The physical space we occupy, where we go about our daily lives, be it our home, place of work, the local food store or market, is our habitat. All species on earth need a habitat to survive, to call it their home, where organisms can find shelter, food, and mates to reproduce. Without a habitat, species would not be able to survive. Thus in order to protect species from extinction, efforts need to be made so that the habitats that they live in are protected, maintained or restored.
The Maltese Islands provide a number of diverse habitats to various terrestrial, aquatic and marine species. The marine environment surrounding our Islands hosts different habitats for different marine species. We are all familiar with the long dark leaves found on the coast and beaches, especially after stormy weather. These are mostly leaves of Posidonia oceanica, a seagrass that forms meadows in shallow waters and can only be found in the Mediterranean Sea. This seagrass, which is a plant, also forms a habitat for other species, and is referred to as a habitat-forming species. Think of it as a tree house. The tree is a living organism but can provide a home for young adventurers!
When migratory species such as the Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta) pass through Maltese waters, they stop to rest and feed in these Posidonia meadows. Thus by protecting and managing human activities in areas where we know Posidonia meadows occur we are also protecting important species such as the Loggerhead turtle which pass through these meadows. Posidonia meadows also serve as a natural carbon sink and are important buffers for wave action, thereby minimising coastal erosion.
Imagine you are a seabird, gliding over the dark blue sea, heading out for some fresh fish; you always go to the same spots, having heard rave reviews by other older and wiser seabird friends. You might ask: why is this so? Why is this particular area, in the middle of nowhere, so bountiful? Will it always be like that? Or will you or your grandchildren-seabirds fly out sometime in the future and find that there isn’t a single fish to eat? Who are these humans you keep seeing in these large floating structures?
Like the young seabird we have a number of questions about the sea that surrounds the Maltese Islands. We are on a quest to answer some of the secrets that the sea holds. What are the important habitats surrounding our islands? Where are these habitats located? What is the depth they are found at, are they close to the shore or are they far out at sea? Are these habitats fully submerged or can they be found semi-submerged? What are these habitats composed of and what species depend on them? Are they healthy habitats or have they been damaged by uncontrolled human activities? Can we protect them? Can they be restored?
Understanding our sea helps us protect the natural environment, habitats and species. We have already identified Posidonia meadows as a priority habitat that is protected within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) around the coast of Malta. Through the Life BaĦAR for N2K project we are now focusing on three other important habitats: sandbanks, reefs and sea caves.