[This 63-page illustrated report in Italian and English, commissioned by the Provincia di Venezia and authored by Mike Smart and Maria José Viñals, was launched on 14 April 2004 -- see a brief report by Tobias Salathé here -- and this is a reprint of the English-language portion. The excellent illustrations in the printed edition are not available here.]]
Since 1993, a series of studies sponsored by Italy's National Institute for Wildlife (I.N.F.S.) and by the Province of Venice has drawn attention to the crucial role of the Lagoon of Venice for the life of aquatic birds in Europe. The Lagoon of Venice is, in fact, the largest wetland in Italy and one of the most important coastal ecosystems in the whole Mediterranean basin. In terms of its complexity and richness, it can be compared to other areas already recognised by the international community, such as the Camargue, the Danube Delta, the Po Delta and the Gulf of Gabès.
If we also consider the extraordinary historical and artistic heritage within the lagoon, together with the many economic and utilisation activities that take place in the Venice area, it becomes clear that an effective strategy for a integrated and comprehensive management of the Lagoon of Venice is urgent and necessary.
Following the recognition of the naturalistic and environmental importance of the Lagoon, the Province of Venice, with deliberation G.P. no. 7101/114 of 03.03.1998, approved a "Proposal for the recognition of the Lagoon of Venice as a Ramsar site", deciding at the same time to promote all appropriate actions to have the lagoon ecosystem recognised by Ramsar designation.
The workshops of 9 April 1999, "Towards integrated management of the Lagoon of Venice", and of 9 May 2003, "Ramsar meets Venice: for a sustainable management of environmental riches", have been decisive stages of the process. At these meetings, the representatives of the local Municipalities concerned expressed a large measure of agreement on the proposal advanced by the Province of Venice. In particular, the Municipality of Venice, with deliberation of the Municipal Council no. 57 of 21.05.2001, formally supported the proposal for the designation of the Lagoon of Venice as a wetland of international importance.
The Province of Venice commissioned Dr. Maria Jose Viñals Blasco of the University of Valencia (Spain) and Dr. Michael Smart (Gloucester, Great Britain), for many years Director of the Ramsar Convention Bureau, to develop viable guidelines for a future management plan of the Lagoon of Venice under the Ramsar Convention.
The aim of this publication, which presents the results of the work of these two international experts, is to offer general points for further reflection and to be a valuable contribution to the recognition of "wise" policies. It is addressed to all the public bodies and private actors involved, at different levels and with different roles, in the management and conservation of such a precious natural treasure as the Lagoon of Venice.
IL PRESIDENTE PROVINCIA DI VENEZIA Luigino Busatto
LAsSESSORA ALLA CACCIA, PESCA E POLIZIA PROVINCIALE Delia Murer
The Ramsar Convention Bureau congratulates the Provincia di Venezia for its recognition of the Venice Lagoon as a unique system that fulfils crucial functions for the City of Venice and its people. The natural lagoon ecosystem is of importance for the inhabitants of a wide area in its surroundings and it represents a unique asset for the Veneto Region. The open process launched by the Provincia di Venezia to reflect further on how best to conserve the natural and cultural values of the Venice Lagoon promises to become a very fruitful one. The two external experts, commissioned by the Provincia di Venezia, have produced a useful summary report that provides stakeholders at municipal, provincial, regional and national level with key elements to decide on the best way forward. We firmly believe that the unique ecosystem of the Venice Lagoon merits coordinated efforts at all levels for its sustainable management and conservation. It would indeed be a great distinction for the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), to have the Venice Lagoon included in its "List of Wetlands of International Importance" by the Republic of Italy. A distinction that would reflect honourably on all those who contributed to this result at local, provincial and regional level.
REGIONAL COORDINATOR FOR EUROPE
CONVENTION ON WETLANDS (RAMSAR, IRAN, 1971)
The Lagoon of Venice as a Ramsar site
Maria José Viñals and Michael Smart
The French philosopher, Montesquieu, in his "Lettres persanes" asked "How is it possible to be a Persian?" By which he meant: "How is it possible for people to live like the Persians, who have such a different outlook to the rest of the world, though this attitude is absolutely natural for the Persians themselves?"
All those who do not have the good fortune to be Venetians ask themselves the question "How is it possible to be a Venetian?" How is it possible to live in this city surrounded by, and dependent on, water, when the rest of the world lives on terrafirma? How is it possible to live in a city with such a rich cultural history, a living museum, whose architecture is so strongly influenced by east and west? How is it possible to live in a modern city, where couriers like DHL and Fedex deliver their urgent parcels by boat, but which nevertheless remains intimately linked to its own traditional lifestyle, its transport, its cooking, its recipes, its houses, its masks and its music.
To which the answer must be: because of the Lagoon. Venice is inconceivable without its Lagoon, it would not, could not, exist without its Lagoon. So if this unique cultural, social model is to survive, its environmental heritage must be preserved, maintained and managed just as carefully as its cultural heritage.
