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Promoting a sustainable future: safe-guarding marine biodiversity and artisanal fisheries through research

24 August 2015

Just when most Maltese citizens and tourists enjoy cool waters around our coasts remembering how useful our sea is for our leisure and relaxation, many others are busy with their jobs related to and benefiting from the marine environment.

The Conservation Biology Research Group at the University of Malta (CBRG-UoM) is active in assessing various sources of biodiversity impoverishment and environmental degradation. Such research work is undertaken with various stakeholders. One of the most ancient local maritime activities is represented by artisanal fishing. The diversity of techniques used to target different marine sources of food has for centuries been respected as a noble way of utilising what nature provides to keep Maltese healthy through typical traditional dishes shared between generations. The basis for a typical Mediterranean heritage developed around local fresh food from small-scale and ecologically friendly agricultural and fisheries practices.

Nowadays, the large European commercial fisheries very efficiently may catch in one day what a whole community of artisanal fishermen would catch in a whole fishing season. This is a simple but clear observation that should set one thinking on the implications of discouraging small-scale artisanal fishing to promote few large-scale raiders of the sea which are equipped by the latest technologies, large storage space and often even processing structures onboard of the fishing vessels.

Maltese fishing villages are not only colourful and unique facets of the Maltese islands portrayed in tourist magazines and souvenirs but are also part of our unique cultural heritage and stand as one of the sustainable economic sectors that is dying and replaced by short-term business that exploits for today leaving little to nothing for tomorrow.

Many Mediterranean countries have constantly increased their fishing capacity and effort with depletion of the stocks as a consequence, yet most Maltese full-time fishermen have maintained seasonal and small-scale fishing methods through time thus working in a more sustainable way. Unfortunately sustainable fishing practices have been discouraged as new fishing business ventures using much larger fishing vessels targeting larger catches have been allowed to develop regionally. As most of the local fish species landings are declining due to the many increasing pressures on our Mediterranean Sea, it is urgently necessary to opt for viable options of exploitation that combine fishermen's experience and scientific knowledge to bare on techniques used. While the code for responsible fishing and guides toward sustainable fisheries have been advocated for many years, there is still an inability to safe-guard local sustainable fishing practices and to stop big money-making ventures at the expense of the limited marine resources and the reduced sharing of benefits from such limited resources.

 

Encouraging a sustainable way of life starts off by defending sustainable jobs and discouraging those that are not. A balance between the economic, social and environmental benefits needs to be in place but too often the economic benefits outweigh the rest. The same goes for various other activities and practices out as sea causing pollution - through noise, plastics, fish offals, toxic runoffs and fuels. Sustainable futures need jobs that monitor and stop such long-term impacts on the marine environment. Such jobs need specialised and often innovative scientific skills to improve management of ongoing processes.

Sustainable fisheries will increasingly require fish and other exploited marine species to be clearly identified and labelled for consumers with details of catch location, date, etc.. These requirements depend on the training of fisheries officers as much as on collaborating with scientific institutions to assist with various necessary research and investigations. For this reason the CBRG-UoM has been undertaking fisheries-related research for many years in collaboration with local stakeholders. Through this effort sustainable fisheries knowledge has been shared with local fishermen which have increasingly appreciated the importance of ongoing knowledge-based improvements. Just as fishermen are curious of understanding how and why our seas are changing, so are scientists that need to find answers to deal with future challenges linked to climate change, alien species, limited understanding of marine biodiversity at genetic and ecosystem levels.

Sustainable jobs are indeed possible when working with nature. A healthy economy depends on raw materials and natural resources to exchange and share while minimizing to zero the ecological footprint of the profit-making activities. Future generations would suffer poverty and scarcity of resources if monitoring and unbiased scientific assessments guiding effective management of ongoing economic activities are not in place. Sustainable development protects humanity from short-term benefits and loss of healthy renewable resources.

Marine biodiversity provides renewable goods and services that are to be understood in order to provide profit from such natural capital in the future. Preserving marine life as evidenced by creatures both common or rare, depends on conservation research and management. The understanding of species survival in open waters is challenging but necessary to understand this pelagic marine ecosystem and see how human activities in offshore waters may be developed in sustainable way. Intriguing and elusive species that spend most of their life in open waters, out of sight are many: from the larger Fin and Sperm whales, Risso's dolphins, Common dolphins, Bluefin tuna, Sunfish, Leatherback turtles, Great White sharks and Giant Devil rays to smaller pelagic octopus species.

 

Two interesting examples of such pelagic octopus species studied by the CBRG-UoM include the small-sized female paper nautilus possessing a brittle and translucent shell which protects her eggs and allows her to attain neutral buoyancy at depth. This beautiful open-water octopus is the Argonauta argo which has also been noted to attach itself to pelagic jellyfish that are among her prey species together with salps, molluscs and crustaceans. Another interesting pelagic octopus species investigated is the tuberculate Ocythoe tuberculata, in this case the female grows to a metre in length. Both these pelagic species show stunning sexual differences in size where the female is much larger than the male.

Such local marine biodiversity research has benefited from dedicated long-term field surveys conducted by the CBRG-UoM but also from collaboration with fishermen and other sea-users. Without local awareness and research aiding suitable management, the needs of the natural environment would easily disappear from the sustainability equation. For this reason, the CBRG-UoM is also active with various stakeholders from sea-users to teachers so as to bring science and its fruitful outcomes to practical uses toward encouraging and promoting good examples of sustainable practices already in place and discouraging those that are not.

The brittle shell of the female argonaut octopus very much represents the incredible ingenuity and fragility of nature. Sustainable development allows such incredible creatures to persist through human ingenuity, good will and science.

For further information contact Dr. Adriana Vella, Ph.D. at the CBRG-UoM: adriana.vella@um.edu.mt