Ramsar Advisory Missions: No. 43, Ebro Delta, Catalonia Spain (2000) -- English summary


Lamentablemente, no hay versión en español de este documento

(full report in Spanish)

Special attention is given to assisting member States in the management and conservation of listed sites whose ecological character is threatened. This is carried out through the Ramsar Advisory Mission, a technical assistance mechanism formally adopted by Recommendation 4.7 of the 1990 Conference of the Parties. (The Ramsar Advisory Mission mechanism was formerly known as the Monitoring Procedure and the Management Guidance Procedure.)   The main objective of this mechanism is to provide assistance to developed and developing countries alike in solving the problems or threats that make inclusion in the Montreux Record necessary.

 Ramsar Advisory Mission to the Ebro Delta, Catalonia (Spain)

18-22 September 2000

English language summary

Note: On 6 September 2001 the Spanish Ministry of the Environment informed the Ramsar Bureau with regard to the final report of this Ramsar Advisory Mission that the final approved version of the National Hydrological Plan foresees the elaboration of an Integrated Development Plan for the Ebro Delta within one year. It was also decided that the approved version of the National Hydrological Plan should be submitted to a Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment in its entirety. The Ministry wishes to communicate this more recent information on developments that were not foreseen during the period of elaboration of this RAM report. These developments are, however, in the spirit of some of the Recommendations of the RAM. The Ministry wishes also to indicate that the RAM was positive and enriching, and it conveys its gratitude to the Ramsar Bureau and all the participating agencies and experts for their cooperation.


1. The Convention on Wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971. Its mission is the conservation and wise use of wetlands by national action and international cooperation as a means to achieve sustainable development throughout the world.

2. On 31 December 2000, the Convention had 123 Contracting Parties. They committed themselves to designate at least one site that meets the criteria for inclusion in the List of Wetlands of International Importance. Listed sites do not necessarily require protected area status, provided their ecological character is maintained through a wise use management approach. The List contains so far 1045 Ramsar Sites covering nearly 80 million hectares.

3. Spain ratified the Convention on Wetlands in 1982. Currently, Spain has designated 38 Ramsar Sites, covering together an area of 158,288 ha. Spain developed important tools to implement the obligations of the Convention, notably the "Spanish Strategic Plan for the Conservation and Wise Use of Wetlands", adopted by the National Commission for Nature Protection on 19 October 1999. In November 2002, Spain will host the 8th Meeting of the Conference of the Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention.

4. Furthermore, Spain is an active member of Ramsar’s Mediterranean Wetlands Committee (MedWet/Com). The 2nd meeting of MedWet/Com was held in Valencia in early 1999. SEHUMED, the University of Valencia-based "Seat for the Study of Mediterranean Wetlands" is part of the MedWet Coordination Team.

5. The Ramsar Site "Ebro Delta" was included by Spain on the Ramsar List on 26 March 1993, as the 593th site at global level. The delta area of the river Ebro covers 33,000 ha (situated at 40°43’N/00°44’E). The Ramsar Site covers only 7,736 ha, essentially natural parts of the Delta along the coastline, coinciding with the area of the Nature Park and the Special Protection Area (designated according to the European Union Birds Directive 79/409/EEC).

The Ramsar Advisory Mission

6. The Ramsar Convention gives special attention to assisting Contracting Parties in the management and conservation of listed sites whose ecological character is threatened. This is carried out through the Ramsar Advisory Missions (RAMs), a technical assistance mechanism formally adopted by Recommendation 4.7 of the 1990 Conference of the Parties (formerly known as the Monitoring Procedure and the Management Guidance Procedure). The main objective of this mechanism is to provide assistance to countries in solving the problems at particular Ramsar Sites related to the maintenance of their ecological character.

7. On 20 July 1999, the Secretary General of the Convention wrote to the Director General for Nature Conservation of the Ministry of Environment, the Spanish Administrative Authority in charge of the implementation of the Ramsar Convention, expressing his concern about some issues raised by Spanish NGOs in relation to the conservation status of the Ebro Delta. On 13 October 1999, the General Director for the Environment of the Department of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries of the Catalonian Government responded to the Secretary General, expressing his opinion on the issues and inviting the Ramsar Bureau to visit the Ebro Delta with those experts necessary to appraise the situation on-the-spot.