Much has of course been done in recent years to achieve this aim, notably the series of national laws relating to the conservation of Venice which have been passed since the 1970s. Most attention has been devoted to the City; there is general concern throughout the world at the situation in Venice, but among ecologists, as indeed among local people who live and work in and around the Lagoon, there has been concern at the degradation of natural conditions within the Lagoon, and the opinion has been expressed that "the Lagoon is dying".
The present paper therefore seeks to set out just why the Lagoon of Venice needs to be given equal importance with the historic City, and why its conservation needs to be approached in an integrated manner, as promoted by the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
2. The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
The Ramsar Convention is one of the first of the modern intergovernmental treaties dealing with conservation of biological diversity, and the only one dealing with a specific habitat, wetlands. Its text was agreed at the Iranian city of Ramsar on the Caspian Sea in 1971, and adopts a very broad definition of wetlands, including lakes and marshes, rivers and coastal areas, water that is flowing or static, salt or fresh. The two principal undertakings accepted by governments which join the Convention are: firstly, to designate at least one wetland of international importance for the "List of wetlands of international importance"; and secondly, to make "wise use" of all wetlands in their territory, whether or not they are included in the List. So far over 130 states have joined the Convention and have designated more than 1,000 wetlands for the List; many have developed national wetland plans to ensure this "wise use" of their wetlands. The Ramsar Bureau (or secretariat) is hosted by the headquarters of IUCN at Gland, Switzerland.
The Depositary of the Ramsar Convention is UNESCO, a UN body with which the Ramsar Secretariat co-operates extremely closely. "Venice and its Lagoon" has already been recognised in 1987 as part of the patrimony of humanity under the World Heritage Convention, administered by UNESCO, though most attention has so far been devoted to the cultural rather than the natural values of the World Heritage site.
Designation of a site for the List of wetlands of international importance does not mean that it must become a totally protected nature reserve. On the contrary, the "wise use" provision means that human use of a site may continue, as long as this use maintains the ecological character of the site, so that it may also be used by future generations. The wise use concept is thus in complete harmony with the idea of sustainable development, developed since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and encapsulated in the Convention on Biological Diversity with which Ramsar works very closely.
By declaring the Lagoon a Ramsar site, (a decision taken at national level and not implying any loss of sovereign rights) the Italian State would be recognising the integral role of the Lagoon in the wonder that is Venice; it would be creating an opportunity to develop an integrated management plan for all the water-borne and wetland-related activities of Lagoon and historic City.
3. The role of the Italian State in the implementation of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands
Italy was one of the very first states to become a Contracting Party to the Ramsar Convention, in 1976. At that time, the Ramsar Administrative Authority in the central Government was the Ministry of Agriculture, through its "Direzione Generale della Bonifica e della Colonizzazione". The then leading figure in the implementation of Ramsar in Italy was the late Alberto Chelini. Himself an active hunter, he realized that what was required to maintain Italian wetlands was not "bonifica" (i.e. agricultural "improvement" or rather drainage), but a long term programme of conservation, restoration and management. This is an appropriate moment to pay tribute to the memory of Dr Chelini, who set in train a process of long term planning for Italian wetlands which has been maintained and developed by his successors, notably officials of the Ministry of Environment, the current Administrative Authority, at national level.
Working with regional and provincial governments, and with non-governmental bodies like WWF-Italia or the Lega Italiana per la Protezione degli Uccelli (LIPU), the Italian authorities set out on an ambitious programme to give Italian wetlands international recognition by Ramsar designation. Far from designating a single wetland of international importance, Italy initially designated 18 wetlands for the Ramsar List in 1976. Italy was the first state member of Ramsar to add new sites to the List, thus setting an example since followed by many other states, and continued to add new sites to its original list of 18, bringing the number of Italian Ramsar sites to 46 by 1991; while some of these are relatively small protected areas, others such as the Valle di Comacchio (13,500 hectares), the Stagno di Cagliari (3,466 ha), or the Saline di Margherita di Savoia (3,871 ha), are much larger, multi-use areas.
Even more important, Italy hosted the first ever Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP1), held in Cagliari, Sardinia, in 1980, at a time when it was extremely important for the Convention to publicize and develop its activities. At national level, the Cagliari Conference served to emphasize the importance of Sardinia's wetlands, several more of which were designated for the List. At international level, the Conference established for the first time a set of criteria for defining international importance, and laid the basis for the first amendments to the Convention, which eventually allowed the Ramsar Bureau to be established and funded.
