Slow progress in protecting waters between Malta, Italy and Tunisia

Maltese government confirms informal discussion on identification of marine protected area between Italy, Malta and Tunisia in the Strait of Sicily which have been ongoing since 2007

Informal discussions are still underway on the identification of a transboundary marine protected area in international waters between Italy, Malta and Tunisia, a spokesperson for Environment Minister Miriam Dalli has told MaltaToday.

Italy’s Maritime Spatial Plan directly refers to the identification of a marine protected area between Italy, Malta and Tunisia in the Strait of Sicily as already proposed by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2011.

The recently published Italian report, issued for public consultation in neighbouring Malta as required by EU law, briefly refers to the creation of the MPA as an example of “transnational cooperation” in the region.

The report refers to the need to “coordinate, strengthen and extend the tools for the protection of marine ecosystems” through the identification of such MPAs, in this case to protect deep-sea ecosystems, between Italy and Greece in the Ionian Sea.

An extensive area in the channel between Malta, Pantelleria, Tunisia and Sicily was proposed as a MPA in a UNEP meeting in Istanbul back in 2011. The UN environmental agency says this area contains critical sea bird and cetacean habitats, deep sea corals, seamounts, and very shallow offshore banks, satisfying all the criteria making it eligible for protection: uniqueness, vulnerability, importance for threatened species and life history.

The World Wildlife Fund also says this area hosts a wide variety of marine flora and fauna, and is a very important feeding ground for many protected species, including the globally endangered fin whale. Only around 3,500 fin whales are left in the Mediterranean.

The spokesperson for Dalli said the current public consultation on Italy’s maritime plans is unrelated to the designation of MPAs, with Malta being consulted on the Italian Strategic Impact Assessment due to the “transboundary nature of marine waters with neighbouring countries”.

But the government spokesperson confirmed that “distinct from such a process and in line with EU acquis”, there is an “ongoing regional cooperation under the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive. In this regard Malta participated with other parties in informal discussions about the protection of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction.”

But attempts to designate this nature reserve have been ongoing for the past 16 years.

In 2007 a spokesperson for the Italian embassy in Malta had confirmed with MaltaToday that the possibility of an agreement between Malta and Italy on the protection of the Canale di Sicilia was discussed with the Maltese government during the visit of the former Italian minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio in Malta. However no formal agreement between Malta, Italy and Tunisia “was finalised or signed.”

In 2011, UNEP contacted the authorities of the countries responsible for each of the 12 proposed MPAs to initiate the process of creating so-called SPAMI (Specially Protected Areas of Mediterranean Interest) such as the one between Malta, Italy and Tunisia.

SPAMIs haveto be administered by a management body with sufficient powers, means and human resources to prevent or control activities likely to be contrary to the aims of the protected area, as foreseen by the protocols of the Barcelona Convention of 1976.

But the decision to include an area in the SPAMI list has to be taken by consensus by all the contracting parties of the Convention during their periodic meetings. The protection and management measures applying in the SPAMI are also prescribed by the states proposing them, but all parties are to comply with such measures.

None of the 12 transboundary zones identified by UNEP as marine protected areas in 2011 have been formally declared, although Spain and France have made progress on setting up a SPAMI in the Gulf of Lyons.