8. This invitation was transmitted to the authorities in Madrid, which, after consultations with the Generalitat de Catalunya, agreed that the Ramsar Bureau should organize a RAM to the Ebro Delta.

9. The RAM to the Ebro Delta included as Ramsar experts Dr Tobias Salathé, the Regional Coordinator for Europe at the Ramsar Bureau, Dr Patrick Dugan, a private consultant who has been for many years responsible for wetland issues at the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and Dr María José Viñals Blasco of the Polytechnic University of Valencia and SEHUMED. Dr Magdalena Bernúes of the General Directorate for Nature Conservation of the Spanish Ministry of Environment, and Mr. Pere Llopart of the Provincial Delegation in Tarragona of the Department of the Environment of the Catalonian Government represented the national and regional authorities.

10. The issues to be considered by the Ramsar Advisory Mission included a number of themes, ranging from aspects of water management in the Ebro river catchment to specific questions related to particular sites or species:

  • water management in the Ebro river catchment basin;
  • functional aspects of the Ebro Delta marine, coastal and terretrial ecosystem;
  • management of protected areas inside the Delta area and its surroundings;
  • management problems of specific sites;
  • conservation problems of particular bird species;
  • other specific problems (lead shot, aquaculture development, etc.).

The Ebro Delta

11. The Ebro Delta includes an area of 330 km2 of the Ebro river basin catchment covering 88,835 km2. About 50,000 people live in the area, of which 15,000 live inside the Delta and the rest on its inland edge. About 45% of the Delta area lies below 50 cm above sea level. Agricultural and urbanised zones occupy about 80% of the Delta area. Rice, the main culture, covers 21,000 ha or 65% of the Delta area. Natural areas remain on 20% of the Delta area, mainly along the coast, composed of sandy beaches; lagoons; fresh water, brackish and salt marshes; reedbeds; and associated coastal wetland habitats.

12. The Delta is known for its high biodiversity. It is of international importance for 8 plant and 69 vertebrate species, mainly birds. The Delta ecosystem performs water purifying functions and represents one of the most productive ecosystems in the wider area.

13. In 1986, the Ebro Delta Nature Park (7,736 ha) was established by the Catalonian Government. The adoption of the Plan for Natural Sites of Specific Interest (PEIN), in 1992, increased the protected area to 11,530 ha. This combined area (Nature Park and PEIN) was proposed by the Catalonian Government as a Site of Community Importance (LIC) for inclusion in the network of protected areas "Natura 2000" of the European Union (according to the Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC). It features 18 natural habitat types of Community interest, including two priority habitats: coastal lagoons and calcareous fens.

Analysis of the existing situation

Management of protected areas in the Delta

14. Protected areas. Despite the fact that the extent of protected areas has been increasing slowly since the establishment of the Nature Park in 1986, to date, an important number of natural habitats of conservation interest still do not have any legal protection status.

15. Land ownership. Land-use management for conservation is hampered by the fact that most of the land is privately owned. The Ramsar Mission acknowledges the success of the land aquisition strategy by the Nature Park and encourages the authorities to continue along this line.

16. Economic activities. It is suggested that the Park supports the continuation of those economic activities that are beneficial for biodiversity. It is, however, noted that economic activities can easily have negative effects that need to be evaluated through Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). The administrative authorities should monitor the correct and adequate application of such procedures, and make sure that the relevant ecological values are maintained.

17. Water in the Nature Park. Water resources in the Delta area have been managed through human intervention since ancient times. Two Irrigation Unions exist, for each side of the Ebro river. According to an agreement of 1995, the Ebro Confederation provides water for the wetlands in the Nature Park, situated downstream of the irrigated agricultural area, for free. The current water management situation is considered satisfactory by the Park.

