The Plight Of Aphanius Fasciatus In Malta

The species Aphanius fasciatus in Malta is in danger of becoming extinct in the very near future. If it were not for Birdlife Malta and the Malta Natural Society in the `80, when the bird and nature reserves were being set up, and introducing this species in these two localities, most probably, il-Buzaqq, as it is locally known, is already an extinct species from Malta.

But these two localities are not the natural place for this species. It is true that water conditions are very similar .In fact, these fish can thrive both in fresh and sea water as long as the change is made gradually, though their favorite is brackish water. But the nature reserves are land locked and the fish cannot migrate to new localities and establish new colonies. If these nature reserves are hit by a mishap and both populations die out, then the Aphanius fasciatus are no longer in Malta.

One of the most likely mishap to happen, is that of involuntary poisoning of both reserves from insecticides used by the farmers in the area. Each year, after the first heavy rains in October, hundreds of Aphanius fasciatus are observed dead in both localities. This is due to the insecticides and artificial fertilizers, especially ammonia that has been washed down into the reserves by the heavy rain. The birds will fly to other water-holes, which are quite abundant then, and after the first migration, new ones will come. But the fish are trapped there and cannot escape. So their numbers dwindle every year.

In the past, Aphanius fasciatus used to live in 4 principal localities, being Marsaxlokk, Wied il-Ghajn, Marsa and at Salina. The latter used to be the largest saltpans on the island. In the `50, the locality at Marsaxlokk where the fasciatus used to live, was dredged up to provide a haven for the fishing boats and the fasciatus disappeared for here for ever.

In the `80, the Canal at Marsa, the best locality that I remember, used to produce the largest and most colourful variety from all 4 localities, here the fasciatus were eradicated too. Cilia, in the Red Data Book for the Maltese Islands (1989) p.130 writes that the reason for the decline in the stocks of Buzaqq was due to the indiscriminate collection of these fish by local aquarists. This is completely false. First of all, none of the Aphanius species will thrive with tropical fish as they are seasonal fish and in winter, they have to be kept in cold water to survive. Secondly, as soon as the fasciatus are collected, they become very stressed and suffocate in a few minutes.

If this species was to become extinct because some aquarist were collecting a few numbers, then this fish should have become extinct in the `50 and `60 when every Saturday scores of children would gather near the canal and collect bucket-fulls of Buzaqq and before leaving this area, all the fish are already dead in their buckets. This was still the post-war era and most of Malta was still in ruins and parents could not afford to buy toys for their children. In the`80, children had lots of toys to play with and the time to go collecting fish and tadpoles was a thing of the past.

The original bottom of the canal was paved with flagstones and the crevices from the loose mortar and broken flagstones provided refuge for the Buzaqq when threatened . Also, in the canal, a species of thread algae was very abundant. This used to provide food for the fish and many micro organisms and also as a spawning substrate for the eggs. But some wise guy decided to cover the bottom of the canal with concrete and the chemicals from it killed all the algae and the Buzaqq too. To top it all, a Reverse Osmosis (desalinization plant) was built close to the abattoir , about 50 mtrs. away from the canal and the hyper saline reject water was pumped back to the canal. This resulted in the water looking very clean but this is neither good for the algae nor for the fish.

At the inland water, (il-Maghaluq) at Wied il-Ghajn (Marsascala), there are still some specimens alive, but these are very weak, small in size and their colours are very dull due to the bad condition they are in. These too are threatened as a big development project is planned for this area. Also, a number of domestic ducks have been introduced and these are making havoc of the few fish and their eggs.

At Salina, we have the same story, pollution from seeping drainage and a fish farm was set up in the `90 , exactly on the spot where the Buzaqq used to live and from then on no Buzaqq was ever seen again.

From these 4 cases, we see that the Buzaqq became extinct from their natural breeding grounds not because children and a few aquarists collected a few specimens. This had been happening for hundred of years. What happened is all the result of the local authorities issuing development and construction permits without being sensitive enough about the environment the creatures living in it.

Where do we stand now? Now it is illegal to collect, breed, trade and export this species. I have been over 30 years promoting this fish, writing articles and giving talks about the Buzaqq and their future, both locally and in the international fora. Overnight, I became a criminal. I have to watch out whom I am talking to as these might be ALE agents and might be arrested. In Malta there are no more than 4 or 5 persons, including myself whom are really interested in this species. Now all of us have gone underground.

When the Malta Aquarist Society was first set up in 1970, its emblem showed a Siamese fighter (Betta splendens). A few years later, I moved a proposal that on our emblem, we should have an Aphanius fasciatus. This was carried out unanimously. Unfortunately, many of the younger members have never seen this fish alive, neither in an aquarium nor in its natural habitat.

If a drug pusher is caught with a small amount of drugs and his lawyers say in court that this amount is for personal use, he is freed. But if an aquarist is found to be keeping or breeding Buzaqq, even though he is doing so for scientific purposes, he is fined.

I have a number of contacts, both amateur and academics in Europe whose only interest in the Aphanius species (there are 13 species in all, along the Mediterranean coast of Europe and the Middle East) whose only interest is that these fish will survive for many generations to come. Among these I mention Hans van Es from Holland, Herman Meeus from Belgium whose life is dedicated to the Aphanius species. He too, have very good contacts with a research center in Germany and as soon as a new species is discovered, information and when possible live material is sent to him. 3 years ago, he sent me 14 eggs of Aphanius dispar from Falluja, Iraq. I am proud to say that this species is still thriving both at my home and at the homes of another 3 MAS members. Herman also supplied me with eggs of Aphanius mento from Kirk Goz in Turkey 4 years ago and these too are doing very well in one of my ponds. I also have personal contacts with Dr. Jean H. Huber, Director at the Laboratoire d`Ichtyologie, Paris, MNHN France. He is also the director of the website Killi-Data.

The Malta Aquarist Society (Ghaqda tat-Trobbijja tal-Hut) is proposing an Aphanius fasciatus regenerating programme for the Maltese Islands. As I wrote above, it is illegal to collect, breed trade and export this species. The Society will be asking MEPA (Malta Environmental and Planning Authority) to issue a permit so that the Society will be able to collect a limited number of Buzaqq to be used as breeding stock from the Ghadira Nature Reserve for this project. Later, when the numbers build up at the project, these fish will be returned back.

The Society is prepared to dedicate part of its premises for this project. It also have a number of devoted aquarist who are prepared to participate too. The program will work like this. The few pairs that are collected, will be distributed to 3 dedicated members. They will be responsible to breed as many fish as possible. The breeding and rearing of the fry is to be done at the home of the aquarists as the fry have to be fed on live-food (artemia) at least twice daily. Their water also have to be changed very regularly. It is not economically possible that the members go to the club’s premises twice daily. One have to bear in mind that there is not going to be any remuneration for those taking part in this project and we all have our jobs, families and homes to tend to.

When the fry are 6 weeks old and about 20-25 mm. long, these will be taken to the club’s premises and put in large vats until the fish are 3 months old. Breeding have to be done in Spring and by the end of Summer, the juveniles will be released in the original localities and other locations that we think are good for this species to live in. A few pairs will be kept at the club’s premises through Autumn and Winter and the next Spring , breeding will start again. In this way, we are hoping to rebuild the Aphanius fasciatus populations around the Maltese islands again.

Charles Zammit.