The Management of il-Magħluq ta’ Marsaskala

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 jamesg@naturetrustmalta.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.

Il-Magħluq’s fish fauna – The killifish and seabass

In our first installment about the Magħluq’s fish fauna, we had talked about the common eel. In this second episode, we will be talking about 2 fish. One is the killifish; probably the fish that is most commonly associated with the Magħluq area.

The other is the seabass; another fish that habitates the area.

The information is again brought to our portal by Mr. Rio Sammut, who we thank for his valuable input.

Aphanius fasciatus: Killifish (Bużaqq in Maltese)

Aphanius fasciatus Saline de Cervia 2003
Photo from www.killi.co.uk

Max. length: 6.5cm Max. weight: 10g

Characteristics:

Rounded body covered in big scales: large eyes; short mouth deflected upwards; single dorsal fin set at mid-point of the back; anal fin bigger than pectorals; fan tail, truncated and slightly convex; the male is smaller and yellow or greyish-green with blue areas and about twelve dark vertical bands across the sides; the female is 10% larger and more greyish, with alternating narrower and shorter black stripes.

Habits:

The Maltese Killifish is an endemic sub-species. It used to be extremely abundant in brackish water, occasionally penetrating into the seawater inside bays, especially following torrential rainfall and consequent flooding. It feeds on small organic scraps, mosquito larvae, and minute crustaceans and copepods. Being a carnivorous predator it must not be kept in a community aquarium, but only with others of its own kind. Its numbers have declined alarmingly in the last two decades and it is now an endangered species. If any specimens are collected for a period of study in a suitable fish tank, they should be released exactly where they had been found within the week.

Dicentrarchus labrax : Seabass (Spnotta in Maltese)

Photo from renotonna.yolasite.com

The sea-basses belong to a small family of elongated grey fishes that superficially resemble grey mullets. They are heavily built powerful predators that live near the coastline and often associate themselves with schools of grey mullets. When young they are gregarious and visit bays and harbours in shoals, looking for small fishes that they attack and devour mercilessly. They have two distinct dorsal fins, the first spiny and fan-shaped, and the second with one spine followed by a number of soft rays. There are three spines leading the anal fin and the tail fin is somewhat forked. The head, eyes and mouth are all moderately sized.

Max. length: 1m

Max. weight: 9kg

Characteristics:

A powerful stocky body, circular in cross section; conspicuous eyes; well developed strong jaws lined with fine teeth on the inside, the lower jaw protruding a little; the first gill cover has some spines on the lower edge and the second has no ridges; well attached, big cycloid scales cover the skin; the fins are short-based and well balanced, the tail fin is forked with a thick peduncle; dark brownish-grey on the back, with silvery-grey sides and almost white metallic belly.

Habits:

The European species inhabits the western Atlantic coasts, the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea. This handsome fish travels during daytime from coast to coast, penetrating inshore waters to prey on small or young fishes, sand-eels, squids and crustaceans. Actually it attempts to swallow anything that moves, in fact the author has personally found a bird chick, a number of large flying ants, pieces of dead sea grass, and a bite of pizza, inside Seabass stomachs!

The young frequent bays and inlets and consume more invertebrates than adult fish do. The Seabass is a hardy fish found at all sorts of seabeds and even in brackish waters. When the sea is rough the adults are to be found at the surf zone, close to the shoreline, attacking the confused smaller fishes. This habit makes the Bass a favourite sporting fish, well known for the tenderness of its scrumptious white flesh.

This bass is bred and farmed extensively since it is a fast growing fish and very hardy. It is exquisite to eat, especially when it gets away from the fish farms and feeds on a natural diet for a week or more.

This fish may be found inside the Maghluq (fish ponds) of Marsaskala (Malta) It belongs there naturally, but is a threat to the killifish, being a predator. Together with the killifish, eels, and hundreds of other vertebrates and invertebrates, its numbers are always diminishing, mainly due to toxic chemicals leaching into the ponds from the Sant Antnin Recycling Plant as well as fertiliser farming and firework fallout.

