The main aim of the LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project is to extend existing marine Sites of Community importance (SCIs), if necessary, and to designate new marine areas as SCIs to form part of the Natura 2000 network.
The project builds up on work carried out over the last decade on designating marine protected areas. In 2002 research on Posidonia beds (code 1120) confirmed the presence of large extents of the Neptune Seagrass habitat around the coast of the Maltese Islands. This research led to the designation of five SCIs around the Maltese Islands, thereby surpassing EU sufficiency levels in designating SCIs for this particular and important habitat type.
Recently two other projects with a focus on the marine environment have been launched by Birdlife Malta and MEPA. In 2011 Birdlife Malta launched the LIFE Malta Seabirds project with the aim of identifying and designating Important Bird Areas (http://maltaseabirdproject.wordpress.com/about/). In 2012 MEPA was awarded EU Life funds to coordinate the LIFE Migrate project with the aim of identifying and designating marine SCIs for the loggerhead turtle, Carretta caretta and the bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus (http://lifeprojectmigrate.com/).
The LIFE BaĦAR for N2K project will gather existing and new data on the location, range and conservation status of Annex I marine habitats as listed in the Habitats Directive, primarily:
- Sandbanks which are slightly covered by sea water all the time (code 1110),
- Reefs (code 1170); and
- Submerged or partially submerged sea caves (code 8330).
The precise location and extent of these habitat types is not widely known so such data will be collected by this project, which will investigate hot spots within the 25 nautical mile Maltese Fisheries Zone.
The project will collect existing and new data related to the marine habitats. Marine based surveys using research vessels equipped with Multibeam echosounder, Side Scan Sonar and Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) will allow surveying of benthic habitats. The surveys will take place between the Maltese coast and up to the Fisheries Management Zone (FMZ) boundary (25 nautical miles from the coast) reaching depths of 1000m below sea level. Following the surveys and interpretation of the data collected sites that are considered a priority will be proposed for designation as marine SCIs to form part of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas.
An important aspect of the project is to achieve active participation by stakeholders by providing a platform for discussion throughout the whole project. This is important for the future management of the designated Natura 2000 sites. Furthermore the project will also identify conservation objectives for each of the proposed SCIs. These conservation objectives will be developed together with key stakeholders. These objectives are the first concrete steps towards the future management of such protected areas.
Several activities are envisaged to take place during the project lifetime including seminars, two photographic exhibitions, and setting up of a conference to increase awareness of the public and other specific stakeholders on the project goals, the Natura 2000 network and the LIFE funding programme.