Extending three miles to the East and South of Gibraltar and stretching all the way up to the median line to the West of Gibraltar, the Gibraltar Marine Reserve has long been recognized as an important marine area due to its rich diversity in species and habitats. Sea cliffs and caves, reefs and sandy marine habitats all form part of the marine ecosystem found along the southern shores of Gibraltar. The abundance and richness of species is largely influenced by the strong currents and upwelling that are so characteristic of the Strait of Gibraltar. Seasonal abundance, due to migratory movements between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, results in a multitude of pelagic and predatory fish along with cetaceans including the Striped and Common Dolphins. The latter cetaceans breed in the Bay of Gibraltar.
The Southern Waters of Gibraltar SAC/SPA is also located on an important migration route for seabirds. Many species stop over and feed within the marine SAC/SPA during their migratory journeys and some, such as the Cory’s Shearwater, forage in the marine SAC/SPA whilst breeding. Other species rely on the SAC/SPA during the winter in variable numbers depending on weather conditions (e.g. numbers of Gannets feeding inshore during storms).
In line with Her Majesty’s Government of Gibraltar’s commitment to regulate fishing, diving and other marine activities in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters (BGTW), the Government published the Marine Protection Regulations 2014 as well as the Tuna Preservation Regulations 2014 on the 30th October 2014 with the latter regulations specifically catering for the regulation of tuna fishing activities in BGTW.
Coastal Water Monitoring is required under European Law. In addition, it is good practice to monitor the conditions of British Gibraltar Territorial Waters to determine whether human activities in the area are impacting our marine environment in terms of water quality.
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The DEHCC embarked on an interdisciplinary marine restoration project in 2015. This project draws on historical sources, local expert knowledge and extensive research to inform the re-introduction of species that were known to exist in certain areas of British Gibraltar Territorial Waters. These include species such as fan mussels, oysters and seagrasses, the latter being a tremendously important source of food, oxygen and habitat as well as an excellent carbon sink.
Seagrasses such as Neptune grass (Cymodocea nodosa) were known to be abundant within our waters, particularly towards the North of the Bay of Gibraltar. Its presence has diminished over the years due to anthropogenic activities. The DEHCC worked with the University of Algarve’s Centre of Marine Sciences (CCMAR) to transplant seagrass beds from a donor meadow in Rio Formosa’s lagoon in the Algarve.
The reintroduction of the ‘European flat oyster’ (Ostrea edulis), was undertaken by the DEHCC in collaboration with local marine biologist, Dr Darren Fa from the University of Gibraltar. 100kg of mature oysters which were ready to reproduce and would be propagating larvae shortly, were strategically placed in various key locations within British Gibraltar Territorial Waters.
This species of oyster was known to be abundant within Gibraltar waters and has diminished due to over fishing and other anthropogenic activities. Census records show oystercatchers listed during the 1800’s. Proof of the oyster’s previous abundance can be seen today within the old Spanish walls, where you can spot oyster shells, which were used as backfill.
The Department’s dive team closely monitors the progress of these elements of the marine ecosystem restoration programme.
In 1975, the Helping Hand Trust, Gibraltar, started the construction of Europe’s first artificial reef. To date, over 30 vessels have been intentionally sunk for the creation of artificial reefs which have been strategically placed to enhance Gibraltar’s marine biodiversity and provide shelter and protection to existing marine life in the area. The most recent of these has been the Sun Swale, a decommissioned tugboat of approximately 30m in length.
The preparation and placement of the Sun Swale was carried out by T.P. Towage Ltd, under the supervision of the Competent Authority, the DEHCC.
The first stage in preparing the vessel was to remove all items that could potentially become detached, float and / or cause pollution. These included items such as mattresses, chairs etc. All internal doors and protruding features throughout the vessel were also removed. This was to ensure as far as possible that there were no features within the ship that could pose any danger for divers. Additionally, a full inspection of the ship was carried out by a H.M. Government of Gibraltar approved contractor in order to identify any hazardous materials or substances prior to sinking the vessel.
All portholes were also removed for two main reasons; firstly to aid the sinking of the vessel and secondly, because the rims of the portholes are made from brass, there were concerns that divers might attempt to remove these for their monetary value. The final stages of preparatory works to the vessel required the removal of all electronic equipment and navigational aids and instruments. All fuels and lubricants which could potentially create pollution once submerged into the proposed site were also removed prior to sinking.
The main mast of the vessel was also removed in order to reduce the overall height of the vessel in order to ensure a minimum of 15m clearance to the surface.
The final preparatory phase for the vessel involved cutting holes throughout the deck and welding all the external metal doors open in order to help sink the vessel. The ship’s main engine and fuel tanks were flooded prior to towing her out into position, as this would ensure that the air pressure in these compartments were equalised during the sinking phase.
The Sun Swale was towed to its final destination by another tug vessel. Once there, the anchors at the bow of the ship were dropped and a line at the stern of the ship was attached to the towing vessel in order to keep her in place whilst she flooded. Once she was sinking, the line attached to the towing vessel was let loose and salvaged later.
Once she was held in position , water was pumped into the Sun Swale from the towing vessel to additionally assist and speed up the process. The sinking process was carried out in a controlled manner with the Gibraltar Port Authority and the DEHCC overseeing the whole process.