The diving season is finally here – for the fair-weather diver. For hardened divers, it never ended as they’ve been out all winter, braving wind, rain and cold (well, OK, we just had a very mild winter for once).
But for both sets of divers, spring is the season to get underwater, especially at Cirkewwa, which, though a fantastic dive site all year round, just seems to blossom in spring.
As the sea takes a conciliatory attitude with the sun warming its surface and as the weather becomes more inviting, so divers are encouraged to take their first plunges after winter. This applies also to the thousands of divers escaping the last throes of a northern winter for week-long or short-break weekend diving holidays.
Unfortunately, the good weather also brings with it spear fishermen, with and without aqualungs, as well as the Gozitan and Maltese fishermen with their nets.
Under a by-law we inherited on joining the EU, all wrecks have become protected areas where no fishing, including spear fishing, is allowed within a given zone around the wrecks. Another law we inherited prohibits spear fishing with aqualungs.
Unfortunately, like all environmental good intentions in Malta, there is no firm enforcement of these laws. Because of this, we divers are often left frustrated and very angry when on the Cirkewwa dive site as we await the ALE (Administrative Law Enforcement ) officers after our call out.
They do get there, in their 4x4s and their inflatables, often within a half hour of our calling them. Then, they take the time to pull up hundreds of meters of paritii . But all the while we’re waiting, the spear fishermen are doing their worst and the nets are killing.
It makes no sense to have protected sites without enforcement. The only way that enforcement will work in relation to marine conservation is by having a 24/7 police (ALE) presence that can stop and, better still, prevent the laws’ infringement in the first place. For now, we see them wade in after the damage has been done.
Cirkewwa already has the infrastructure to house an ALE station at the dive site below the beacon tower there; at the cost of refurbishing the premises. This localised presence of the ALE would allow officers to take a proactive rather than reactive stance in protecting Cirkewwa. It is also an ideal place from which to launch their sea craft to patrol the northern and westerly coasts.
We often say that education is the best route to seeing change brought about. This is all well and good, but the problem with education is that it takes a long time to have effect and, as has been proven in other countries, education will only work if there is also legislative enforcement, and the threat of serious fines for those who infringe the laws.
As things stand, there is no education taking place here anyway. The areas out of bounds to fishing – of all kinds – should have in-your-face notices informing divers, spear and net fishermen of the zone’s no-fishing policies as well as giving details of the fines for law infringement.
One last point. The law needs to be amended to prohibit all types of fishing within the boundaries set by the Malta Maritime Authority, and should include a no-stopping and no-crossing the perimeter stipulation with exception of dive boats quickly dropping off divers. Above all, the law needs to give Cirkewwa legislative status as a marine sanctuary.Cirkewwa is our marine jewel, loved, appreciated and sought after for its diversity of marine life by thousands of Maltese and tourist divers. Of all the local dive sites I have dived in my 30 years in the sport, I firmly believe that Cirkewwa more than any other deserves preserving for future generations, to the benefit of not only divers but also the fishing community. Protect our marine life or fish like there’s no tomorrow – the choice is ours, for a while.
What you can do
Whether you’re a diver or not, the call for Cirkewwa to be declared a marine sanctuary deserves support. If you are interested in adding your voice, find out more on this Facebook group.
All photos courtesy of Paul Busuttil.