Saturday, September 06, 2008

Lagoa dos Salgados update September 2008

The following long-awaited update from Jose Tavares (RSPB) was released on 4th September. It was distributed via email as a Wordpad Document, so my apologies for the format - I am simply "copying & pasting" what I received.

Given the hints recently that there was going to be some "good news" I find the content very disappointing. There appears to be little or no progress on the conferal of SPA status on this site, and no mention of the discussions which have been taking place with Aguas Algarve about suppling the lagoon with water from the new ETAR (sewage treatment plant). I am left with the feeling that we are no further forward than we were twelve months or more ago.

The final part of the update requesting donations (of "several hundred pounds" per person!!) to raise £20,000 to fund a full-time officer seems rather an admission of defeat that with current RSPB/SPEA staffing they are unable to effectively win this campaign.

Lagoa dos Salgados – Situation Update (September 2008)

This briefing follows the one from last March, and aims to summarise the latest developments with the efforts being undertaken by Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves (SPEA – BirdLife in Portugal) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB – BirdLife in the UK) to secure the long-term conservation of the Lagoa dos Salgados, an unprotected Important Bird Area (IBA) in the Algarve Coast.

The last few months have witnessed a roller coaster of events and advocacy actions – unfortunately the wetland opened to the sea three times in the last few months (April, July and August), and almost every other week there were actions, news, and rumours on the efforts being undertaken to secure the legal protection of the site

Protection of the site as a Special Protected Area (SPA) under the Birds Directive

As you all know, the first and immediate objective of our advocacy campaign is to protect the Salgados wetland as a SPA. During the last few months both SPEA and the RSPB have been rather active to try to secure this designation - the first step, albeit a significant one, on the effective protection and management of the lagoon. Here is the chronology of events and actions that happened in the last few months:

During March-April, SPEA and RSPB staff heavily lobbied the Portuguese ministry of environment for the designation of the site as an SPA. Meetings were held, documents submitted, lots of emails exchanged. We finally secured from the deputy minister of environment a positive opinion, and indeed a request on these lines was sent from the ministry to ICNB (the statutory conservation agency) to start the process.
On the 14th of May a SPEA staff member guided one staff member from DG Environment (the EU Commission Environmental Directorate) around the site and lobbied for EU authorities to act. The DG Environment has written to the Portuguese government enquiring about progress with the designation of Salgados. SPEA and the RSPB have been providing information to DG Env. on Salgados for some time.
Later in July 10th SPEA Director and staff member attended a meeting in Lisboa with the European Commission’s director of the Division of Infringements and again the issue was raised. There was clear indication that the EC will increase their pressure on Portuguese government for a quick designation of a SPA.
Unexpectedly, in May technical staff from ICNB gave a negative opinion on the request from the ministry to designate the area as an SPA, because the site allegedly “did not fulfil SPA criteria or even the IBA criteria”. This is completely baseless, as Salgados is recognised as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International – therefore fulfilling SPA criteria. This technical reasoned opinion came at a time when ICNB appointed a new director (Eng. Tito Rosa), and he upheld his staff opinion.
When SPEA and the RSPB got to know this (end of May), we then moved to meet the new president of ICNB to explain our position and show him the site. A careful briefing was prepared (document in Portuguese available upon request), meetings were held in Lisbon (in June) with the new ICNB director, and eventually a visit to the site organized by SPEA (held on the 17 July). The briefing that was delivered included an update of the IBA Data Form and technical justification for the designation of a SPA. After these meetings and visit, the new director of ICNB confirmed to us he was convinced about the designation of the site as an SPA, and promised he would start the process.
This is the stage we are in – in the meantime Summer set in, so SPEA and the RSPB are now trying to ascertain progress. SPEA will start the writing of the Natura 2000 Data Form in order to assist ICNB and the Portuguese authorities in designating the site and speeding up the process.

