World Wetlands Day – Restoring Prespa’s Wetland habitats

World Wetlands Day – Restoring Prespa’s Wetland habitats

Wetland & degradation

The wetlands of the Prespa basin have long been recognised as providing refuge to important biodiversity, while also playing a central role in the well-being of the local communities that have evolved around them over the centuries. Nonetheless, both lakes are not impervious to human-induced pressures, including climate change, which has been leading to increasing degradation of their wetlands in recent years. Long-term drought events, reduced precipitation and subsequent effects on water resources, and an evident water level decrease, especially in Great Prespa Lake, are just some of the effects of the climate crisis that are increasingly affecting the Prespa basin.

Effects of the climate crisis and the need for wetland restoration

The effects of climate change in the Prespa basin are particularly evident in the dynamic wetland ecosystems and may confer dramatic changes on the composition of wetland vegetation, the functions of wetlands and the ecosystem services they may provide, i.e., the benefits that humans derive from lakes and wetlands. As reedbeds expand and wet meadows shrink, fish spawning grounds may decrease, potentially affecting the fishery in the long term. As riparian belts of alder forests disappear, their role in erosion and flood control, nutrient removal from agricultural runoff or habitat creation decreases. As wetlands desiccate, amphibians lose their reproductive centres and we lose an important regulator of pests (mosquitos and other insects).

The need for wetland restoration is beyond imperative and needs to be prioritised on all sides of Prespa.

Addressing wetland degradation: mapping of shoreline wetland habitats

In an effort to address wetland degradation around both Prespa lakes, the PrespaNet organisations produced a transboundary map of shoreline wetland habitats. Based on the EU Habitats Directive guidelines, this transboundary mapping was completed in 2021 and revealed an extensive habitat mosaic, with 13 priority habitats of ecological value, 7 of which are shared by all three countries. In parallel, pressures and threats against their integrity and functions were recorded, particularly in light of reducing water levels and long-term droughts caused by the climate crisis.

Implementation of measures to counteract pressures

This first-ever record of the most important pressures and threats guided the formulation of appropriate restoration proposals, based on which the PrespaNet organisations can direct their actions around the wetland at the local level.

Within the Ezerani Nature Park, MES has pioneered the restoration of alder forests, an EU priority habitat, both nationally and at the transboundary level. So far, an area of 0.8 ha within the Nature Park has been restored through the planting of 1,000 seedlings, while at least 2,000 more seedlings have been produced in co-operation with the local nursery of the public enterprise “National Forests” in Asamati. Since 2021, MES has been monitoring the dynamics of shoreline habitats and the threats they face, focusing on a potential succession of wetlands to dry habitats and the expansion of agricultural land. Finally, MES has implemented pilot management activities over 10 hectares of wet meadows in Ezerani Nature Park, while related monitoring and research activities on their ecological function, particularly viz-a-viz lake water quality and water level reduction, will further support restoration activities.

The mapping of priority habitats in Prespa National Park, Albania, not only contributed to the identification of five priority habitats, but also determined their conservation status and threats. In order to address overgrazing, a significant threat in all four main villages along the lakeshore, PPNEA started to prepare a grazing management study during 2022, together with a team of experts. The study involved the installation of 14 experimental plots in all habitat types, in order to understand the impact of grazing on habitats and plant diversity. In support of this study, 42 questionnaires were conducted with livestock farmers from Prespa. The findings will help the protected area administration to carry out better management practices and promote the sustainable use of these habitats. The experience of the PrespaNet partners will also guide PPNEA’s efforts to restore a remnant alder stand in Lesser Prespa Lake, expected to additionally contribute to the control of nutrients and consequently water quality.

Building upon its long-term experience in the conservation of endemic fish populations and important breeding waterbird species through the restoration of wetlands, the SPP has recently expanded action to restore over 370 hectares of wet meadows and other littoral habitats at Lesser Prespa Lake. Restoration actions under the LIFE Prespa Waterbirds project (2016-2021) aimed to ameliorate the effects of low water levels in spring that leave spawning and feeding grounds dry and the rigorous expansion of reedbeds into wet meadow habitats, while addressing other effects of the climate crisis, such as reed fire expansion, through the creation of firebreaks around important waterbird colonies.

Since 2022, wetland restoration work in Greece has expanded within the watershed, to include important riparian and forest habitats, including alder forests, within the streams of the basin and along Great Prespa Lake. Towards this direction, the SPP has been implementing the “Prespa’s Green and Blue LifeLines” project, which aims to better understand and promote the functions and values of these ecosystems. Activities so far have included scientific data collection, tackling threats to streams and theiradjacent habitats, rehabilitating areas as spawning grounds for endemic fish, raising awareness and increasing community involvement.

Long-term benefits of restoration and conservation activities

The benefits of wetland restoration across the Prespa basin are having a wider reach, positively affecting the local communities in the transboundary area. Managing wet meadows and other littoral habitats can produce significant amounts of fodder or sustain grazing activities. At Lesser Prespa Lake, stockbreeders are actively involved in mowing operations and benefit from the collection of hay bales, while also supporting vegetation management by allowing their herds to graze in specified littoral areas. On the other side of the basin, hay produced through wet meadow management in Ezerani Nature Park has benefitted the area’s stockbreeding community and the reproductive centre for red deer in National Park “Galicica”, creating an almost ideal synergy of conservation actions in the wider Prespa area.

Restoration of alder forests is expected to benefit the local communities through flood and erosion control, but in the case of Ezerani Nature Park the action of raising seedlings through the support and involvement of local nurseries demonstrates that such activities can even provide jobs and improve livelihoods for the local population in the future. The role of local protected area authorities is key to supporting and organising activities, while collaboration is sought at all levels at various stages. The PrespaNet partners have been organising training activities for university students, young professionals and practitioners, as well as implementing environmental education activities for local schools and information events for the local communities. Since 2018, the PrespaNet partners and key protected area authorities in the Prespa basin have formulated a working group and have met annually to discuss progress, exchange information and promote joint actions related to wetland restoration.

The need to co-ordinate conservation efforts at the transboundary level in a shared lakes basin is one of the driving forces behind the PrespaNet network. PrespaNet is currently working with EuroNatur on the three-year ‘Prespa Project’, funded by the Prespa Ohrid Nature Trust and the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation.

The Society for the Protection of Prespa in Greece benefits from the support of the Donors Initiative For Mediterranean Freshwater Ecosystems (DIMFE), for current wetland restoration activities that are implemented under the “Prespa’s Green and Blue Lifelines” project.