Routes over roots

Tree roots

In Malta, protests against plans to remove a row of iconic trees drew unprecedented crowds, leading authorities to promise to plant new trees and replant those found in the way of planned infrastructure projects. Emma Clarke looks into the science of tree replantation to see how feasible this would be.

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Tourism in Valletta: have we gone too far?

Valletta tourist attractions

Residents are generally willing to put up with the inconveniences caused by tourism because of its financial and reputational benefits. But is there a tipping point when tourism and leisure become unbearable? Having focused on Valletta as an urban planner, activist, and researcher, Dr John Ebejer warns against the risks of overtourism.

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Moving energetically ahead

UM's solar panels

Can the university lead the way in shedding a dependence on fossil fuels? Renewable sources cover just over 7% of Malta’s energy needs, which must nearly double by 2030 to implement the draft National Energy and Climate Plan. Daiva Repeckaite traces how photovoltaic modules were rolled out on the campus’s roofs — and finds that to be sustainable, the community should love their ACs a little less.

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Lights, camera, activism

Protesters with banners

Author: Raisa Galea

In 2019, hardly anyone personifies activism more conspicuously than Greta Thunberg. Since August 2018, the teenager’s solitary calls for climate action have inspired millions of people to follow her example and take to the streets. The resulting wave of climate strikes is every activist’s dream come true: inspiring a mass movement to support a cause, passing on the flame of resistance, stirring the power of a democratic collective. What can we learn from this phenomenon?

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I <3 potato

Vegetables
Plant-based diets are going mainstream all over the world. Cassi Camilleri sheds light on the local vegan movement and how reducing our meat consumption can benefit us all.

Some label the rise of plant-based living as evidence of ‘trend culture’. And they’re not all wrong. Traditional media bombards us with countless headlines on the topic’s pros and cons. Hard-hitting advocacy films like Cowspiracy and Forks over Knives expose the horrors of the meat industry. Social media influencers share their experiences with the diet, turning it into lifestyle content. And now the market is following suit with vegan and veggie lines and options popping up everywhere.

In 2016, an Ipsos MORI survey for the Vegan Society identified that 3.25% of adults in the UK never eat meat in any form as part of their diet, equating to roughly 540,000 people. Vegan January—commonly known as Veganuary—is growing in popularity. This year, a record-breaking 250,310 people from 190 countries registered for the month-long vegan pledge. And Malta is no exception.  

While the official number of people following a plant-based or vegan diet are unavailable, interest is clear. Facebook pages Vegan Malta and Vegan Malta Eats have a combined following of over 16,500 people. 

The reasons behind people’s decision to take up veganism are various, however three main motivators keep being cited: health benefits, ethics, and environmental concerns. For vegan business woman Rebecca Camilleri the process was natural and gradual. ‘There was no real intention behind it for me. But after a couple of months of following this diet, I noticed that my energy levels were better than before, and this encouraged me to learn more on how I needed to eat in order to nourish my body with the right nutrients to sustain my active lifestyle.’  

Researcher and nutritionist Prof. Suzanne Piscopo (Department of Health, Physical Education, and Consumer Studies, University of Malta) confirms that ‘moving towards a primarily plant-based diet is recommended by organisations such as the World Health Organization and the World Cancer Research Fund, for health and climate change reasons.’

Oxford academic Dr Marco Springmann has attempted to model what a vegan planet would look like, and the results are staggering. According to his calculations, should the world’s population switch to a vegan diet by the year 2050, the global economy would save $1.1 trillion in healthcare costs. We would also save $0.5 trillion in environmental costs, all while slashing greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds. 

Despite all this, veganism has earned itself quite a few enemies along the way. The vitriol thrown back and forth across both camps is shocking. Relatively recently, UK supermarket chain Waitrose came under scrutiny after magazine editor William Sitwell responded to plant-based food article ideas from writer Selene Nelson with a dark counter offer—a series on ‘killing vegans’. Sitwell was since forced to resign. Nelson posited that the hostility stems from ‘a refusal to recognise the suffering of animals. Mocking vegans is easier than listening to them.’

Abigail Higgins from American news and opinion website Vox agrees that guilt plays a role in the hatred aimed towards veganism, but also proposes that the whole movement ‘represents a threat to the status quo, and cultural changes make people anxious.’ This notion is based on research on intergroup threats and attitudes by US researchers Walter G. Stephan and Cookie White Stephan. 