Drainage of the wetland

In 2005 SPEA and the RSPB have produced a technical report suggesting that a proper water management system should be installed in Salgados - a sluice that would allow for any overflow into the sea but would maintain a critical amount of water within the marsh at all times. This is a perfectly tested and practical system that could solve most of the chronic water level problems (the water level periodically peaks up and floods the nearby Herdade dos Salgados golf course, built a few years ago at a low level). This report has been widely distributed among all Salgados stakeholders, and SPEA and the RSPB have many times insisted this would need to be installed to avert further water level problems, but to date no competent authority, government agency or organisation showed any interest to pay for its construction.

As a temporary measure, and to avoid the drainage of the wetland during the breeding season, a basic agreement had been made with CCDR-A (the land planning agency, who has competence about any operation to open the wetland to the sea), that allowed for regular drainages of the wetland when needed during the fall-winter, up until the end of March, but prohibited the opening of the lagoon to the sea during the critical spring months when waders and terns breed on the islands in the middle of the lagoon. During those few months, if the water level went up, the nearby Golf course should pump out any excess water with an electrical pump, rather than breach the sand bar and open the wetland to the sea. Last year (2007) this plan was upheld and things worked well.

Unfortunately in the last few months we recorded three openings of the lagoon during the critical breeding season, which had dramatic consequences for the breeding birds

first, on 12 April 2008, a bulldozer from the Salgados golf course opened the sand barrier, under a permit from CCDRA. SPEA and the RSPB acted immediately and stirred quite a lot of media attention, and this issue made the national news for a couple of days, and eventually culminated in a parliamentary question directed at the ministry of environment. Basically, there was a comedy of errors that unfortunately resulted in this event, which had dramatic consequences for the breeding birds. Here’s the chronology of events

Salgados wetland was indeed quite full in early April, and was starting to flood the greens of the Herdade dos Salgados golf, as it always does when the water level goes up, as this golf course is constructed at a lower level than it should be.
The golf course asked for a permit from CCDRA to open the wetland
The relevant staff member in CCDR was on holiday, and another staff member gave the permit without any consultation with other stakeholders.
The wetland was opened on the 12th April.
SPEA and the RSPB complained publicly about this gross negligence, that put in jeopardy the breeding season in Salgados (see enclosed press release, press release I). The media response was tremendous – the draining of Salgados made first page in Público (Portugal best daily – see enclosed file - Publico), and was featured in the main news on all TV channels, dozens of newspapers and websites. Most news items picked up SPEA’s press release and interviewed SPEA staff. The whole event was reported as “an environmental disaster”.
CCDR claimed this was natural and necessary, a “lesser evil”.
Opposition MPs questioned the government on the issue.
The Portuguese ministry of environment finally admitted there had been “a mistake”.
The wetland drained to the sea for several days, and became very dry (see enclosed photo – Lagoa vazia Abril 2008). In the meantime, local people were seen to drive cars on the dry lake bed (see enclosed photo Car Abril 2008), and some went to search for nests in the dry reedbeds.
Inspectors from the ministry have visited the site and took information with them to evaluate the possibility to open a file.
Finally, SPEA sent a file to the Portuguese chief justice office, following their contact, and their suggestion that there may be sufficient material to start a criminal case. In spite of several tries to see what progress has been made on this front, no news have been forwarded.

The only positive thing that came out of this tragedy was that Salgados jumped to the first page of the newspapers, and became a hot political issue.

Following this drainage, the water level recovered quickly due to the unusual wet spring (May was the wettest May on record in Portugal), and soon (end of May) the wetland was full again – in fact several egg clutches were lost due to flooding (see enclosed photo – Lagoa cheia May 2008). Inevitably, mosquitoes and stagnant water became a problem, so in early June visitors reported a tractor spraying insecticide around the margins of the lagoon. Some dead birds were also detected.

