Protected status, be it regarding natural or cultural heritage, is a concept we equate with a secure future for any given site. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Although designation of such status may mean increased monitoring and funding for protection, as well as publicity, fragile ecosystems in particular remain susceptible to the frivolities of human intervention.
Such is the case with the largest natural salt lake in the Mediterranean, found on the Greek island of Limnos, which is now nothing more than yet another bay.
Take a minute to enjoy this magnificent view…
Salt Lake vs Coastal Bay
The Alyki Salt Lake is – or rather, was – located on the East side of the island, covering over 600 ha, rendering it the largest natural salt lake in the Mediterranean. This unique wetland habitat, declared a Natura 2000 site, provided a valuable stopover point for migratory birds, hosting over 135 species; WWF Greece confirmed its importance as a habitat to be conserved for its flora and invertebrate fauna. It was also culturally significant, providing a source of salt for the island’s population as the lake dried over late summer.
This year, however, not a single flamingo has been observed, as is normally common during spring months. Even more shocking is the report that instead of people collecting salt, human activities have rather involved surfing on the lake, which is no longer a separate body of water but one with the sea. This in turn means that the shape of the coastline has fundamentally been changed.
Protection Is Not Isolation
It is easy to forget that although protected areas are metaphorically cordoned off from the real world, they actually continue to interact with their surrounding environment.
In the case of the Alyki Salt Lake – when it still existed as such – its water sources were both fresh water from the surrounding fields and slopes, as well as seawater through sub-surface transport. In times of heavy rainfall, the water level would rise and flood adjacent fields, driving farmers to protect their livelihoods by carving runoff channels into unused fields.
Human Intervention –Consequences of Ignorance and Rash Decisions
For unknown and unjustifiable reasons, earlier this year the island’s municipality licensed the bulldozing of an area of sand dunes which separated the lake from the sea. Although the intention was to alleviate the extremely high water levels experienced after prolonged and severe rain, the communication channel with the sea which started at a few metres wide is now a gaping opening of over 30m and is likely to continue enlarging. Little consideration was given as to the after-effects of such intervention and no environmental professionals were consulted prior to this reckless decision.
Upon bringing this issue to publicity through local newspapers and radio programmes, those involved, including the island’s mayor, did not seem to recognise the gravity of the situation. As further individuals were brought in for contributions, nevertheless, it was made clear that there would need to be in-depth study of the consequences of leaving the lake as it is and of the potential next steps. Experts have stated that all assigned values, namely ecological, cultural, economic and aesthetic, are threatened. Ecological value is at most risk given that there is a chain effect of changes in the water’s salinity and density, altering food sources which can have a great impact on entire food webs and the region’s biodiversity.
Whose Responsibility Is Protection?
Moreover, due to the nature of Natura 2000 designation and guidelines, it is up to the Member States involved to monitor and manage their protected areas; relevant reports are published every six years. As the most recent report appears to be from 2012, this does not bode well for the Alyki Salt Lake, giving a further two years at least before official evaluation of the situation is required. Nonetheless, local Environmental and Architectural Heritage Protection Group Anemoessa are doing their utmost to bring in professionals and government officials to evaluate the situation and guide the next steps for – literally – mending the hole that was created.
Further Thoughts on Heritage or Protected Status
While we wait for updates on the treatment of this site, this incident has got me thinking about what it means to be awarded heritage or protected status.
Although the story in itself highlights the necessity for constant monitoring and education, beyond the initial labelling, it is interesting to compare how and by whom sites are managed, and UNESCO World Heritage Sites come to mind. Should a site be altered or completely stripped of its qualities for which it was listed, it may be classified as endangered or be entirely delisted.
Would this be suitable treatment of the new bay that has been created in place of its Natura 2000 label? Or does removal of special status serve to further degrade an environment in need of protection?
Considering the delays and obstacles encountered in dealing with the practical side of solving the lake issue, I doubt such issues of theory and philosophy are currently a matter of concern to those involved…
Habitat protection, natural heritage, Natura 2000, ecological value, wetlands, salt lake, migratory birds, Alyki Salt Lake, Limnos, Greece, human intervention, World Heritage Sites
Alexia Karageorgis has an interest in exploring human relations to environmental issues. She graduated from the University of Oxford with a Geography BA, and after several nature conservation volunteering escapades, she decided to revert back to the student life. She is currently following the Science Communication and Public Engagement MSc at the University of Edinburgh while nurturing her new interest in British Sign Language.