In recent years, implementation of the Ramsar Convention in Italy has concentrated less on designation of sites, and more on strategic thinking and regional application. No new sites have been added to the List since 1991, though it is understood that four new sites have been identified at national level and will be added to the List as soon as the national Administrative Authority (the Ministry of Environment) sends the appropriate documentation to the Ramsar Bureau. The Grado Conference, organized in 1990 by the then International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB, now renamed "Wetlands International"), with significant input from the Region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, brought together a number of scientists who set out the technical basis for a regional Mediterranean strategy on wetlands. This was followed up in 1991 by a meeting in the Circeo National Park (which itself includes four Ramsar sites) where the MedWet Initiative began, with financial support from the European Union. MedWet financed a number of basic studies of Mediterranean wetland issues; its secretariat, originally housed in the Ministry of Environment in Rome, prepared the major Conference held in the Scuola di San Giovanni Battista in Venice in June 1996. This extremely important conference built on the results of the Grado meeting, and adopted a formal Strategy for the conservation of Mediterranean wetlands which has been the basis of MedWet work since then. At the Venice Conference, the Ministry of Environment also presented its national strategy for the conservation of wetlands, one of the first examples of a formal national "wise use" policy. Since then, MedWet has become a forum for promotion and implementation of the Ramsar Convention throughout the Mediterranean region.
At the latest conference of the Ramsar parties (COP8), held in November 2002, in Valencia, Spain, much attention was devoted to the cultural values of wetlands. The Lagoon of Venice is clearly unparalleled anywhere in the world as an example of the integration of cultural and biodiversity values in wetlands. Nowhere in the world is there another site that illustrates, as Venice does, the essential support provided by a wetland for humanity's social and cultural values. So once again, there is an opportunity for the Italian authorities - at national, regional, provincial and communal level - to give the lead in this new direction for Ramsar: Venice is the ideal site to demonstrate the mutual dependence of cultural and environmental factors in a wetland.
It is therefore suggested that the whole of the Lagoon be designated a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, and that an integrated plan be developed to maintain and restore the ecological character of the site, while promoting activities which can continue without degrading this environmental character.
The Lagoon of Venice as a whole is not at present covered by any special legal environmental regime, though there are a number of regulations at various levels (local, provincial, regional and national), governing various aspects of the environmental management of the lagoon. One small sector of the Lagoon (called in the official Ramsar List "Laguna di Venezia: Valle Averto" covering 500 hectares and including the WWF "Oasis" as well as the larger surrounding Valle dell'Averto fish farm) was designated as a Ramsar site in 1989.
4. Importance of the Lagoon of Venice on the basis of objective criteria
The Lagoon of Venice is a huge coastal wetland (more than 50,000 hectares, the largest wetland in Italy) with unique ecological characteristics, not only at national level, but also in the context of the Mediterranean basin.
4.1 Hydro-geomorphological criteria
From the hydrological and geomorphological points of view, the Venice Lagoon is classified as a "coastal lagoon". It should be noted that coastal lagoons are the most widespread type of interface systems between land and sea in the world, and are often found in areas where tides play a major role in geomorphology and hydrological dynamics. This type of wetland is recognised in the Ramsar Convention (Marine and coastal wetlands: (J) Brackish and Saline Coastal Lagoons), and a number of sites of this kind have already been included in the List of wetlands of international importance.
There are numerous Mediterranean non-tidal coastal lagoons, because the Mediterranean is a sea where tidal range is very small and hardly influences the dynamics of these ecosystems. Hence tidal lagoons and wetlands are extremely rare in the Mediterranean. The only exceptions to this generalization are the northern part of the Adriatic in Italy, and the Gulf of Gabès in Tunisia. In these two areas, because of the orientation and configuration of the coastline, and also because of prevailing wind directions, tides are an important element of marine dynamics. For this reason, the Lagoon of Venice represents a type of wetland which is rare and unique, according to Criterion number one (Group A of the criteria) for the designation of wetlands of international importance.
Other geographical factors contribute to make this wetland unusual, notably the climate. The northern Adriatic is the only sector of the Mediterranean basin which enjoys a slightly more humid climate (according to Köppen's classification) than the rest of the basin. This fact makes some differentiation possible at the bio-climatic level, situating the area in a transitional band between Mediterranean and Atlantic climatic conditions.
From the point of view of its origins, it should be noted that the Lagoon of Venice is similar to others in the Mediterranean, but the subsequent natural evolution and human impact is what has differentiated it from other sites.
Thus, as in other coastal areas, there is a marked tendency to subsidence, a phenomenon which continually revitalizes the system, and prevents it from being filled in by sediments, and furthermore tends to encourage erosion of the system. Stratigraphical studies have illustrated that, at least since the upper Pleistocene, a variety of different systems of wetlands have developed in this area.
The rivers, especially those of Alpine origin, also play an essential part in the formation of the Lagoon, since the Brenta and Piave are the major providers of water and sediments. In the case of the Lagoon of Venice, the sediments reach the sea, are dispersed parallel to the coast by littoral drift currents ("onshore drift"), and build up sand bars parallel to the shore which eventually emerge and form the coastline of the Lido, separating the wetland from the sea.