iii) Then, around the 25th June, the sand bar separating the wetland from the sea was again breached. This time, however, and following all the public outcry after the April opening, the culprits were much smarter and slicker in their actions
a. The sand bar was breached during the night
b. Two tractors were then working on the beach the day after, supposedly re-establishing the sand bar – the area was fenced off and all evidence quickly covered.
c. The authorities claimed that the wetland was opened by a chance by a “mini-tsunami”, a casual wave that opened the sand channel, and the tractors were immediately called to close the sand bar again.
d. SPEA put out another press release (see enclosed press release II), suggesting there was a cover-up, and the “mini-tsunami” happened during low tide and when the waves were weak. There was again extensive press coverage.

iv) Finally, on the 31st August the lagoon was opened again, when the water level of the wetland was again quite high, this time due to the discharges of the sewage treatment plant. This time the authorities claimed it was again a natural event, caused by the (real) peak tides at the time. However, this is unlikely, as in the last few years the sea hasn’t opened the lagoon, even during the worst winter storms. It is also suspicious that the wetland is always open when it is really full (therefore flooding the Salgados golf course), and only then.

So in short – a comedy of errors, cover-ups, excuses and ineptitude have caused the worst breeding season in years at Salgados – all this because no agency with legal competence on the site does want to commit to pay for the suggested water management system suggested more than 3 years ago by SPEA and the RSPB. We are tired of broken promises and no action, so we are now costing in detail the system, and will launch a public campaign to fund the it’s instalment. We hope that the generosity of the public will help overcome what officials, laws and competences have so far failed to provide.
3. Construction of the new tourism complex
After securing all the permits to build a new tourism complex and golf course on the west side of the wetland, the land owners (Finalgarve) are now preparing the financial package to allow for the development of their project in the Western shore of the lagoon. We have been told that construction will not start soon, certainly not earlier than 2009, possibly even after that.

4. Disturbance

Over the last few months several people have reported that disturbance at the site seems to be increasing – from walkers, joggers, horse riders, camper vans, quad-bikers, etc. This is no doubt partly due to the rampant expansion of the development on the eastern side of the lagoon, and the recent ease of access due to the construction of the bridge over the south end of the wetland. Also, it was reported to us that a flock of sheep and cows grazing on the west of the wetland often caused substantial disturbance during the breeding season. We have contacted the owners of the land, and were told that grazing is not allowed there, and that measures had been taken in the past against it, and that they would take again charge of the matter.

Last April SPEA sent a letter alerting to the problem of overflying small planes carrying commercial banners over the wetland. This letter was sent to all companies operating from the Aeródromo Municipal de Portimão, origin of most of the small aircraft that fly along the central Algarve coast (see and

In May Rui Eufrasia, SPEA’s local IBA caretaker, has approached a team of people who were flying ultra light parachutes over the lagoon, and informed them about the importance of the site.

I would like to encourage all members of the public that witness any disturbance episode or any illegal activity to report it to CCDR (CCDR Algarve (Ambiente e Ordenamento), Rua Dr. José Matos, 13, 8000-503 Faro, Telefone: +351 289 889 000), and in particular SEPNA – the environmental police (808200520).

5. RSPB sabbatical

In May, Aidan Lonergan, the Director of RSPB Northern Ireland, spent one month at Salgados as part of his RSPB sabbatical, mostly working on two issues

a) Development of a concept for the interpretation centre (target audiences, mains messages, types of exhibits, etc).

b) Fundraising for Salgados Meeting with several company owners and wealthy individuals, mostly British expatriates, who are very committed to Salgados, and discuss and implement with them fundraising plans and strategies to get some money for SPEA to continue with this campaign.

Aidan has met several of you. He is continuing to work on the issue, has made connections with Academics from UCC in Ireland who have agreed to provide the data from their field visits over many years and is currently working on getting more RSPB staff out to Salgados to help with the work.

6. SPEA events

On the 19th April SPEA organised a fieldtrip to Salgados, led by Rui Eufrasia (see details at

Following the success of last year’s event, SPEA organised again a DONA event (similar to the RSPB’s own Aren’t Bird Brilliant project) at the Praia Grande car park on the 16th-17th August, to show beachgoers the spectacular birds that use this wetland.

