Il-Magħluq ta’ Marsaskala is truly a remarkable place since it offers very rare habitats for various types of flora and fauna in the Maltese Islands. It is also very important for flood relief and for other services that it offers for free. Previously neglected for a number of years and suffering from mismanagement of the surrounding land uses; the area is also faced with various threats which give rise to the need for human intervention to correct these ailments. Thankfully through a collaboration with ERA, Nature Trust – FEE Malta and the involvement of key experts such as those from the Killifish Conservation Project, il-Magħluq is starting to recover from the effects of its neglect.
Built in the period of the Knights of St. John, the site was formerly used for aquaculture purposes, a type of antique fish farming for several centuries. In fact the owners of a nearby restaurant recall how much fish, shrimps and other animals used to be caught from il-Maghluq. Nowadays the site is a protected nature reserve and the only fishing which can take place is that to control fish stocks for conservation purposes. The site forms part of the EU Natura 2000 network, a network of protected sites selected for their ecological importance. Locally it is protected under various levels of protection.
In the two main ponds which host around a million litres of water together, one can find many interesting species of fish which include Grey Mullet, Sea Bass, Sea Bream and the Freshwater Eel. However one particular fish, the Mediterranean Killifish is unique as it is known to be only found in three other locations around the Maltese Islands where one can find brackish water. Furthermore the site hosts plants such as the Sea Rushes which are quite rare in the Maltese Islands and the Sea Lavender which are typical of the salt marsh habitat il-Magħluq offers.
To support the conservation efforts of il-Magħluq, the Mediterranean Killifish is being bred through a separate project, The Killifish Conservation Project which is a collaboration among NGOs, public and private entities and is led by the Aquaculture Directorate. Breeding is kept for the maintenance of fish stocks. These may be used to release a few individuals on a period basis or as stock in the case of an emergency. As a further note on this project, there are plans to release the Killifish to other sites in the south of Malta, once the habitats are of a suitable nature.
Despite these very interesting biological features, il-Magħluq is faced with significant stressors which are causing the area to face significant challenges. The challenge to top them all is the surrounding land uses, which are the greatest contributor to the present situation. Paved with a dense urban environment to the east side, and agricultural activities to the west side; the area is subject to various sources of nutrients and pollutants. Too much of anything is a bad thing and even excess nutrients can cause a massive change in the ecosystem, killing off important and sensitive plants and animals which offered services for regulating the ecosystem in the past. This situation is aggravated by the lack of a sufficient connection to the sea which means that there is very little exchange of water and therefore the water appears to become stagnant.
Through a management agreement between Nature Trust – FEE Malta and ERA, works are being carried out to improve the site’s ecology and aesthetics. A rat control programme, monitoring of water quality and the Killifish population are being done a regular basis. Eggs from waterfowl are removed to prevent further offspring from occupying the area. These are one of the worst polluters and therefore controlling their population is also a priority. Two fish species are being controlled inside the fish ponds for their impact on the water quality and Killifish Population. These are the Grey Mullet which eats microscopic animals that eat the organisms that eat the green colour of the ponds (more Mullet = less zooplankton = more phytoplankton = more green colour) and the Sea Bass which eats the Killifish directly.
Regular monitoring of the area through CCTV and site inspections, complemented by regular cleaning of the water and land are resulting in an area which is cleaner and more attractive. Various educational activities have taken place at the reserve where children and other visitors have been given talks and carried out fieldwork in the reserve. There are plans to hold an annual awareness raising event which will educate locals and visitors on the importance of the site for its ecology and human value.
If you would like to know more about what is planned for the area and how to get involved please do not hesitate to contact James Gabarretta on firstname.lastname@example.org .
James Gabarretta is the site manager for il-Magħluq ta’ Marsaskala and il-Ballut ta’ Marsaxlokk. He graduated with a BSc. in Environmental Engineering from the Institute of Applied Sciences at MCAST in 2017.