Tidal action has been responsible for the development of various subsidiary types of ecosystem, which are of great ecological interest because of their geomorphological and hydrological characteristics. Thus from the hydrological point of view, the Venetian Lagoon includes water bodies with every possible variety of salinity. Communication with the sea is established through tidal inlets and outlets.
From the geomorphological point of view, the Lagoon includes a great diversity of wetland types not found in other Mediterranean sites. Among these may be mentioned:
- saltmarshes ("barene"): these are one of the principal emergent morphological types in the Lagoon. They are on a higher level because of sediment deposits, covered with halophile (salt-tolerant) vegetation, and submerged by the very highest tides. Some of them make up the edges of the tidal channels or islands, the internal shores of the lagoon and the edges of the coastal sandbars. Among the most famous are the sites on which human settlements have been established: Torcello, Burano, Murano, San Michele, Venice itself.
- tidal mudflats ("velme"): These are the areas flooded by normal high tides, which emerge only at low tide. They have a very shallow gradient, and their sediments are very fine, without vegetation. They form a transition zone between the "barene" and the deeper parts of the lagoon.
- marshes ("paludi"): These are depressions in the sub-tidal area, which remain flooded because they are below sea level. They hold fresh water and much vegetation and are situated above all in the zone where the lagoon meets the mainland, and around the mouths of rivers. The main marshy areas are in the north-western sector of the basin of the Lido.
- tidal canals and channels ("ghebbi"): These are the outlets for the tidal water and are normally the deepest parts of the Lagoon. There are many kinds of canal. The function of the main canals is to transport the masses of river or lagoon water to the sea; secondary canals, which are tributaries of the main canals drain internal waters of the Lagoon basin. Third level canals end up in the tidal mudflats.
- outlets ("bocche lagunari"): These are the outlets which allow the Lagoon to communicate with the sea, and mark the ends of the lidos. The tidal currents reach maximum velocity in them. Towards the Lagoon, the mouth develops a tidal delta, towards the sea an ebb delta. There are three principal mouths in the Venice Lagoon: Porto del Lido, Porto di Malamocco and Porto di Chioggia. These mouths divide the Lido into three sections: the lido di Cavallino, the largest and best conserved, and the lidos of Malamocco and Pellestrina, which are sand bars, currently in regression in their central parts.
- sandbanks ("bacan"): These are sand bodies that formerly existed just inside each mouth. Two were destroyed, and the only one now surviving is the Bacan de San Erasmo.
- fishponds ("valli"): These are man-made areas situated in the northern and south-western sectors of the Lagoon, nearest terra firma. They are shallow pools in which fish are raised, and then caught in traps as they try to return to the open sea. As shallow saline lagoons, they are extremely rich in biological diversity, notably for waterbirds, both wintering species of ducks and breeding colonial water birds (particularly herons and cormorants). In winter, many of them are managed as shooting areas, where hunting pressure is relatively light in terms of numbers of hunters. They present a rich heritage of human use of traditional fishery practices (well illustrated at the museum of Oasi di Valle Averto).
It is in many ways a miracle that such a wide variety of wetlands types has survived, whereas elsewhere along the northern shores of the Adriatic, there has been reclamation, transformation of coastal wetlands into agricultural, industrial and tourist lands; this in itself indicates that the city fathers realised that the lagoon is an essential element in the Venetian way of life and took measures to guarantee its protection.
4.2 Criteria based on Biological Diversity
The Ramsar Convention is one of the so-called "biodiversity related" conventions, and has made great use of biodiversity factors in its criteria for defining international importance. Particular attention has historically been devoted to water birds, as the full name ("Convention on wetlands of international importance, especially as waterfowl habitat") suggests.
Ornithological surveys carried out over many years clearly demonstrate that the Lagoon of Venice is one of the most important wetlands in Italy for wintering, migrant and breeding waterbirds. Wintering birds are those that breed in the far north, and then flee the cold of the central European winter to spend the winter in the Adriatic. Migrants are those which have wintered even farther south, sometimes south of the Sahara, and pass through the Lagoon on their way North in spring, and again on their way South in autumn. Breeding birds are those which nest on the Lagoon; they may also spend the winter on the Lagoon, or may come to the Lagoon from the south. Thus, the Lagoon is a vital link in the international process of bird migration, and indeed one of the most important feeding stations where birds rest and refuel on their journeys along international flyways. It might be likened to a "major service station" on an inter-European motorway.