It however remains a reality that some of the loudest voices in veganism in the past have been militant. Some have invoked hatred and threats towards those that they perceive not to be sufficiently aggressive in promoting the cause. Piscopo calls for a respectful discussion.

‘Food is not only about sustenance and pleasure, but has symbolic, emotional, and identity value. Take meat for example. Some associate it with masculinity and virility. Others link it to food security as meat was a food which was scarce during their childhood. Some others equate it with conviviality as meat dishes are often consumed during happy family occasions. What is important is that we do not try to impose our beliefs, thoughts, and lifestyle on anyone.’

The way forward is a ‘live and let live’ approach, according to Rebecca Galea. When her journey started she had people ‘staring strangely at [her] food’. Even her family didn’t take her seriously. ‘They were very sceptical as their knowledge on veganism was very limited at the time,’ she remembers. Now, seeing the effect the switch has made to Rebecca’s life, her positive choices are naturally impacting theirs. ‘Everyone is free to make their choice,’ she says. Embodying the philosophy of leading by example, Rebecca has even set up her own business making delicious vegan nut butters, spreads, and more, to great success. ‘The more vegan options are available [in Malta], the more people will be attracted to learning and accepting the benefits of veganism. This might also lead to them following a vegan lifestyle!’

With that, and sharing valid, up-to-date research-based information, as Piscopo suggests, it seems there is no stopping this ‘trend’. And who would want to when veganism can lead to a lower carbon footprint and better health for everyone? 

Saving the Maltese freshwater crab from extinction

Author: Clayton Sammut

Clayton Sammut

A considerable amount of endemic species inhabit the Maltese Islands. The Maltese freshwater crab (Qabru in Maltese) is one of them. In the 50s, the invertebrate was so abundant that freshwater crab soup was a common Maltese delicacy. And up until Malta adopted the Euro, it graced the Maltese five cent coin. The Maltese freshwater crab is unique to our heritage, but it is now threatened with extinction. 

Under the supervision of Dr Adriana Vella and the University of Malta’s conservation research group, I used various population and biological parameters to analyse the data and produce conservation recommendations.

To estimate the crab population size and density, I used two techniques known as the capture–recapture method and distance sampling in a number of repeated surveys in different sites throughout the dry (August to mid-September) and wet season (October to January). I then measured the crabs to determine their life stage and sex. This revealed more information about the reproductive population size and recruitment at each study site.

What we found was that there was an imbalance in the number of female to male breeding adults, which resulted in a small amount of offspring. This means the population cannot sustain itself, putting the species in grave danger.

Beyond health and numbers, we also directed attention to the crabs’ natural habitat. We wanted to find out whether hydrological and chemical parameters, such as water depth and water acidity, are also having an impact. As it happens, the freshwater crab’s population density is affected significantly by a water stream’s depth, width, velocity, and acidity (pH). We also found that specific sites and seasons also had an impact.

Direct water extraction, excessive use of fertilisers, and water stream channelisation are creating severe drought that suffocates the crabs during summer. So much so that adult male crabs were seen preying on their own juvenile crabs.

Looking at the rapid decline of watercourses around the Maltese Islands throughout the years, and the abuse that goes ignored and unchecked, the freshwater crab will not have a future unless we act immediately.

There are three things that we can do to undo some damage. We can fund research to determine if a reintroduction programme would work in sites which previously hosted the crab. We can also create new engineered habitats which can host the crab and bolster the population. Finally, the highly diverse habitats that are now hosting the crab can be turned into protected nature reserves. The nature reserves could engage citizens with Maltese organisms. If run as a social enterprise, it could generate funds to support important research. Protecting the animals that call our islands home is our duty as responsible citizens, but it goes beyond that. Protecting them means protecting our surroundings, our home, from a path that severs us from our roots. Protecting them is protecting ourselves. 

Kemmuna

Despite being one of Malta’s hottest attractions, a lot of what Comino has to offer is covered by the cool blue waters that fuel its popularity. Prof. Alan Deidun and his team have embarked on a journey to bring what’s hidden beneath to the surface, tentacles and all.

Have you ever googled Comino? Approximately 10,900,000 results pop up, and the vast majority of them relate to holidaymaking tips and weather information, with a sprinkling of research projects. Once the hideout of pirates and smugglers, the little island’s crystal-clear waters have now made it a paradise for travellers. But despite the suffocating love and attention Comino gets during the summer months, many of its wonders remain hidden underwater, unattainable to most.