Problems at specific sites

18. Shoreline erosion prevention measures for the Ebro are undertaken by the Park at different localities where the lack of river sediments and intensive wave action by motor boat movements eroded the shoreline and created flood risks for the hinterland. Geo-textiles and natural materials are used. It is hoped that these measures by the Park and the General Directorate for Coasts will be efficient.

19. The construction of a fishing port plus a mooring place for tourist boats is planned on the left river bank, close to the town of Deltebre. In June 2000, an EIA concluded that the project would not create inacceptable environmental impacts at this site and would diminish car traffic further downstream, close to the Nature Park. It is hoped that new official mooring installations will reduce current environmental impacts by unregulated mooring taking place in the Nature Park area.

20. The Marismas de Riumar-Zona de Niño Perdido area consists of private land, classified as urban zone. Little has been built over, and most of the area is covered by saltmarsh and dune vegetation of biodiversity interest. The authorities need to clarify the multiple land ownerships before launching a possible expropriation programme.

21. The planned marina de Sant Jaume lies outside of the Park and the PEIN. The EIA of the port, planned for 500 boats, concluded that the project should be reduced to 100 mooring places. Still, the marina may create increased boat traffic on the Ebro and have negative impacts on the ecosystems inside the Park. Boat traffic needs therefore to be regulated.

22. The Camping Eucaliptus was installed on Public Maritime Territory, which is illegal. It was recently relocated to an adjacent area inland. However, the area selected for relocation has recently been included in the PEIN and proposed Site of Community Importance (LIC). The EIA concluded that the installation of the camping at the new site creates moderate environmental impacts, as the site is part of an extensive saltmarsh of importance for species listed in the EU Directive 79/409/CEE on wild birds.

23. Erms de La Tancada is an area adjacent to the new camp site location but lies outside of the Park territory and is only marginally covered by the PEIN. In the Delta Master Plan this zone is foreseen for low intensity tourist infrastructure development. Notwithstanding, the area currently features abandoned rice paddies that are of biodiversity interest.

24. Acuadelt is a private aquaculture farm inside the Nature Park, next to the Sant Antoni saltworks. Environmental organisations are concerned about increased periods of drying out of the former salt pans. Recently, a pipeline was constructed through Park territory to pump sea water into the aquaculture basins with the Park’s consent, and with only minor environmental impacts. Plans exist to extend the aquaculture installations to nearby areas of biodiversity interest.

25. The saltworks of La Trinitat de la Punta de la Banya are exploited by the firm Infosa. After storms in early 1999, Infosa undertook emergency dike repairs before the required EIA was completed. This caused, possibly in conjunction with other factors, a serious disruption to the breeding of waterbirds. Since, the EIA was finished and the situation returned to normal in 2000.

26. Barra del Trabucador is a narrow land spit connecting the Delta with the Punta de la Banya Nature Reserve. The General Directorate for Coasts is currently creating artificial dunes to counteract land erosion and overwash phenomena, removing old structures and debris, and restricting access to the area by motor vehicles.

27. Las Ullals de Baltasar are isolated artesian freshwater springs in the interior part of the Delta. They represent priority habitats according to the EU Habitats Directive and were suffering much from water pollution through agricultural run-offs from the surrounding lands. Since these lands benefit from EU Agri-Environmental Measures (Regulation CEE N° 2278/92), prohibiting the use of agro-chemicals, the water quality of the springs has substantively improved.

28. The Ullal Panxa freshwater springs are not included in the Nature Park nor in the PEIN (whereas Ullals de Baltasar are). A peat extraction concession exists for one part, while the other part of the land is managed by an environmental NGO (Fundación Natura). The Nature Park intends to buy the land and to include it in its territory.

29. An aquaculture proposal for the area SW of Illa Buda was submitted by the firm Incasol that bought this land in 1999. The Park is opposed to this development, even though the area is outside of the Park and PEIN. Currently an EIA is under way.

