The highest density of lagoons in Europe is situated along the 200 kilometres of coastline in Languedoc-Roussillon, southern France. These habitats are a priority for conservation under the Habitats Directive and are characterised by a high productivity and by a remarkable diversity in species of fauna and flora. Moreover, they act as important staging and wintering sites for migratory birds and are a favourite breeding habitat for other species including fish and invertebrates. Despite this, the lagoons are under enormous pressure, notably from tourism and other economic activities, as well as changing land use practices, which together are threatening to destroy the exceptional ecological value of the lagoons. In addition, pollution, resulting from high population densities in the surrounding area, is disrupting the complex ecological functioning of the area, including even its ability to self purify. .
This project had an overall global conservation goal of safeguarding the conservation interest of the whole network of coastal lagoons in the region. As well as site specific conservation actions, it would also oversee the development of a suite of management techniques integrating water and habitat management requirements as essential for the long term sustainable use and conservation of this resource.
The project’s aims would be achieved in two distinct but closely linked set of actions: (i) a series of regional wide measures; and (ii) a series of specific conservation actions at individual sites.
The regional wide measures would involve:
1. An ornithological survey - to provide an overview of the use of the whole complex by birds and to identify sites suitable for designation as SPAs.
2. Training and raising-awareness.
Site visits and training seminars would be targeted at local decision-makers and technical services to increase their understanding and competences. The wider public would also be targeted to increase their appreciation and support for the conservation of the lagoons.
3. Production of a technical manual for the integrated management of coastal lagoons.
The development of an easy-to-use and understand manual is an essential tool for the successful uptake of integrated water and habitat management practices.
Site specific conservation measures.
The project included a set of six site-specific sub-projects where a series of conservation actions would be focussed on the most remarkable conservation sites in the region. These are five coastal lagoons complexes (La Petite Camargue gardoise, L’étang de l’Or, Les étangs palavasiens, Les étangs de bages-Sigean, L’étang de Canet) and one associated floodplain, the Basses Plaines de l’Aude, which is one of the last strongholds in France for the lesser grey shrike (Lanius minor ) - listed in Annex 1 of the Birds Directive.
At each of the five coastal lagoon sites, the specific conservation measures would involve:
1. Scientific baseline survey and studies.
A series of preliminary scientific studies and surveys would be undertaken, as necessary, on the biological, hydrological and water quality aspects of the sites. These surveys would be used to develop management plans for each site and determine what action is required to maintain and restore the conservation interest, hydrological functions and water quality of the lagoons.
2. Site restoration work.
Restoration work, such as dredging, re-opening closed channels, closing drainage ditches, and work to benefit particular species or habitats would be undertaken, following the recommendations of the scientific baseline surveys and management plans.
At the Basses Plaines de l’Aude: lesser grey shrike (Lanius minor).
At this site, the main objective was to raise public awareness and support for the conservation the shrike.
Overall, the project achieved most of its objectives, in particular concerning the regional wide aims to raise awareness and involvement, and to produce an integrated management manual. Baseline studies and conservation actions were undertaken on the ground at the six sub-sites, although the extent and impact was variable between sites. The main project achievements are as follows:
. Regional measures
A very detailed survey was undertaken over all the sites, except one (Petite Camargue). As a result, habitat management work was recommended at three sites to protect existing nesting sites for terns, herons and waders and create new nest sites (étang de l’Or, étangs palavasiens, and Bages Sigean) In addition, a SPA was proposed.
Training and raising-awareness.
This involved a series of one-day combined training and awareness seminars for local representatives and their staff, and a study tour of similar conservation work in southern Spain. Technical staff were given a practical training day.
Actions targeting the general public involved the conception of a travelling exhibition, a poster, a promotional video and a leaflet, as well as the erection of standardised signs at the main sites.
Technical manual for integrated management of coastal lagoons.
A result of the co-operation between several organisations, this easy-to-use manual explains the management objectives to be considered (such as water, species, habitats, landowners and users, legal position, planning etc.) whenever undertaking any work in the coastal lagoons.
. Site specific measures:
- Petit Camargue Gardoise
Following preliminary studies on the hydrology and water quality/ salinity of several lagoons; the natural hydrology of two sites was restored by the installation and operation of sluices. This will also have had a positive impact on the biological interest of the sites.
- Étang de l’Or (Mauguio)
A series of biological studies on fish, benthic fauna, macrophytes and the impact of the non-native coypu Myocastor coypus were completed, as well as hydrological studies on the ground water, water pollution and salinity problems of the lagoon. Work was subsequently carried out on several dykes and channels to improve the hydrological function of the site and islets created to provide nesting sites for terns and other shorebirds.
- Étangs Palavasiens
A study of the current state of the cut-off lagoons was completed and a management plan devised for a series of saltpans. Work was subsequently carried out at one site to restore the hydrology of another area of saltpans, and habitat improvement work to create nesting islets for avocets Recurvirostra avosetta (Annex I, Birds Directive) and terns as well as protection measures for a breeding colony of little egrets (Egretta garzetta) - Annex I, Birds Directive.
- Étangs de Bages-Sigean
A series of biological studies on key species, fish and fishing was undertaken along with hydrological and water quality surveys. A management plan was prepared for key species and for three specific areas within the site. The LIFE funded studies were also used as part of the preparations to declare the site a Regional Natural Park (Parc Naturel Régional PNR). Hydrological restoration work was carried out (e.g. installing sluices, re-opening channels) and shorebird nesting sites improved.
- L’étang de Canet
A comprehensive study of the habitats, hydrology and physical condition of the lagoon was completed and a site management plan produced. 52 ha was subsequently purchased. Hydrologic work was completed to restore a connecting channel and habitat improvements carried out to benefit shorebirds.
- Basses Plaines de l’Aude
A mobile exhibition was created to raise awareness and support for conservation measures required to protect the lesser grey shrike (Lanius minor), in conjunction with a series of conferences and guided site visits.
Globally, the project was instrumental in developing a network among local actors and stakeholders concerned with the region’s coastal lagoons, at both regional and site specific level, and there is now general support for their conservation.