This was the motivation behind Prof Alan Deidun’s most recent documentary, Comino: A Secret Paradise. An academic at the Department of Geosciences (University of Malta), Deidun is an avid diver, environmentalist, and advocate who wants ‘to bring the underwater world to people who don’t normally venture beyond the swimmer’s zone.’

Deidun’s first foray into documentary filmmaking came with Dwejra (2012), a film that featured the long-lost Azure window. Soon after were Rdum Majjiesa (2012) and Mġarr ix-Xini (2013). His big break came with Filfla (2015) which went viral and continues to do rounds on social media today. Even in 2012, the aim was always to highlight the beauty and importance of local Marine Protected Areas. In 2019, this has not changed.

Behind the scenes

The team met to film the first documentary in the series back in 2012 with Monolith Limited. The experience was so positive and fruitful that the team has remained practically unchanged since. Film after film, they all keep coming back to work together. Directed by Pedja Miletic and funded by the Malta International Airport Foundation, Comino is the fifth film in the series.

Filming took place throughout 2018, focusing on everything: marine to terrestrial, shallow to deep, diurnal to nocturnal. Deidun admitted that the team struggled with finding and filming enough organisms. ‘It took around 50 trips to Comino and back to get the footage we needed,’ he says. But the result speaks for itself.

Helping them achieve the sheen they needed for the final work, Deidun and his colleagues used a state-of-the-art 8K underwater camera. Hardware of this calibre is the sort you find on big budget productions like the BBC’s beloved Blue Planet. The camera enabled the divers to film animals from a different perspective, providing audiences with a new experience. Take, for example, the Common Octopus, Octopus vulgaris, a documentary staple whose camouflaging skills got some well-deserved attention in Comino. The camera also came in handy with more delicate, elusive creatures. The weird and wonderful Berried Sea Anemone and the Flying Gurnard, species the team hadn’t been able to capture in previous work, could now be seen in all their complexity.

Science & art for the environment

The motivations behind this documentary are complex, but one big factor Deidun mentions is a lack of science communication—a global issue.

Deidun emphasised that academics need to share their findings. ‘You can’t just publish in a peer-reviewed journal and stop there,’ he says. ‘You need to engage, start a dialogue with society.’ Because despite all of us choosing different walks of life, we share one home, and scientific findings should influence how our environment is treated. To move from research to societal action, communication is key. Scientific findings on their own quickly become stagnant, but through discussion and dialogue, they can thrive in the different layers of our communities: from quick, friendly conversations to formal government conferences. A conscious understanding of our environment leads to its conscious use.

In this case, Comino can help engage people with marine diversity and show them this complex micro-realm that ‘is not just Blue Lagoon.’

Most people know about the Damselfish (Ċawla in Maltese) or the Mauve Stinger (BRAMA! in Maltese). This might make people think that Maltese waters are safe from overexploitation, but this is far from the truth.

The animals that are difficult to see are those that need the most attention. Fauna such as the endangered Rough Ray, the protected, crimson purple Echinaster sepositus starfish and the Striped Prawn all face man-made threats.

‘This has resulted in an alarmingly low fish biomass [amount of fish] for the Maltese waters,’ Deidun says. ‘But that’s not surprising. Maltese waters are constantly fished. Overfishing is a reality.’ Even Comino, a Marine Protected Area (MPA), is surrounded by nets and fishing lines. It seems that while most of us are proud of our crystal-clear waters, we are not paying attention to the problems ailing it. ‘This is what we hope to change,’ Deidun adds.’

Comino’s future; our future

Deidun has plenty of hope. He tells us that ‘our MPAs are paper tigers for now, but the Environmental Resource Authority (ERA) is working on having approved management plans’ which need to be ready and presented to the European Commission by the end of 2019—a step towards a healthier sea with a sustainable future.

As for the future of these documentaries, Deidun has big plans, and they involve Netflix. He also wishes to add the films to digital libraries of local schools. In time, this will all feed into his vision of establishing a local ocean literary centre, a space where people of all ages can learn about our sea through science, arts, and new technology.

The Maltese are an island people. The sea is part of our heritage, a part of our identity. And we must work harder to preserve it for future generations. It is through documentaries like this one that we can appreciate and protect our home. As biologist Jane Goodall once said, ‘Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved.’