Comprehensive marine ecological survey conducted by Oceanography groupas part of the SENHAR project

Within the SENHAR project, a three-day ecological survey of marine benthic and pelagic communities within the Hofra z-Zghira embayment was embarked upon by the Oceanography Marine Research Group within the Department of Geosciences of the Faculty of Science earlier this month. Academic and supporting staff from the University’s oceanography team who participated within this survey included Dr. Adam Gauci, Mr. Johann Galdies, Mr. Edward Sultana and Mr. Alessio Marrone, whilst Prof. Alan Deidun is the Principal Investigator at the University of Malta on the SENHAR project. The UM team was joined by colleagues from two different CNR Institutes in Italy – the CNR-IAMC one based in Sicily and the CNR Institute in Genoa.

The Hofra z-Zghira embayment was selected given that it is influenced by an operational discharge – a thermal effluent releasing seawater taken in by the Delimara power station to cool its turbines. Given that this effluent can warmer than 8 degrees Centigrade than the ambient seawater, it represents a case of thermal pollution, which can be deleterious to marine life in a number of ways. For instance, the dissolved oxygen content of seawater plummets with higher temperatures whilst the higher water temperatures can promote the growth of epiphytes on seagrass shoots, competing with the ecologically important seagrass for light, as well as the spread of pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms.

In order to assess the ecological impact of the thermal effluent on natural communities within the embayment, within the SENHAR project, the University’s Oceanography team conducted a multi-faceted sampling strategy, consisting of the in situ measurement of a number of Posidonia oceanica (Neptune seagrass) metrics, the sampling of infaunal (within-sediment) biota. The latter was achieved through a custom-built sampling device (known in Italian as ‘sorbona’) which makes use of negative pressure generated through a connected SCUBA diving cylinder to strain out biota from the surrounding sediment through a filtering mesh. A visual census of fish assemblages within the embayment was also conducted, whilst an array of water descriptors (salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, microplastic content, nutrients, pH) were measured at different distances from the outfall. The survey in question will be repeated in autumn so as to factor in seasonal variability.

The SenHAR project, funded within the framework of the Interreg Italia-Malta 2014-2020 funding programme, aims to transfer the results obtained with the HARMONY project (financed within the previous program notice) and make them functional, making them know to specific target groups. This goal will be realized through awareness campaigns and promotion of the issues related to Natura 2000 sites (N2K) of the cross-border area subject to the monitoring of HARMONY project (Cape Gallo Isola delle Femmine and Fondali Isola di Capo Passero in Sicily, fil-Bahar fil-Grigal ta’ in Malta). Lead partner of the project is the University of Palermo, whilst the University of Malta and the CNR are project partners. The project will run till May 2023.