The Malta Independent 30 September 2022, Friday
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Shipwrecks could act as benchmarks to measure marine litter – Maltese marine archaeologist

Marc Galdes Sunday, 14 August 2022, 10:30 Last update: about 3 months ago

Exploratory workshops are being held to investigate the innovative idea of using Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) sites to study and survey marine litter.

These workshops are being funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Grants.

The litter that is seen floating on the surface of the ocean only accounts for 1% of all the litter found in the sea.

"If a piece of plastic ends up in the sea, slowly but surely this piece of plastic will sink and eventually drift to deeper waters and get dispersed," Professor Timmy Gambin stated.

In order to measure the amount of litter found on the seabed, the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directives state that the abundance of litter can be estimated by sending remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) into deep waters to survey an area and record the litter that is found.

Gambin believes that the problem with this approach is that it would only record the amount of litter found in that area at that particular time, because the current is constantly moving litter around the ocean. Therefore, this method does not reveal a truly representative sample size to secure data which could be used for analytical and predictive purposes.

However, marine litter has been repeatedly reported at UCH sites. From this, Gambin developed the idea to use UCH sites as yardsticks for the quantification and qualification of deep-sea marine litter.

Sea currents that move the litter are however not strong enough to push the litter beyond the archaeological site. As a result, these sites can act as a much more focused point to conduct studies and survey the amount of litter on the seabed.

His argument was that until some form of subsea experimental trap is designed and installed on the seabed for litter found in such deep waters, why not use shipwrecks as yardsticks for now?

Gambin followed up on this idea by getting in contact with Dr Oyvind Odegard from NTNU

University based in Trondheim Norway, which is one of the top universities in Europe that specialises in underwater robotics.

Together they wrote a proposal which was accepted to receive funding from the EEA grants.

Through the help of the EEA fund, they were able to get the resources to host two workshops, one in Malta and one in Norway, with the aim to understand the relationship between deep-water heritage sites and marine litter.

The workshop in Malta took place between 16 and 21 May. Personnel from the NTNU travelled to Malta and joined members of The Environment Resource Authority, the Planning Authority, Heritage Malta and the University of Malta for the event.

"This first workshop provided the ideal platform for local researchers and members of government agencies to experience various approaches used in the field of underwater cultural heritage. The aim is to explore how these can be adapted to help monitor and manage litter at sea. Our partners from Norway provided crucial feedback and input and we are looking forward to the forthcoming workshop in Trondheim, Norway. We are grateful to the EEA for providing the grant that enabled the organisation of these events," Gambin said.

The next workshop will take place in Norway where six Maltese people, including a member of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, will go up to conduct more discussions and experience the work done in Norway.

Gambin added that "depending on the results of this workshop we should have a platform where we will have enough information upon which we can take a decision whether it is worth pursuing ourselves or do we pass it on. It will basically give us enough information to decide what the next step is".

Gambin indicated that the next step could be anything from continuing to monitor marine litter on a local level, starting a campaign to give dive bags to local dive clubs or apply for further funding to amplify this study and concept.


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