On the 13th September SPEA will again organise a fieldtrip to Lagoa dos Salgados (see for more details).

7. Articles on Salgados in the English press

Last April Len Port published another article on Salgados on three English language magazines widely distributed in the Algarve: Algarve Property, Algarve Goodlife and Algarve Golf Guide. This describes very well some of the issues we are facing in the moment. The article is enclosed (Len Port Salgados)

Last August an article on Salgados penned by Michael Benington was published in Birds Illustrated.

8. Birds

This year’s breeding season has been heavily affected by the April drainage of the wetland, and many nests have been lost. On the plus side, a colony of whiskered terns (6 pairs) attempted to breed in the wetland for the first time, but their efforts were hampered by the drainage of the wetland in late June. Five pairs of little terns also settled to breed in Salgados, but again failed. Two pairs of purple heron bred successfully though. The wader breeding success was also very low – only 3 or 4 pairs pf black-winged stilt fledged young (around 40 pairs last year), and no breeding avocets had any success this Spring (about 45 pairs bred there successfully last year). Ducks also suffered – shoveler did not breed there this year (there were 3 pairs in 2007), while only one pair of pochard raised young there this year (3-4 pairs in 2007).

In spite of all the draining events, birds still flocked to the wetland, and at times Salgados showed us all its splendour (see enclosed photo Birds Abril 2008)

In terms of rarities, a white winged black tern, a mute swan and a white-headed duck have been observed in May.

9. Save Salgados Fund – Donations required

In the last few months both SPEA and myself have been struggling with a problem of capacity – there is nobody who can work on Lagoa dos Salgados on a fulltime basis, not even on a half-time basis, despite the tremendous inputs and dedication of our IBA caretaker Rui Eufrásia. Capacity is indeed a crucial point in the speed of progress in this Salgados policy campaign – if only we had a full time staff member dealing with this issue, things would progress more swiftly. Both SPEA and the RSPB fully recognize this. However, in the real world, this is simply not possible – there are no resources in SPEA for this. The RSPB has actually increased its financial support to SPEA this year in view of the excellent work and results that SPEA is achieving, and the huge challenges that SPEA faces in-country. Given the scale, scope and timing of the multiple threats affecting most of the 93 Portuguese Important Bird Areas, our support is clearly not enough, and unfortunately SPEA’s (growing but small) membership or corporate fundraising hasn’t been able to provide the core budget they need.

We therefore are directly requesting you – friend of Salgados, regular visitor – for direct help.

We need £20,000 to secure a one year salary and expenses for a fulltime Salgados officer – see enclosed draft Terms of Reference specifications. Can you please provide any help to fulfil this? This is the time to act. Please donate – we need you to get a full time Salgados officer, and secure swifter progress – eventually to save this site from further destruction.

Please send your donation to the following SPEA bank account, and mark it “Salgados”. If each birdwatcher that regularly visits Salgados donated a few hundred pounds, we would reach the target soon.

Bank: Millennium BCP
Bank Address: Av. 5 de Outubro, 60-68 1050-059 Lisboa
Account Number: 260345382
Swift Code: BCOMPTPL
IBAN Code: PT 5000330026034538205

We have hold out until this late moment to ask you directly for money – we are now convinced this is the only way out to reach our objectives. It is your time to act - please donate generously. Also, if you have any fundraising idea, want to lead any fundraising activity or want to comment – please get in touch. I will keep you all posted on the level of donations – I am currently trying to set up as donations page on the Just Giving site.

I also emphasize that SPEA needs members to grow its constituency and strength – most of you are not members yet. Please consider joining – it is only 22 € a year! You can receive a bi-monthly email newsletter in English with the latest news (some on Salgados), as well as the membership magazine, a weekly bird observations digest, and many other news. Please find enclosed an English membership form.

10. Thanks

A word of acknowledgement and encouragement to all that have helped us in the last few months.

José Pedro Tavares
Country Programmes Officer for Portugal, Turkey and Greece
International Division
The Lodge
Bedfordshire SG19 2DL, UK

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