Lagoon of Life. ©Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation
Atanasovsko Lake – a story of restoration and successful partnership
November 24, 2022
Atanasovsko Lake (Bulgaria) is a significant Ramsar and Natura 2000 site declared under the Birds and Habitats Directives. Known as the “Birds’ paradise”, it is the richest place for birds in Bulgaria with 334 species. It’s also an important biodiversity hot spot in the Black Sea biogeographical region and one of the four lakes of the Burgas Wetland Complex, which lies on the bird migration flyway via Pontica.
A symbiotic intersection between Man and Nature
What makes this site so special is the symbiotic intersection between the local population and nature that maintains the rich biodiversity there. If you have a chance to see it from above, a stunning palette of pink, blue and green colours will emerge. They are the result of the traditional salt production within the lake that started back in 1906 and is maintaining the complex and dynamic lagoon ecosystem.
The lake is divided into 170 smaller basins separated by 151 km of earth dykes, wooden barriers and small dykes, and around 50 km of internal salt channels among which the water circulates. It is the lowest point in the catchment area of 250km2 and the Bypass channel collects all the surface water flow from rainfall and snow melting, as well as waters from several small rivers with temporary flows, and discharge it into the sea.
Restoration of Atanasovsko Lake
In 2006 and 2010, a series of floods destroyed more than 30 km of dykes and barriers that were important for controlling the water regime and providing important nesting and roosting sites for endangered bird species within the lagoon. To solve these challenges, a six-year LIFE project, “The Salt of Life”, was conducted in 2012, to reduce the effects of further floods and improve the ecological processes in the lake.
The partners in the project (Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation, Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Black Sea Salinas company) restored vital infrastructure elements related to the salt production process and water management. The most important one is the 23 km Bypass channel that is an important part of the Atanasovsko Lake’s system, as it prevents the freshwater influx that can drastically change the fragile saline ecosystem.
Today, the restored channel brings all the freshwater inflow to the Black Sea and supports the maintenance of an almost constant water level inside the lake, even at the heaviest possible rainfalls. Eight illegal discharges of sewage water to the Bypass channel were identified during the preparation of the Repair plan for the Bypass channel and protection dyke, and later on they were detached.
Through this activity the whole area of habitat coastal lagoons 1150* (1,459 ha) has been protected from floods and nutrient-loaded water inflow mainly from the adjacent small rivers. The positive impact on the hydrological and hydrochemical conditions in the freshwater habitat of the Bypass channel was monitored by birds foraging in freshwater habitats such as Grey, Purple, Squacco, Night herons, and Little Egret.
Along with the Bypass channel, the protective dyke and the dyke road allowing quick access in cases of natural disasters and other accidents have been restored. To secure the preferred nesting and resting sites of bird species such as Avocet, Little and Sandwich terns, Kentish Plover, Black-winged Stilt, and others, 20 km of traditional salt production infrastructure (earth dykes, barriers and small dykes) were restored as well. These facilities resulted in sustaining the water regime and improved conditions for the phytoplankton, zooplankton, and zoobenthos.
Five artificial islands were constructed to provide additional and safe nesting and resting space for the birds in Atanasovsko Lake. More than 350 volunteers have been engaged in the construction and maintenance of these islands with a total area of 476 m2. This provided favourable conditions for the Common tern, which increased its numbers by 10 times since the start of the project and turned Atanasovsko Lake into the most important site for this species in Bulgaria. Along with this, the Gull-billed tern returned as a nesting bird to Bulgaria after 18 years of absence.
The conservation activities in the lake have great demonstration value in several main respects. First, they developed new experience and knowledge in direct wetland restoration, thus introducing a model for tackling a complex and important conservation problem. It has also provided a highly useful case study of large-scale restoration works in coastal areas suffering from the climate change effects.
Secondly, these actions supported environmentally friendly economic activities, i.e., traditional salt production, which contributes to the favourable conservation status of the habitats and provides sustainable income generation for the local community. This has been promoted as a good demonstration of the environmental, economic, and social benefits produced by the lagoon ecosystem.
Even though 46% of the habitat of coastal lagoons has reached favourable values for hydrological and hydrochemical parameters, in the SCI Atanasovsko Lake more than 50% of the habitat is drastically degraded. This is the result of the still ineffective water regime management facilities that don’t allow for adequate circulation of the seawater, despite the considerable investment in the repairs of dykes and barriers realised by the project. The new monitoring system we’ve established provides valuable background data that allows identifying the key ‘bottlenecks’ in the lagoon – the infrastructure elements that need to be repaired to secure hydraulic connections between the individual ponds and guarantee regular fluctuation of the water from the various salt pans.
Engaging with stakeholders is crucial to the success of any project
This is an inspiring example and model in Bulgaria for development of partnerships between environmental NGOs and private companies with shared benefits and a common vision for the long-term conservation of the coastal lagoon site. This partnership was expanded with the involvement of all important key stakeholders – entrepreneurs, local and national government policymakers, scientists, representatives of sector associations (of farmers, hunters, teachers), protected area managers and community leaders – through the development of a participatory management model of the Atanasovsko Lake Public Council. Such a complex area needs complex decisions. Through the years, the Council were developed and, recently, the participants created a common vision for the Atanasovsko Lake region by integrating nature conservation and urban planning. Working groups discussed the functions of the territory, the places of conflict, and the favorable activities from the point of view of the users.
An ecosystem-based management approach is being applied that considers the entire ecosystem of Atanasovsko Lake, including humans. Thus, the ecosystem is maintained in a healthy, productive and resilient condition benefiting citizens of Burgas and its tourists.
Today the Atanasovsko Lake is an attractive place for sports and recreation, for arts and inspiration, festivals and holidays. It is well known among the public, not only in the Burgas region and its citizens but also throughout the whole country and Europe.
For more information, watch those videos:
1- Salt of Life – a tale for Lake, salt, birds and people, a video created for the European Natura 2000 Awards ceremony.
2- Lagoon of LIFE
3- Atanasovsko Lake Water Cycle
©Vlatka D. Mazal