Ecological issues affecting the Delta

30. Water management in the coastal bays. The two marine bays at either side of the Delta represent ecosystems where freshwater (ecologically important inflows of rice culture run-offs), brackish and salt waters mix. They are of great biodiversity and socio-economic importance (fisheries and mussel cultures). Experts of the Research Institute for Agro-Alimentary Techniques (IRTA, located in the Delta) assured the mission that, based on their regular monitoring data, the current inflows of eutrophicated or polluted waters are well within the purifying capacity of the complex hydrological ecosystem.

31. Coastal dynamics: lack of sediments and subsidence. Experts of the Coastal Engineering Laboratory of the Polytechnical University of Catalonia confirmed that sediment loads of river Ebro have decreased by 95% since the installation of the regulatory dams upstream at Mequinenza and Ribarroja. The current phenomena of coastal erosion and subsidence (due to soil compaction) are likely to increase and may be reinforced by sea-level rise in the medium term. Therefore, it is suggested that the authorities should consider possible long-term solutions for the conservation of the coastal biodiversity of the DDelta area.

32. Various forms of land-use exist in the Delta: the traditional agriculture, hunting, fishing and aquaculture, and recent additions of urban settlements and tourism. Irrigated rice culture is dominant and of importance to the Delta ecosystem via its additional freshwater input. Long-term solutions are needed, in the form of non-polluting and economically viable methods of rice cultivation. Demonstration projects are under way, e.g. the European Union-funded LIFE project of BirdLife Spain (SEO).

33. Coastal fisheries, based on four ports in the wider Delta area, have been declining and depend much on the evolution of European and international fisheries. Aquaculture farming in the coastal bays was developed twenty years ago. It has now an equally uncertain economic future, depending on the development of the Common Fisheries Policy.

34. Hunting of mainly waterbirds is a long-established activity in the Delta. With the creation of the Nature Park, no-hunting areas were established, and hunting activities are regulated in other parts. At national level, a Royal Decree is currently in preparation to ban the use of lead shot, at least in specific wetland areas.

35. Urban and tourist developments are guided by two major planning documents: the Ebro Delta Master Plan of 1996 and the Partial Territorial Plan for the Ebro Region of 1995, still to be formally adopted by the Catalonian Government. The Ramsar mission considers that the Ebro Delta has a unique natural heritage that merits the elaboration of specific planning instruments regulating public uses of protected areas. Current tourist pressure is comparatively low and has not yet created major damaging impacts. However, a development plan for ecologically responsible tourism should be elaborated, including analyses of the ecosystem carrying capacity and of ways to assure the active participation of local populations.

36. Water management in the Ebro catchment. The pre-project of the National Hydrological Plan (PHN) was published on 5 September 2000. Especially the proposed inter-basin water transfers from the Ebro catchment created many reactions by local stakeholders. Such transfers may have significant ecological impacts in the Delta area, notably further reducing river sediment loads, creating marine water intrusions, reducing the minimum river flows, and its navigability.

37. Conservation problems of particular bird species were presented to the mission. While in most cases bird populations seem to be stable or increasing, no data were available on breeding pratincoles. It was suggested that a coordinated monitoring programme for bird populations should be established and its results made public at regular intervals.

Summary of general conclusions

38. Environmental Impact Assessments are legally required for all projects affecting the Nature Park and the PEIN area. EIAs were carried out in most cases. The authorities provided explanations as to why they were not carried out in some occasions.

39. The Ramsar Mission considers that the EIA procedure is essential for the conservation of natural ecosystems and functions as an independent assessment of environmental claims by stakeholders and national and international NGOs. EIAs should therefore be undertaken on all occasions where impacts on protected areas and to the Delta ecosystem as a whole are possible, not only for projects, but also for planning procedures, such as e.g. the Delta Master Plan.

40. Boundaries of protected areas are an important conservation management tool. During the mission, it was not always clear where the correct boundaries of the Nature Park or the PEIN area are. The mission suggests that the Park elaborates a map showing the exact boundaries of the different protected areas (Nature Park, Partial Nature Reserves, Ramsar Site, PEIN, LIC). This needs to be updated whenever necessary and should be made public to serve as a useful management and visitor guidance tool.

