I watch the birds migrating in the sky across the Venetian lagoon. In the horizon the Dolomites are all blue, just like in Titian’s paintings or Cima da Conegliano’s. I simply find it moving. And surprised at myself, too, as this means my eyes enjoy turning my shoulders to an extraordinary city, Venice.

Vittore Carpaccio, La caccia in laguna, Getty Museum in Los Angeles

Vittore Carpaccio, Hunting in the lagoon, Getty Museum in Los Angeles

This story starts along the coast of the Caspian Sea, in 1971, by the city of Ramsar.

What has Ramsar to do with Venice and its lagoon?

Ramsar is a city in Iran by the Caspian Sea. In 1971 the Convention on Wetlands (http://www.ramsar.org), called the Ramsar Convention, agreed on the intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

Briefly it says, a wetland to be of interest must feature at least 20,000 birds and one species concentrating more than 1% of its birds in the same area.

How many birds do you think there can be in the Venetian lagoon? In its 550 square kilometres, there are 280,000. How many species does the Venetian lagoon feature that keep more than 1% here? Eight. And what kind of birds are they? Common species or easy to find? Not really! Special birds inhabit the lagoon and turn it into a unique environment.

marshy land at sunset in Venice

Marshy land at sunset in Venice, Burano island and its leaning bell-tower

So the lagoon of Venice is as interesting as Camargue in France or the Danube river delta. But the common perception is that it is not so relevant as Venice. The fame of Venice lets the lagoon slide on the background. Two precious equivalent treasures co-existing, sharing similar problems in terms of preservation and promotion. It could be a great combo, but the lagoon ends up receiving less attention than it should.

What is so special about the lagoon of Venice?

Lots. The lagoon of Venice is the largest wetland in Italy. On one side the Adriatic sea, on the other side the rivers meeting and conflicting. The result is a unique mosaic of canals, narrow meandering waterways, swamps and marshy land, sand banks.

Moreover, it features a great variety of environmental systems connected to the different levels of salt presence in the water.

You can find fish farms, areas where the fresh water prevails but the closer you get to the sea, the more brackish water ecosystems you find. The words “velme” and “barene” address wetland zones that respectively appear during the low tide or get partially flooded during the high tide… And when you move to the southern parts, along Pellestrina island and in the vicinity of Chioggia, the lagoon is very open like the sea.

Not many are aware that the uniqueness of this wetland is that of being open to the tides. You don’t find tides in the other Mediterranean wetland areas, such as in Camargue in France. You can only find this phenomenon in the Venetian lagoon and in those of Caorle, Bibione, Grado and Marano, north of Venice, or in the Gabes Gulf in Tunisia.

Birds walking around the mudflats in Venice

Birds walking around the mudflats in Venice

The Venetian lagoon, its birds, its fish farms and a note on hunting

The Venetian lagoon features 9,000 hectares used as fish farms out of a total of 55,000 hectares. In 1993 there used to be here in the winter, after the hunting season (which ends in January), 90,000 birds.  By 2012 the number had increased to 405,000 birds.

Noah's ark in the mosaics in St. Mark's church in Venice, Detail of the birds

Noah’s ark in the mosaics in St. Mark’s church in Venice, Detail of the birds

Jacopo Tintoretto, The creation, Accademia Gallery in Venice

Jacopo Tintoretto, The creation, Accademia Gallery in Venice

In the freezing temperature of the Venetian winter around 10-15 teams of experts paid by the Province of Venice move to the areas where birds spend their winter and count them. They use 8 boats, an airplane, they spend a total of 3 days per team, supported by the police and several people working in the hunters’ organisations. For 25 years this work has regularly gone on and the data available help us understand the status and the changes of our lagoon birds fauna.

The number of birds present in the lagoon in 2012 is therefore 800% higher than it was in 1993. An incredible diversity featuring birds connected to the tides, to the marshy land and to the sea. Ducks (mallards, teals, pintails, wigeons, shovelers), herons, seagulls, waders, shorebirds, even 4,000 flamingoes that would once migrate from Tunisia to France and then to Sardinia, now stably reside in the lagoon and its surrounding area. Or cormorants, reaching Venice from Poland, Sweden or Denmark.

Flamingoes in Venice

Flamingoes stationing in the shallow water of the Venetian lagoon

How can this be explained?

Such a skyrocketing number can only be explained with the human intervention.

Since 1979 the European laws protect birds and the effects are now visible. But it’s also because of the climate change. The average temperature is higher and some birds that used to leave the lagoon in the past and spend the winter somewhere warmer now stay in the lagoon.

And finally it’s the new management system of the fish farms that has brought to an increase of birds fauna. Since 1993 fish farms have invested a lot to help create the perfect environment for ducks which the law allows to hunt, feeding them, too. It has become almost a competition among the few owners of the fish farms to feature more ducks than others.

Is it all that glitters gold?

At the moment, one counts 1,500 hunters that between mid-September and mid-January are allowed to hunt in the lagoon under the strict control of the laws and of the fish farms management.

As each fish farm is forced by law to create a protected oasis, it’s here that hunting traditions get preserved. The single or double barrel hunting boats, the maintenance of shallow water that helps some species develop, the preservation of linguistic expressions and recipes. As a matter of fact, only the fish farms in the lagoon of Venice are still able to preserve the environment at its best.

The growth of the birds population in fact does not count as a method to evaluate the morphological state of the Venetian lagoon. And it sounds ironic that while the artificial fish farms preserve a balanced, natural environment of the lagoon, the open lagoon is in fact changing dramatically in the wrong direction. The wake provoked by motorboats eroding mudflats, the interventions to build the MOSE gates against the high water accelerating the tide speed and the deep channels for the passage of oil tankers and cruise ships in the lagoon threaten the uniqueness of the ecosystem.

Mudflats and islands in Venice

Turning eventually my eyes back to Venice then, I wonder if a simple step forward in understanding and appreciating the lagoon uniqueness were the creation of a museum about the lagoon and its environment. In the end, Venice would not exist and cannot be explained without its lagoon. So it’s something long due…

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
www.seevenice.it

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