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Victor Axiak Marine Exotoxicology
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Marine Ecotoxicology Laboratory (Prof. V. Axiak)

The aim of this laboratory is to contribute towards the development of Malta’s capabilities in assessing marine contamination hazards which may threaten our marine resources and thus jeopardize the sustainability of our national economic growth. The laboratory has assumed responsibilities for all research activities in biological responses to marine pollution within the Department of Biology of the University of Malta. Such research activities have been ongoing for the past 25 years.

Research Capabilities

The laboratory has developed capabilities in environmental monitoring and in the laboratory and field investigations of a number of biological responses to coastal pollution including: acute toxicity responses, physiological and behavioural responses and histochemical and histopathological reactions in a range of test species. We are presently expanding our capabilities to include a wide range of pollution monitoring tools including biochemical/molecular bioassays and remote sensing by satellite which may be applied within the Mediterranean region. Its laboratory resources include a marine recirculating aquarium complex, biochemical ecotoxicology lab, controlled environment room, water quality lab and a full range of electronic field monitoring equipment. Full time-research assistants, postgraduate students and a number of undergraduates contribute towards the various projects undertaken.

For the past 5 years. all the funding of the laboratory came from external and international sources.

Recent and Ongoing Research Programs

Over the past few years, the laboratory has established joint projects with a number of other research institutes, including: Plymouth Marine Laboratory (U.K.); The University of Paris (6); Famborough College of Technology (U.K.); University of Sunderland (U.K.); The New University of Lisbon (Portugal); the University of Catania (Italy) and others.

Joint research projects are also currently undertaken in collaboration with a number of industrial concerns including THOMSON-Detexis (France) and the Informatica per il Territorio (Italy).

The Laboratory has and is contributing to a number of international research projects funded by the European Union and the United Nations Environment Programme. These include:

Past Projects

Projects undertaken at the University of Malta, within the framework of the Mediterranean Pollution Monitoring and Research Programme (MEDPOL) of the UNEP and FAO, since 1980, include:

a. Effects of pollutants on marine (MEDPOL Phase 1).
b. Biological impact of Oil Dispersants (MEDPOL II).
c. Monitoring of jellyfish swarming in Malta.
d. Effects of Pesticides in the Mediterranean.
e. The application of Biomonitoring Techniques in the Mediterranean.

An assessment of the biological impact of antifouling paints (TBT). This project has received funding from European Union through its MedSPA programme and was jointly undertaken with an international consortium of research centres from U.K. and Portugal.

Biological Impact of Disinfection of Wastewaters. This is a joint project funded by EU through its AVICENNE Initiative. It wascoordinated by the Community of Mediterranean Universities, and research centres from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, University of Portsmouth, University of Hassan II and University of Barcelona, also contributed towards the project.

Current Projects

1. Assessment of Pollution Biomonitoring in the Mediterranean. This research is being undertaken Mediterranean Action Plan, and funded through FAO.

2. INCO 972561 AMED / Airborne Remote Sensing Techniques Simulation for Assessment, Monitoring and Surveillance of South-Mediterranean Maritime Ecosystems.

The aim of this programme is to develop simulation techniques for a surveillance system, which would use satellite and air-borne radar images to manage environmental issues, related to oil pollution and fisheries. The results of the project are to be reviewed in an international conference to be held in Malta on the 24th October 2000.

The figure shows an ERS-SAR image of Malta produced during this project, in which a number of oil spills are evident (click to enlarge).


3. Environmental Monitoring of Maltese Coastal Waters Using Remote Sensing. 4th Italo-Maltese Financial Protocol (Project 8)

A four-year programme was initiated in 1997 with the aim of developing a data bank of information about water quality using satellite imagery data which may be periodically updated and which would provide the necessary information for comprehensive marine environmental management. The programme is being funded through the fourth Italo-Maltese Financial Protocol.

To date, eight inshore coastal areas have been surveyed as indicated in the Figure. For each site, algorithms have been developed for four environmental parameters which would allow us to monitor water quality, eutrophication and transport of land-based discharges. These parameters include: surface temperature, chlorophyll content and the level of water transparency in terms of Secchi depths and beam attenuation coefficients. Algorithms are being developed on a seasonal basis for all such areas. LANDSAT-TM digital data of the study areas are collected during satellite overpass for each seasonal survey, while near-simultaneous acquisition of sea-truth data with satellite overpass is being carried out in the areas under investigation. On the basis of extracted digital numbers from TM bands, mathematical models are developed and applied relating values of the selected water parameters to the spectral data.

Numerous colour-coded output maps have been produced for the sites investigated, showing LANDSAT TM-based images of turbidity, suspended solids, surface water temperatures and chlorophyll a levels. The data is being used to assess: the levels of productivity which would be indicative of eutrophic conditions, and organic (sewage) pollution; the land-based point sources of such coastal contamination; as well as the transport dynamics of such contamination along the local coastline.


This project has shown that the various methodologies used to collect sea-truth data and develop the necessary mathematical models, proved adequate to provide information on the sources of land-based pollution, including thermal pollution from the Marsa Power Station and the emission and subsequent coastal transport of the sewage plume discharged at Wied Ghammieq. It was also possible to assess water quality in marinas, areas in the vicinity of drydocks and in other localities.

Such data and its interpretation are directly relevant to the management of environmental risks related to the following:

  • the operation of wastewater treatment plants planned at various coastal sites;
  • protection of Reverse Osmosis Plants for fresh water production;
  • the protection of bathing waters in the most popular beaches;
  • the operation of the present power stations;
  • port operations at Marsamxett, Grand Harbour, Kalafrana Freeport and Mgarr Port Gozo;
  • the development of coastal fishfarming

Direct beneficiaries of such information include a number of authorities involved in environmental management and planning as well as in the use of our coastal waters. A substantial amount of information which was produced through this project has already been made use of in the compilation of the State of the Environment Report (1998).

Environmental Consultancy Services

For a number of years, the laboratory has been involved in consultancy on environmental matters both at an international level and locally.

Consultancy areas include: assessment of environmental damage by port development and coastal engineering works; environmental contamination, coastal zone management and risk assessment of contamination hazards.

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Last Updated: 15 October 2010

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