Wetlands are extremely rare in the Canary Islands and the Playa del Matorral marsh is one of the few which do occur. This coastal wetland is located in the southern part of Fuerteventura island, east of the Jandia Peninsula. Cut off from the sea by a sandspit, it covers a hundred hectares that are regularly inundated by seawater and occasionally by freshwater, when infrequent downpour episodes cause watercourse floodings. The site is covered by halophytic vegetation, and it is a stopover and staging point for migrating birds, particularly waders and shore-dwelling species. The Canary Islands government has designated it a priority site for conservation.
The development of tourism over the past decades contributed to degrading the conservation status of the site, which appeared pockmarked by rubbish dumps and mounds of debris. The building of infrastructures had disturbed and interrupted the natural hydrologic dynamics of the site, while visitors and their vehicles circulated inside the protected area without much restriction. These impacts were gradually leading to a change in the composition of the vegetation cover, and the site was losing its wetland features.
The aim of the project was to restore the ecological dynamics of the wetland, as the only way to ensure the preservation of this natural area and its habitats, and to maintain the quality of the site while keeping its attractive for the tourists visiting it. The regeneration measures planned included the restoration of the hydrological flows of fresh and saline water within the site, cleaning up the rubbish and debris, restricting access and re-establishing the original vegetation. A visitor centre near the site would also be fitted, holding information panels about the marsh and the species occurring there.
The project significantly succeeded in its objective of improving the conservation status of one of the most representative coastal salt marshes in the Canarian proposal of sites for the Natura 2000 network, despite a difficult starting scenario made up of a heavily disturbed area, surrounded by tourism facilities and in the way from these to a crowded beach. Although some rounding off of actions was pending after the deadline, the project had a major demonstration value at the regional and national levels as, unlike most Spanish projects, this one aimed at restoring a heavily disturbed area rather than at maintaining well preserved sites. The essential objective of restoring the morphology and dynamics of the target wetland was undertaken through:
- Removing artificial physical obstacles. The beneficiary carried out a massive work in which nearly 90.000 cubic metres of sand and rubble, accumulated along 3 decades of development of the nearby town, were dug out from the site. Also, 50 stone wind-stopper shelters were removed. The removal of these obstacles successfully restored the natural dynamics of the site, as they caused a barrier effect for its driving forces, the tides and the wind.
- Isolating the wetland from the man-made infrastructure. The inert materials extracted from the salt marsh were reused to build a 3-km longitudinal slope and seafront for the public, physically isolating the SCI from the road and other constructions. Fencing of the remaining perimeter of the site with ecologically friendly materials was completed after the project deadline, and the likelihood of trampling impacts in the marsh was critically reduced.
- Removal of dumps and rubble. 15 people were hired to fully remove the gross litter (inorganic and organic) accumulated from years in the site. This was an exhausting task that only left some small rubble deposits (stones, building materials, etc) in the middle of the marsh; these were not removed for this would have led to compacting the soil and destroying the natural vegetation.
- Removal of exotic/invasive plants.. In all, 200 palm trees were transplanted outside the SCI, and 200 tamarisks that were invading the southern area of the marsh were dug out. The result achieved was striking in terms of visual landscape, as the original open horizons of the site were recovered.
- Recovery of habitats and species. The recovery of the endemic flora and fauna, for which the actions foreseen were not tackled due to time constraints, developed through natural processes, which caused a conspicuous regeneration of the prevalent plant communities. A fast progress to natural wealth was recorded just after the physical restoration works finished.
- Regulation of public access to the wetland. Following the restoration of the site, 3 elevated wooden footbridges across the marsh were installed as the only access ways to the beach. Although accomplished after the project deadline, the action was undertaken as planned and has proved fully effective in preventing impacts from uncontrolled access to the marshland.
An important and effective work was done to raise awareness of stakeholders like hotels, tourism agents, and the local and floating population. Some businesses were directly affected by the works and had to move or stop operating temporarily, whilst the restriction of access to the beach bothered some others. Likewise, tree cutting in the marshland was not understood by sectors of the public. A Committee of potentially affected economic sectors was created to deal with the likely complaints, and the good information campaign favoured a general good acceptance of the project. Unfortunately, this good work could not consolidate with the installation of the site’s visitor centre that was committed, and this hindered the delivery of didactic materials by the LIFE instrument as foreseen. Likewise, the basic work for site management planning was done (i.e. scientific works, main management guidelines), but the procedures for amendment and adoption still had to be finished after the funding period.
The benefits for the Natura 2000 network were significant, as a site representative of the singular Macaronesian wetland habitats was enhanced. The project was critical for this site, as the marsh recovered its vanished natural dynamics, contour, landscape features and natural communities, stopping a negative trend towards the loss of the features that led to its designation as Natura 2000 site. Also, many migrating bird species listed in the Birds Directive will take benefit from this wealthy wet spot in a chiefly dry segment of their migration routes. As a consequence of the results of ecological restoration, the site was proposed and listed as a Ramsar site in the year 2001.
The high number of visitors to the area also allowed a wide dissemination scope to convey information about LIFE and Natura 2000 among the visitors, both through hand-outs and through notice boards placed around the salt marsh that were at easy reach for thousands of Europeans on holiday throughout the project period and afterwards.
Achievements with regard to awareness raising among the beneficiary and its government team were sound, and the project prompted a much more ambitious strategy to integrate the conservation and public use goals into Town planning. A 3-km seafront path by the salt marsh was created, a existing lighthouse within the marsh was restored as an elevated viewpoint, and a visitor centre much more ambitious than initially thought was built. The foundations for long-term site management suitable to the SCI objectives were thus laid down, but should be endorsed with the adoption of the site’s management plan.
Increased awareness by the beneficiary, who manages a municipality largely included in the Natura 2000 network, became also reflected in the reinforcement of resources (equipment, staff and funds) devoted to nature conservation, and in concluded agreements with 3 research institutions (Universities of Las Palmas and La Laguna and Estación Biológica de Doñana) for the scientific monitoring of the salt marsh and other protected areas in the municipality.
Other relevant administrations also improved their level of awareness and responsibility towards the SCI and. For example, the insular authority (Cabildo) shifted from initial reluctance to utter acceptance and even active involvement in the project actions and the promotion of project objectives.
This important trial to integrate the natural and conservation values of a small patch of nature placed within a heavily human-disturbed matrix has a major demonstration effect, as the operational and social difficulties posed by this kind of projects are quite different from others that are more frequent in Southern Europe and are typically carried out in more “natural” environments. Also, the difficult working framework in coastal environments due to the competencies relying on 4 different authorities: local, insular (Cabildo), regional and national (coastal authority) caused several problems and delays that could show the path for avoiding such trouble when planning conservation projects in coastal environments.
The project prompted the creation of 2 full-time jobs: a warden hired for surveillance of the protected areas of the municipality, and one administrative position hired for the project became permanent staff of the Town Council. Moreover, the 15 people that were hired for cleaning the salt marsh were kept as a cleaning-patrol of the municipality.