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Gozo Channel – Malta’s first Marine Important Bird Area

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Gozo Channel - Malta’s first Marine Important Bird AreaBirdLife Malta today announced news that the Malta-Gozo Channel has been confirmed as Malta’s first Marine Important Bird Area (IBA) in recognition of its international importance for two globally and one regionally threatened bird species, putting Malta on the world stage alongside such iconic biodiversity hotspots as the Galapagos and the Azores as a refuge for threatened wildlife.

Birds from Malta’s two main breeding populations of the ‘Red-Listed’ Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan) and the larger Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) at Rdum tal-Madonna, in Malta, and Ta’ Cenc, in Gozo, make use of the channel, congregating on the water in large numbers before returning to their nearby cliff-side nest sites to take their turn incubating their egg or feeding their young chick.

The channel, including the island of Comino, is also an important migration route for the Ferruginous Duck (Aythya nyroca), acting as a bottleneck through which these ‘Near-threatened’ birds are funnelled on their passage through the Maltese Archipelago between their breeding grounds in Europe and their African wintering grounds, BLM said.

BLM said that Maltese birdwatchers and ornithologists have been recording observations of the breeding and migrating birds that use the channel for decades. Malta’s first EU LIFE project, the Yelkouan Shearwater Project (2006-2009), made the resources available to pursue the intensive studies required to collect the amount of rigorous scientific data needed for the true importance of the site to be assessed.

The announcement of the IBA was made on the roof Red Tower in Mellieha this afternoon, against the backdrop of spectacular views across the channel encompassing the full extent of the new IBA, which stretches from Ta’ Cenc cliffs in the west to Rdum tal-Madonna in the east and includes the island of Comino.

Speaking at the event, Nicholas Barbara, BirdLife Malta’s Conservation Manager and Project Manager of the LIFE Yelkouan Shearwater Project said, “This is the first time a research project of this scale with the aim of conserving wildlife had been tried in Malta. The fact that it has resulted in the international recognition of the Gozo Channel for its importance to biodiversity shows that this kind of partnership and cooperation between Maltese and international conservation organisations and the Maltese government is invaluable for nature conservation efforts.”

Dora Querido, Life Project Officer at the RSPB, one of the international partners in the Life Yelkouan Shearwater Project, was present at today’s launch and congratulated Malta on its achievement, “The IBA programme exists specifically to help identify and protect those sites around the world that are most important for threatened birds. This designation could have the greatest impact of any of the project outcomes, giving Malta the chance to raise the profile of its wildlife and conservation efforts and protect these birds in the Malta-Gozo Channel.”

“One of the aims of the European IBA designation is to help identify sites for inclusion in the EU’s Natura 2000 Network of protected sites,” said Ms Querido, “Malta already has 13 terrestrial Special Protection Areas, all of which were first identified as IBAs. We hope that Malta will continue this best practice to nominate the Gozo Channel as its first Marine Special Protection Area.”Gozo Channel - Malta’s first Marine Important Bird AreaThe designation of the 123 hectare site follows the assessment of a proposal and data submitted by BirdLife Malta in 2011 against standard, internationally recognised criteria established by BirdLife International’s IBA Progamme, a network of more than 10,000 sites considered as the minimum necessary to ensure the survival of the species concerned across their ranges.

This success is something researchers from the ongoing LIFE+ Malta Seabird Project hope to build on.

“This new project has expanded to include two more species, the Scopoli’s Shearwater and the European Storm Petrel,” said Mr Barbara. “We are now in the second year of fieldwork and have already achieved some firsts in seabird research, including the first successful radio-tracking of storm petrels in Europe.”

The Malta Seabird Project aims to identify Marine IBAs for the three study species in areas at sea away from the coast, which is where these birds spend most of their lives.

“The designation of Malta’s first Marine IBA is a step in the right direction, but we must not let it stop there. These birds also face threats at sea, away from the breeding colonies and if we are to ensure their future conservation we need to protect them at sea as well as on land. This is what the Malta Seabird Project aims to do,” concluded Mr Barbara.

Thanking Din L’Art Helwa for the use of the historic tower for the announcement, Steve Micklewright, BirdLife Malta’s Executive Director said, “This really is great news for Malta and the conservation of these species and something Malta can celebrate and be proud of. The development of wildlife and marine eco-tourism to this area will receive a boost from this global recognition and the opportunity is now ripe for Malta to take further steps to protect this site and the threatened species that use it by nominating its first Marine SPA under the EU’s Natura 2000 biodiversity conservation scheme.”

Photographs – Top, A Yelkouan Shearwater (Puffinus yelkouan) Photo by Frank Dhermain, A Cory’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea) Photo by Nicholas Galea, Ferruginous Ducks migrating through the Gozo Channel passing in front of one of the Gozo ferries. Photo by Ray Galea and An Aerial view of L-Ahrax, Comino and the Gozo Channel. Below – Malta’s first Marine Important Bird Area, the Malta-Gozo Channel IBA, is just over 123 square kilometres in area.

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