Mġarr ix-Xini’s fragile colony of seahorses may be depleting because of years of boat pollution a local diver has warned.
The small Gozo bay is flocked by tourists, locals, boaters and a popular diving spot. Pete Bullen, a local underwater photographer has made it his marine stomping ground and warned that he has witnessed a dramatic decrease of seahorses he encounters in dives.
“Over the last 10 years, I have seen the numbers of seahorses plummet,” she said. “Ten years ago, I could easily count over 20 out on one dive without even trying! Two years ago, we found none, this year it looks like there are three or four.”
Bullen believes that worldwide, the tragedy for the delicate species lies in the fact that their habitats also provide ideal conditions for boat anchors. Any tide, current, wind or wave change makes the anchors swing, drag across the sand and act like a “scouring pad”, destroying the seagrass and ecosystems for species that make their bed there.
And while Mġarr ix-Xini is a marine protected area, through the anchoring, pollution and litter thrown in the bay by mooring boats and people, the depletion continues.
However, Malta’s leading marine biologist Alan Deidun says pinpointing the cause of less seahorse colonies is not a simple feat.
This is because Malta doesn’t have monitoring systems in place to track marine species like seahorses, which makes it very difficult to confirm whether they are on the decrease or not.
Natural explanations could also be behind seahorse disappearances, like a predatory species feasting on them, parasites or simply that they migrated.
“One can only speculate,” Deidun explained. “It could be the impact from anchoring in the inlet, the fact that there is no ecological mooring for the area, the sewage treatment plant nearby that sometimes malfunctions or simply a natural phenomenon.”
And with no monitoring systems, experts have to rely on seasoned watchers like Bullen to flag any changes in marine ecology.
Local divers take it upon themselves to clean the seabed of the thrown rubbish.
Bullen himself recalled his last dive, in which he collected a nappy, a used tampon, 20 wet wipes and over 30 cigarettes – items which are not biodegradable and take years to disintegrate.
Divers and dive centres have asked authorities to maintain the area themselves, offering to install and maintain moorings but they have been ignored.