Of these water birds, the winter visitors are the best documented by the annual winter water bird censuses, held for many years at international level. These censuses demonstrate that:
a) for the last five winters, the Lagoon as a whole has regularly held about 130,000 water birds, when any site holding just 20,000 water birds qualifies under the criteria.
b) among these wintering birds, certain species are present in such concentrations that more than one per cent of the geographical population is present. The Lagoon meets the famous Ramsar "1% criterion" for:
o Black-necked Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis): 1% figure 1,000, average in the Venice Lagoon 1,859
o Great Egret (Egretta alba): 1% figure 120, average in the Venice Lagoon 581
o Little Egret (Egretta garzetta): 1% figure 800, average in the Venice Lagoon 1,039
o Teal (Anas crecca): 1% figure 10,500, average in the Venice Lagoon 25,707
o Wigeon (Anas penelope): 1% figure 5,000, average in the Venice Lagoon 6,214
o Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos): 1% figure 10,000, average in the Venice Lagoon 25,324
o Coot (Fulica atra):1% figure 20,000, average in the Venice Lagoon 34,496
o Dunlin (Calidris alpina):1% figure 14,000, average in the Venice Lagoon 27,471
It will be noted that these species not only meet the 1% criterion, but go well beyond them. Some species, notably waders such as Dunlin, are recorded mainly on the mudflats; others, notably the duck species, are more commonly found in the traditional fish-farms ("valli") around the edges of the Lagoon.
Among the breeding birds, the main groups are herons, which nest in woods in the "valli", and waders and terns which nest on the saltmarshes. Special mention should be made of the globally threatened species:
o Pygmy Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmaeus) which has begun to nest in recent years, taking advantage of undisturbed conditions in colonies of egrets and herons in the "valli".
o Redshank (Tringa totanus) which fulfil the international 1% criterion for breeding birds.
Of course, at national level, the Lagoon of Venice holds some of the most important breeding colonies in the whole of Italy. While the data for birds have been given the most thoroughgoing analysis in the Ramsar process, it is quite clear that the Lagoon of Venice also meets the Ramsar criteria for many fish species and furthermore has a rich endemic flora.
4.3 Criteria based on cultural heritage
The eighth Conference of the Contracting Parties (COP8), held in Valencia (Spain) in November 2002, approved Resolution VIII.19 on "Guiding principles for taking into account the cultural values of wetlands for the effective management of sites". This resolution recognises the value of cultural heritage for the conservation of wetlands.
The "City of Venice and its Lagoon" were declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1987, so it is clear that the site would also meet the Ramsar cultural criteria. It should however be mentioned that in addition to the traditional conception of the built environment, intangible heritage should be added: fiestas, folklore, popular knowledge, myths, legends, gastronomy, etc. These are often under-rated and in the Lagoon of Venice constitute an essential part of its history. Thus it should be remembered that unique institutions like the Magistrature for Waters ("Magistrato alle Acque"), which still manages the waters of the Lagoon, were set up in the time of the Most Serene Republic.
5. Current problems, consequences, and measures taken to solve them
An immense amount of research, legislation and funding has gone into the conservation and management of the City and Lagoon of Venice over the centuries, and more especially over the last few decades as the dangers to the survival of this unique site have become more apparent. It is not the purpose of the present authors to give lessons to the many highly expert bodies and individuals who are currently working on these issues and who know a good deal more about them than the authors. The purpose is rather to suggest, on the basis of international experience elsewhere, how greater co-operation and synergy might be achieved.
In order to do this, a summary of the principal problems that affect the Lagoon or that affected it in the recent past is attempted below.
The problems may be summarized as follows:
- Subsidence. Subsidence occurs naturally in the Lagoon, and is accentuated by the accidental convergence of various human activities, which cause the lowering of the water table (over-exploitation of the aquifers, dredging of canals, fishery practices which have an impact on the bottom of the Lagoon, lack of inflow of sediments of fluvial origin etc). This fact has repercussions both on the natural ecosystem and on the normal life of the City. Thus the frequency of extraordinary high tides and the increased impact they have on the urban system are causing the flooding of a considerable part of Venice at certain periods of the year.
- Increasingly rapid erosion of the sediments of the Lagoon. There is talk of a process of "maritimization", which is leading the ecosystem to a clear loss of its wetland characteristics and causing it to be assimilated a little more each day to a marine environment. The causes, as outlined above, are multiple: some of natural origin, others related to human activities, both in historic times and more recently. The changes which hydrological dynamics have experienced because of the increase in ships' wakes (both frequency and height), caused by greater use of motor boats, are another reason for the erosion of the barene, the lidos and the historic buildings in the City. It must be remembered that Venice is a city built on water, and since the time of the Most Serene Republic has been obliged, as a matter of necessity, to maintain shipping channels. Since the industrial revolution, the size of ships and the number of motor boats have increased dramatically; nowadays vast cruise liners come right into the City, while oil tankers come through the centre of the Lagoon along the shipping channels leading through the Porto di Malamocco to Porto San Leonardo. Keeping these channels and outlets to the sea open for ocean-going ships (which dock in the industrial area) and for refineries inside the Lagoon has of course only aggravated the problem of erosion. The multitude of smaller motor-boats using the canals of the City and the Lagoon add to this problem. This is a fundamental problem of the survival of the City and Lagoon; if it is not solved, there is little hope for the long-term survival of Venice. A series of ingenious and sophisticated engineering solutions have been proposed as a remedy to the flooding and erosion problems, but their effect is likely to be short-lived unless the problem of subsidence is tackled openly. Another suggested remedy is that the oil tankers dock at offshore facilities outside the Lagoon, and that the industrial area is gradually converted to other activities involving smaller ships; "blue areas" have been established in the Lagoon with speed limits for smaller commercial and leisure craft.