Il-Magħluq Clean-Up – 7th March 2019

Il-Magħluq Clean-Up - 7th March 2019

Thursday being a normal day of work and with only 24 hours previous notice, was not highly conductive to expect a good number of volunteers in an organised clean-up session for Il-Magħluq. It turned out that Rio and Marianne from our group Marsascala Community & Friends were the only two who could make it. Admittedly not the most able-bodied within the community, but well, we did our very best.

James Gabaretta from Nature Trust and a few of his younger colleagues transmitted the energy needed to immediately roll up our sleeves. We were provided with gloves, huge brooms, garbage bags and spade. A good amount of plastic and rubble was swept and collected, an unsightly skip removed, large stones were turned into seats and in less than a couple of hours we could look back and appreciate the now clear space which made the area look much cleaner and bigger. We had a couple of visitors asking us what we were doing, and showed their appreciation. It was a good advert for our group. Ducks came along too. Admittedly cute, but in no way did they help us in our venture. In fact, unfortunately, il-Maghluq is certainly not the place for them as they contribute very negatively to the area in many ways.

Answering our question with regards dredging the waters, which was in the news only a few days before, our high hopes were instantly lowered when we were told that although permits were issued, it wouldn’t be until a year, or maybe more, before the work would really start. The media does not help when it raises people’s expectations and promises are not delivered until months or even years later. Hence the negative effect on people’s morale and the perception that nothing ever gets done. Perhaps an explanation to the public about how things will be conducted will be in order.

We are happy that our group was, at least, represented. We certainly would appreciate better timing next time so that more of us may be able to participate in further improving several areas around Marsaskala. Clean-up sessions are just one way of participating. More ideas from the general
public through our website and/or facebook page are always welcomed and much appreciated.

Il-Magħluq’s fish fauna – The Common Eel

An article published yesterday on MaltaToday speaks about the killifish re-population in the Marsaskala marshlands, known as il-Magħluq. Killifish is not the only fish fauna to inhabit the Magħluq area. Here is some very interesting information about the common eel, brought to our portal by Mr. Rio Sammut.

File:FMIB 51807 Common Eel, Anguilla chrisypa Rafinesque Holyoke, Mass.jpeg

Here is some info about the common eel; a predator found in the Magħluq of Marsaskala. It is a natural inhabitant of the fishpond as much as the killifish.

70. Anguilla anguilla (Linnaeus) E. Common European Eel I. Anguilla Europea M. Sallura

Max length: 1.4m

Max. weight: 3kg

Characteristics: Typical elongated body with a smallish head; inconspicuous pair of eyes set over the mouth; large jaws, lower slightly longer than upper; minute concealed scales making the skin proverbially slippery; the dorsal fin starts far back and blends with the caudal and anal fins all around the tail end; may be silvery grey or yellowish above with a white underside.

Elvers are called leptocephali and appear small, leaf-like, and transparent, with a minute head.

Habits: The adults slip gracefully and effortlessly between rocks and weeds at the bottom of shallow water. They often conceal themselves in rock crevices, or in soft mud, with only their head exposed, expecting any small creature to pass by and be devoured. They occur quite frequently in all muddy inlets.

The elvers start life in the Sargasso Sea and swim thousands of kilometres across the ocean while feeding and growing into the adult shape. The journey may take up to three years. On arrival at inshore waters the young eels swim up streams or rivers to find a fresh water lake or pond where to spend the greater part of their adult life, about seven years for males and twelve years for females. On approaching sexual maturity they migrate back to the sea for spawning. In the Mediterranean Sea there are seventeen similar species. The Common Eel is edible and so it is extensively fish-farmed in many countries.

Marsaskala Community & Friends would like to thank Mr. Sammut for his contribution. Should you be interested in more information about this topic, you may check out his book entitled “Mediterranean Sea Fishes – (Central Region)“.