo” was more suitable for land reclamation.

But when asked about the sites designated in the ERA presentation, she insisted that these are only indicative and more studies will be required. “Some areas deemed suitable for reclamation may include protected habitats… these areas need to be further analysed while noting that marine habitats may also experience changes over time.”

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