- Lagoon bottom-sediments and water pollution. Operation of the industrial area around Porto Marghera has led to high levels of chemical pollution in the waters and the substrate, often with heavy metals. Furthermore, many of the rivers coming from the Alps, which formerly provided sediments for the lagoon, now carry a heavy load of pollutants. Studies by the University of Venice are currently under way, but it is clear that the disposal of these pollutants will be difficult and costly.
- Fishing. This activity has always been a major part of the culture of the Venetians, whether in the open Lagoon or in the fish farms ("valli"). On the other hand, shellfish production in the Lagoon is one of the most productive in Europe (because of the tidal influence). Fishing of both types, traditional and commercial, must continue, but some regulation and control will be needed to prevent over-fishing, and to avoid fishing in polluted areas (as noted in the Province's Piano Pesca). In particular, the appearance in the last fifteen years of the Philippine Clam (Tapes philippinarum) has caused new and unfamiliar problems. Unregulated, indeed illegal, catching of these very profitable molluscs, using drags which scrape the bottom, has exacerbated the erosion problem in the Lagoon.
- Tourist pressure. The difficulties of accommodating the needs of the vast numbers of tourists who flock to Venice are well known, and their very number undoubtedly puts heavy pressure on the City. This increase in the numbers of visitors has resulted in changes in use of the buildings, in saturation of urban spaces, and in the generation of a vast quantity of solid and liquid waste: in short, in a loss of cultural identity. In this way it is clear in recent years that there are ever less services for local residents and ever more tourist businesses. On the other hand there has been an increase in service areas (car parks, road and port facilities etc.), which has led to the loss of the essential character of certain parts of the City. But the Lagoon too, with its biological riches, offers potential for visitors, which have as yet only been exploited in a very timid manner. As demonstrated above, the Lagoon is, and always has been, an area of high biodiversity. These attractions can perfectly well be utilized for recreational and eco-tourism activities. In this context, reference should be made to the strong local hunting culture, which has grown up over the centuries in the Lagoon. This activity, carried out for sporting purposes, is fully compatible with the conservation of the ecosystem. Some measures have been taken to establish nature reserves; further protection measures, and above all educational measures to develop reserves for the public and for schools, are however required.
6. Technical and administrative guidelines for the designation of the Lagoon of Venice as a Ramsar site
It is suggested that designation of the whole of the Lagoon of Venice, from the Brenta to the Piave Vecchia, as a Ramsar site would help to define a long term, integrated solution to the challenge of maintaining Venice and the Lagoon on which its history, culture and unique character depends.
One approach to designation might be to extend the current procedure, which has already seen Oasi di Valle Averto listed under Ramsar. The richest and most characteristic parts of the Lagoon could be declared individually or collectively as Ramsar sites. This would be a welcome step, and yet would omit many of the areas of lower biodiversity value, where the problems that threaten the whole ecosystem occur. Parts of the Lagoon have already been declared as Special Protection Areas (SPA) under the European Habitats Directive, but they exclude the central part of the Lagoon, the major shipping lanes, and the industrial area, exactly the sites of the threats to the integrity of the ecosystem.
If, on the other hand, the whole of the Lagoon, between the mainland, the Brenta and the Piave Vecchia, were declared a Ramsar site, this would enable a holistic approach to be adopted, and would make it possible to affront the fundamental problems of conserving the site, not just some of the symptoms. Not only engineering solutions - often costly and not always sustainable without continuous expense - but also ecological solutions could be considered.
The technical problems would be approached in the Ramsar spirit of wise use, where traditional uses would continue, but would include some measures to regulate excessive and damaging use. Among these technical issues would be:
- Sedimentation and erosion: Attention would be devoted to long-term restoration of sediment deposition, as well as to control of factors currently provoking erosion. Serious attention would have to be given to polluted sediments.
- Shipping: The reduction, and in the long term the prohibition, of access to the industrial area and the oil-terminal for large ships would be promoted. Measures to limit erosion caused by smaller ships and pleasure craft would be actively pursued.
- Hunting and fishing: Both these traditional activities would be pursued, but measures to regulate them to prevent over-exploitation would be developed. In the case of the Philippine Clam, this would involve more effective policing.
- Biodiversity conservation: More active protection measures would be developed for increasing conservation of some areas.
