Safer seas, better monitoring
Following the tragedy earlier this month in which a snorkeller died at sea after fatal propeller injuries, safety for swimmers is more than ever an issue that won’t go away.
Swimming zones designated by the Malta Maritime Authority under Transport Malta have drawn some criticism, although generally bathers inside the marked zones feel they can rest assured they are swimming safely. Or can they?
Orange and yellow floats set out in a number of locations around Malta, Gozo and Comino designate ‘safe’ swimming areas and encourage bathers to enter the water. In at least one swimming zone – a harbour area – they might have thought twice before entering the water.
The health authorities have long cautioned against bathing in harbours or marinas where water circulation is poor.
No bathing in all closed harbour areas is advised by the environmental health directorate although exactly where this restriction physically begins and ends is not so clear.
An official swimming zone set up by the Malta Maritime Authority (MMA) under Transport Malta this summer inside Marsamxett Harbour, Sliema, has yet to be monitored for bathing water quality.
In response to questions sent to the health directorate over whether the maritime authority should take responsibility for monitoring areas it has designated as ‘swimming zones’, a spokesman confirmed that some of the zones identified by the MMA are within harbour areas, such as Marsamxett Harbour on the side of Tigné Point, where “bathing is not recommended from a public health perspective”.
But the health directorate admits it is not in a position to oblige other authorities to carry out monitoring of bathing water quality in any area.
In fact, these areas have been identified as non-bathing zones for a number of years by the directorate in line with the World Health Organisation recommendation.
The responsibility of the directorate only goes so far as informing the public – as it is doing – that such areas are not recommended for bathing. A list of these areas can be found on the directorate health portal (see website below).
Official non-bathing zones indicated on the health ministry’s website (environmental health) are pinpointed in certain areas in Marsascala, Birżebbuġa, Marsaxlokk, St Julian’s, Baħar iċ-Ċagħaq and Xemxija.
As the health spokesman points out, “Obviously this directorate cannot prevent anyone from swimming in such areas”. Most of the swimming zones identified by the MMA as such are already monitored as part of the bathing water monitoring programme, since these sites have already been officially designated as bathing areas.
However, not all swimmers’ zones fall within the officially designated areas since the swimming zones are mainly chosen by the MMA for safety reasons. When asked whether it should be indicated to the public by the maritime authority that some of these swimming zones are not being monitored for bathing water quality,the ball was passed back to the maritime authority’s court.
“It is up to the authority identifying such swimmers’ zones to inform the public why such sites, which are not officially designated by the competent authority as official bathing areas, have been so identified and marked as swimmers’ zones.”
The health ministry spokesman added that the officially designated bathing areas forming part of the national bathing water monitoring programme are well identified and have been communicated to the public through various means. Details of these sites are also available on the directorate webpage.
“One must also point out that not all areas where swimming is possible around the Maltese islands have been included as part of the official bathing areas and thus falling under the obligation for monitoring.
“The competent authority may, from time to time, include other areas which are to date not officially designated as official bathing areas but only areas which qualify to the required standards can be considered as such.”
At Qawra, another MMA-designated swimming zone ends short of the entry ladder by half a metre, so bathers enter the water on the outside of the safety zone, which is surely not the intention. Information provided by the Maltese authorities in Malta’s 2011 bathing water report, registered with the European Environment Agency, declares that “all official bathing areas are clearly identified by appropriate signs indicating the monitoring locations”.
Each EU member state will have to comply with stricter requirements by 2015, including better monitoring and management of bathing waters. Bathing water profiles, including influence of heavy rain events, due out last year, are expected to be completed by next year as confirmed by the ministry (see EU website below).
This year, at least one swimming zone is expected to be temporarily closed due to a happy event rather than a pollution event. Safeguarding the return of the loggerhead turtle to Ġnejna Bay could take the lead from Turkey’s Iztuzu Beach – the top Mediterranean nesting ground for loggerheads – at a time when the hatchlings are most vulnerable.
Speedboats are banned within a one-mile zone from the Turkish nesting beach, a popular tourist destination, making seas safer for turtles in their breeding area.