Understanding our seas: from biodiversity to human impact. A look at Albania
To protect any ecosystem it is necessary to understand its complexities and how it may be affected by human activities. For Albania, with its many miles of coastline, collecting data and efficient planning is fundamental to the sustainable development of its own coast, as well as that of the whole of the Adriatic sub-region.
Albania has signed up to the Barcelona Convention, and is committed to achieving its 11 ecological objectives under IMAP (an Integrated Monitoring and Assessment Programme). To help achieve these, Albanian authorities within the GEF Adriatic project initiated the process that brings together multiple users of the sea to help make informed and coordinated decisions about how to use marine resources sustainably.
To inform this process, a marine survey has been carried out within the GEF Adriatic Project in the bay of Patok-Rodoni, a charming rocky area of about 90 square kilometres on the northern coast of Albania. This area was chosen because of its complex and contradictory character, its biodiversity and landscape, encompassing a protected area of about 50 square kilometres, its high impact human activities (fishing and tourism) and the inflow of two rivers, the Ismi and Mati.
The Marine Survey was undertaken in the field using a vessel equipped with analytical and scientific tools capable of collecting much needed first-hand information on the area’s biodiversity, pollution, and hydrography. Previous studies on marine habitats and data were limited, and so it was hoped that this marine survey would help fill in the gaps in the picture. In spite of several difficulties and delays, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and adverse weather conditions that made navigation difficult, the Marine Survey vessel finally set out on October 9th 2020 for a 20-day cruise.
The survey vessel returned on the 29th October with exciting results showing that millennia of distinctive environmental conditions had created a rich variety of species, populations and ecosystems, many with conservation value. What follows is an overview of the results from the survey.
Biodiversity, habitats, and non-indigenous species
The landscape of Patok-Rodoni bay, with its typically Mediterranean scrub vegetation, is dominated by Sea Fennel (Crithmum maritimum), an edible wild plant, and Saltmarsh Grass (Elymus pycnanthus). Salt marshes play a large role in the aquatic food web and the delivery of nutrients to coastal waters, whilst also providing coastal protection and support to terrestrial animals.
On the seabed, prevailing species are Green Algae (Ulvaceae) and Honeycomb Worms (Sabellaria alveolata), a reef-forming polychaete which builds tube reefs resembling a honeycomb made from sand and fossil sediments. However, the presence of two species of seagrasses were discontinuous: Little Neptune Grass (Cymodocea nodosa), an essential aquatic plant for the long-term health of marine environments and Mediterranean Tapeweed (Posidonia oceanica), an important biomarker of coastal marine water quality. The influx of freshwater and sediment coming in from the two rivers has resulted in variable salinity and low water transparency, which means that Mediterranean Tapeweed is present in patches and cannot form continuous and extensive meadows. According to this study, the state of conservation of Mediterranean Tapeweed at Cape Rodoni is not satisfactory, and further studies on its distribution are recommended.
Several pods of dolphins are present and were found to be stable. However, in the study area there is no evidence of sea turtles or sharks, although previous surveys have reported their presence.
There is a stable population of Cormorants, many of which feed around fishing sites and marine structures. The Cormorants also share the area with other species, including Shearwaters, a medium-sized seabird of the Procellariidae family, seen during the Survey.
Already noticed in other regions of Albania, there are two non-indigenous species present in the bay of Patok-Rodoni. One is a seaweed (Caulerpa cylindracea) native to Australia and first observed in the Mediterranean during the 1990s. This species of seaweed has spread extensively causing many ecological changes and, as such, is considered an invasive species. The other is the Blue Crab (Callinectes sapidus), an indigenous species on the Atlantic coasts of the American continent, which in recent years has also spread to Europe.
Water, land, and eutrophication
The Ismi and Mati rivers flow into Patok-Rodoni Bay, carrying with them organic and inorganic sediment. The presence of silt and mud is increasing and during the sampling period the water was murky. Analysis of water physicochemical parameters revealed a gradual increase in hypertrophy (detrimental excessive nutrient richness) in several areas. Bearing in mind that any aquatic environment modifies its ecological balance in response to changes over time, current analyses of depth (bathymetric data), transparency, temperature, tidal levels, and salinity do not reveal any particular anomalies at the moment.
Human impact: fisheries and contaminants
The survey revealed low levels of water pollution. Recorded values of PCBs (industrial products or contaminants) and heavy metals were very low or zero.
The seabed is essentially clean, and the concentration of micro-plastics in the water is about half that found in the Mediterranean. Most of the pollution present consists of waste from land-based activities along the coast. The marine investigation of the study sites showed a scarcity of specimens and species, probably due to intensive fishing activity. In fact, most of the marine fauna observed to be present belong to a shallow marine environment.
The marine survey highlights the beauty and value of the area. However results have also brought home the extent of its fragility. The bay of Patok-Rodoni is fascinating from an environmental and landscape point of view, but it appears to be heavily impacted by human activities. Clearly polluting substances or materials are not necessarily created directly on site. In the survey area, pollutants often come from inland or from coastal activities north of the surveyed area, transported by currents that appear to be predominantly from North to South. Most impact derives from the hypertrophic spill from the rivers (Drin, Mat and Ishmi) that flows along the coast, or occasionally into the two coastal lagoons (Tale and Patok) and becomes blocked in the south by the Rodoni Cape. Because of this, the area is currently being considered by national authorities for protection.
The overall picture of biodiversity and habitat in Albania is particularly complex, partly due to the nature of the area itself and the impacts upon it.
The results and full texts describing the marine survey activity are available for download.