- Eco-tourism: At the same time, plans for public utilization must be developed, including more and better facilities for visitors (information centres, nature trails, hides, etc.); these would serve to increase environmental awareness among both local residents and tourists. The facilities for biodiversity conservation would be concentrated in the communes surrounding the Lagoon, thus attracting visitors away from the City, and providing facilities in the smaller towns which make their own special contribution to the atmosphere of Venice and its Lagoon.
7. The role of the different actors in the development and execution of an integrated Management Plan for the Lagoon of Venice
The prospect of the declaration of the Lagoon of Venice as a Ramsar site is an exciting one. The process must be regarded not as a constraint on action by the authorities charged with the conservation of the world heritage which is Venice and its Lagoon, but as an opportunity, over a very long time scale, to put a stop to the gradual degradation of the site, and to provide it with a sustainable long term future. While some large wetland sites in the Mediterranean may provide guidance - one thinks of Valencia and its coastal wetlands or some of the very large Greek Ramsar sites - Venice would provide a unique challenge to the Ramsar community as a whole, and to the different levels of authority in Italy.
There are many levels of responsibility within the complex traditional machinery developed over the centuries to manage Venice and its lagoon. All will have their role to play in the development and implementation of an integrated management plan under the Ramsar listing, and one of the challenges will be to ensure smooth cooperation between them. Among these bodies, the following may be mentioned, even though this is by no means a complete list:
1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since the Ramsar Convention is an international legal instrument, whose Depositary is UNESCO, formal communications between the Italian state and the Depositary are routed through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the early years, formal documents (the declaration and map) were submitted to UNESCO through these channels, though a simpler process has now been developed (see under 7.2 below).
2. Ministry of the Environment. The Ministry of the Environment is the formal national Administrative Authority, responsible for representing Italy at the Conference of the Ramsar Contracting Parties, for submitting documentation on new Ramsar sites to the Ramsar Bureau, for preparing the national report to the Conference of the Parties, and for overseeing application of the Convention within Italy. The Ministry of the Environment reviews wetlands in Italy which meet the criteria for Ramsar designation, and helps in drawing up the designation documentation. A representative of the Director General of Nature Conservation in the Ministry of the Environment indicated at the public meeting held in Venice on 9 May 2003 that the Ministry would welcome the holding of a round table to consider Ramsar designation of the Lagoon of Venice with all the relevant authorities. In order for the Lagoon of Venice to be included on the Ramsar List, the Ministry of Environment would submit to the Ramsar Bureau, a letter indicating that the site has been designated, together with a Ramsar Information Sheet describing the site, and a map showing the areas designated. The Ministry of the Environment has also commissioned, from Dr Lorenzo Bonometto, a major study of the saltmarshes and the erosion problems within the Lagoon.
3. Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport: Magistrato alle Acque di Venezia. The Magistrature has, since time immemorial, played the crucial role of overseeing water issues affecting the Lagoon and City. In this role, the President of the Magistrature receives advice and support from a number of bodies, in particular the Consorzio Venezia Nuova which has been developing mechanical solutions to the problem of high waters, as well as carrying out maintenance activities such as the construction of new islands to combat erosion (unfortunately these islands are steep-sided and do not have the same biodiversity values as the naturally formed saltmarshes and mudflats). The Magistrature would have a key role (probably the key role) in directing the measures required to restore the natural functions of the Lagoon. The task of restoration is a very long term question, involving closing - in the medium term - of the deepest parts of shipping lanes to Porto Marghera and the cessation of dredging to keep these channels open; restoration to something like their original state of the reclaimed but never exploited areas at Cassa Colmata; and restoration of the function of the Brenta and Piave in bringing sediments to conserve saltmarshes.
4. River Basin Authority. The River Basin Authority has responsibility for management of aquifers and the coastal plain rivers. Water supply is a vital question in this whole area, for drinking water, for industry and for agriculture, and the application of the European Fresh Water Directive will be a matter of concern in the years to come. The role of the River Basin Authority is therefore of the greatest importance.
5. Regione Veneto. In the decentralized form of government in vigour in Italy, the Region plays a major role in management of land and water surfaces, and the Ministry of Environment normally delegates management of Ramsar sites to the Region where the site is situated. As noted above, some of the most valuable areas for biological diversity have already been designated Special Protection Areas (SPAs) and Sites of Community Importance (SICs) under the European Habitats Directive (EC 92/43); these sites require to be conserved and managed, yet are affected (as described above) by processes arising outside their geographical boundaries (erosion, pollution). In order for these essential sites to be managed effectively by the Regione, some action needs to be taken outside the SICs, and this could be carried on under the integrated management plan for the whole lagoon.