41. Public participation is needed for the management of protected sites that are surrounded by densely populated and intensively used areas. The mission suggests that the bad relations between the authorities and the environmental NGOs be improved in the partners’ interest. The ultimate conservation objectives are shared by both the Park authorities and the NGOs. Thus, a climate of mutual understanding and trust needs to be reinstored urgently.

Summary of the recommendations

During the Ramsar Advisory Mission different issues were discussed (cf. above) that lead to the following concrete recommendations:

Management of protected areas in the Delta

Recommendation 1. To elaborate an official Strategic Management Plan that establishes medium and long-term conservation and sustainable use objectives for the entire Delta area. This Strategic Plan should also list the costs of attaining these objectives, in order that they can be integrated in the annual budgets of the public authorities.

Recommendation 2. To identify all areas of ecological interest without legal protection status, and to integrate them, as far as possible, into existing protected areas. To take precautionary measures to avoid any degradation of these areas, especially of those that have not yet a protection status.

Recommendation 3. To undertake the necessary studies to predict medium and long term geomorphological and hydrodynamic changes in the Delta region and to take them into account when planning for long-term conservation of wetland values and functions. Site managers need to remain flexible and to adapt their interventions for biodiversity conservation according to such changes.

Recommendation 4. To increase public participation in the management of the protected areas in the Delta. Helpful guidelines to this end can be found in Ramsar Handbook N° 5 on Establishing and strengthening local communities’ and indigenous people’s participation in the management of wetlands. In the first instance, it is recommended to reinforce the role of the Board of the Nature Park of the Ebro Delta to make it more operational.

Problems at specific sites

Recommendation 5. To establish a monitoring programme for specific biodiversity indicators in protected areas, beyond the classical ornithological indicators.

Recommendation 6. To undertake restoration activities where necessary, especially on public lands and in areas where human impacts are reduced or have ceased.

Recommendation 7. To carry out an information and awareness campaign addressed to the population in the Delta and beyond, with the aim to reaffirm the credibility of the Nature Park and its management activities, as well as to convey ownership and pride about the Ebro Delta natural heritage to the local communities.

Recommendation 8. To establish new contacts and increase existing cooperation, including possible twinning, with scientists and managers of other delta ecosystems in general and their protected areas in particular that are experiencing similar management problems, in order to exchange information, experience and know-how.

Recommendation 9. To increase the exchange of information and experience through specific seminars about the Ebro Delta and its values at national and international scientific and technical meetings.

Ecological issues affecting the Delta

Recommendation 10. To develop further the guidelines for the implementation of agri-environmental measures as a way forward for environmentally sustainable forms of agriculture in the Delta region.

Recommendation 11. To continue and to develop further the cooperation between the Nature Park and other government agencies with responsibilities in the Delta, such as the promising cooperation with the General Directorate for Coasts.

Recommendation 12. To include an Ecotourism Development Plan in the Strategic Management Plan proposed in Recommendation No. 1.

Water management in the Ebro catchment

Recommendation 13. To make sure that the guidelines of Ramsar Handbook N° 4 on Integrating wetland conservation and wise use into river basin management are taken into account by the Ebro river management authorities.

Recommendation 14. To request that the proposed National Hydrological Plan be submitted to an external EIA in its entirety. Specific projects emanating from the NHP should also be submitted to EIAs.

Recommendation 15. To undertake the necessary steps to guarantee the long-term provision of free-of-charge water for the current and potential conservation needs of the Delta.

Recommednation 16. To encourage the rapid construction of missing waste water treatment stations in order to increase the river Ebro water quality downstream.

Other problems

Recommendation 17. To launch a long term programme to monitor and manage bird populations in the Delta area, with particular emphasis on Glareola pratincola, and to make the data available to all interested parties.

Recommendation 18. To prepare hunting regulations and to include them in the proposed Strategic Management Plan.

Recommendation 19. To follow the development of aquaculture activities and their impact on the marine bays.

Recommendation 20. To prepare official cartography showing the exact boundaries of the protected areas in the Delta and to ensure that the commercial maps reflect these official delimitations.

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