6. Provincia di Venezia. The Province has already played a considerable role in launching the wider discussion on the conservation of the Lagoon. A first step was taken in this direction in 1998, when the Giunta Provinciale approved a document setting out the reasons for designation of the Lagoon as a Ramsar site. In 1999 the Province organized a seminar entitled "Towards integrated management of the Ecosystem of the Venice Lagoon", with participation of local people and interested organizations, experts on the ecology of the Lagoon and international participation. This seminar approved a final declaration recommending designation of the Ramsar site, and development of an integrated management plan covering not only ecological aspects, but also cultural, traditional, social and economic considerations. The Province has initiated a process of public participation, with the aim of input from all points of view among local entities. Public participation is of course essential in the development of any project; indeed, without the approval and ownership of such projects by local communities, the basic objectives would be compromised, and could not be achieved. The methods employed to this end have included direct personal contacts and discussion groups, as well as an invitation to two Ramsar Convention experts who have visited the zone to present at first hand the objectives of the Convention. The results of this process were presented in public at the session entitled "Ramsar meets Venice" at the Navalis exhibition on 9 May 2003, when a further debate was held on the subject, with the participation of representatives of the Ministry of the Environment, the Magistrato alle Acque di Venezia, the Communes, the universities, involved stakeholders and the general public.
7. Comuni. The Communities in which the Lagoon is situated have demonstrated a will to carry out conservation and wise use of the Lagoon's resources, and consider that, for this purpose, integrated management is required. At the seminars organized by the Province in 1999 and 2003, many Communes were represented, often by their Mayor, who expressed a large measure of agreement on the proposal to conserve and restore the natural values and functions of the Lagoon, so that people living in the Communes could maintain their lifestyle and livelihoods. Integrated management of the Lagoon would not prohibit traditional hunting and fishing practices (though it would certainly aim to control and regulate harmful practices such as illegal fishing for Philippine Clams). It would develop a more broadly-based eco-tourism, which would lead tourists to little known sites of interest like the Valle Averto museum or the Valle Figheri heronry observatory; it would encourage the development of specially designed nature trails, cycle tracks or walks which would allow visitors to get to know parts of the Lagoon currently overlooked by those who only rush to the Piazza San Marco.
8. Universities and CNR. The Universities and other research bodies such as the Consiglio Nazionale di Ricerca have a vast store of expertise on many aspects of the ecology and conservation of the Lagoon of Venice, whether it be the control and management of pollution, the botany of the lagoon and the occurrence of algal blooms, the fisheries, the geomorphology, hydrological dynamics or any other topic. The principal university concerned is of course the University of Venice, but other universities too are involved, notably the School of Hydraulic Engineers from Padua. It seems to us that the authorities have not sufficiently taken advantage of this wealth of knowledge which is an invaluable support in the development of an integrated approach to management. Indeed, it is more than a question of knowledge: the universities accommodate a host of experts who are passionate advocates of wise use practices for the Lagoon and could initiate their students into a real concern for the future of the lagoon, which would be a major attribute of the management plan.
9. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It is clear that concern for the future of the Lagoon of Venice has mobilized interest among a wide variety of NGOs (from international to local level), whether their main concern is history, natural sciences, fishing, hunting or traditional practices around the lagoon. This broad strand of support for the values of the Lagoon is another strong positive factor in the development of an integrated management plan, and will ensure continuing public interest in the progress of designing and implementing the plan.
10. International links. UNESCO's involvement in the conservation and management of the World Heritage site of Venice and its Lagoon has already been mentioned on several occasions, as has UNESCO's role as Depositary of the Ramsar Convention. Indeed, UNESCO maintains an office in Venice (Ufficio ROSTE). At the seminar held in May 2003, a representative of this office made it clear that UNESCO would support the development of an integrated management plan for the Lagoon.
Some administrative measures will be necessary to make effective use of the future Ramsar designation. It is suggested that these might be carried out in collaboration with the UNESCO office in Venice. A Ramsar section could be developed in the UNESCO office, with the task of harnessing the many and diverse actions already under way for the conservation of the Lagoon. It must be emphasized that neither the Ramsar Bureau nor UNESCO would in any way take over powers from the Italian authorities, whether at national, regional, commune or provincial level. They would simply house the facilities and offer advice based on experience in other sites. The principal tasks of the Ramsar office would be:
- to develop, among the existing bodies concerned with the Lagoon, an integrated, synergetic approach to the conservation of the Lagoon, emphasizing maintenance of its natural hydrological, geomorphological and ecological processes.
- to promote the traditional cultures and uses of the Lagoon, but to regulate them to prevent over-exploitation, perhaps through a cost-benefit analysis taking account of environmental costs.
Another international body which could contribute to this process is the MedWet Initiative, which coordinates Ramsar activities through the Mediterranean and has a wealth of technical experience.
There would also be opportunities for exchanges with other major Mediterranean wetlands, among them other cities with a tradition of living between land and sea. Special attention could be devoted to exchanges with the only other area of the Mediterranean with comparable tidal conditions, the Gulf of Syrta (or Gulf of Gabès) in Tunisia. Migratory waterbirds already move in large numbers between the two sites, so that it would be appropriate to give consideration to sympathetic co-ordinated management between the two sites.