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Lake Skadar/Shkoder and River Buna/Bojana Ramsar Sites

General description of the wetland

The Skadar/Shkoder Lake and Buna/Bojana River system, with its delta area on the Adriatic Sea, contains important ecosystems with fresh and brackish water, and a variety of natural and human-made coastal habitats, including floodplain forests, freshwater marshes, extensive reed beds, sand dunes, karst formations, calcareous rocks, wet pastures, ponds, and irrigated lands. The Buna/Bojana River mouth represents a rare example of a natural delta on the East Adriatic coast.

Main wetland ecosystem services

The wetland is important for water retention and flood control for a wide area around lake Skadar/Shkoder and along the Buna/Bojana and Lower Drin Rivers floodplains. The presence of large water bodies and vast floodplain forest significantly humidifies the regional climate, thus mitigating Mediterranean summer droughts. The large amounts of sediments carried by the Drin and Buna Rivers support the stabilization of the Adriatic shoreline, and prevent the salinization of the coastal aquifers and agricultural lands, provided that human interventions allow the continued functioning of these natural dynamics. The wetland is also used for fishing, and, to some extent, for hunting, and provides essential support for agriculture and livestock rearing on temporarily flooded grasslands. Peat, sand, and gravel are exploited along the lake and river shores. Leisure activities for urban dwellers from Podgorica (the capital of Montenegro) and Shkodra (Albania), as well as beach, natural, village and cultural tourism are developing rapidly in the area.

Biodiversity values of the wetland area

The temporally inundated floodplains and the shallow water zones of lake Skadar/Shkoder and along the lower part of Buna/ Bojana River in particular provide unique habitats for a rich biodiversity in the near Adriatic part of South-Eastern Europe. A significant number of threatened species at national, European and global level depend on this wetland ecosystem.

Important migration routes, especially of fish and birds, pass through the wetland area. For waterbirds the wetland area is also important as a breeding and wintering site. Floating islands with colonies of cormorants, herons and pelicans are unique in Europe. A breeding colony of Dalmatian Pelican, a globally threatened species, exists on Lake Skadar/Shkoder, one of only a handful of such colonies in South-Eastern Europe. Other important numbers of wetland birds include ducks, geese, waders, gulls, birds of prey, owls and passerines. The number of wintering waterbirds on the Albanian side only reaches 24,000 – 30,000 individuals.

The globally-threatened Common Sturgeon, Stellate Sturgeon, and Adriatic Sturgeon, as well as other migratory fish, use the Buna/Bojana River to forage and spawn upstream. Coastal bays and lagoons, in particular the largest, near Velipoja in Albania, are crucial as spawning and nursery areas for a number of commercially-important fish species.

Pressure factors and transboundary impacts

The most significant pressures on the wetland ecosystems are listed in the assessment text on Lake Skadar/Shkoder.

The expansion of agricultural lands, at the expense of natural wetland and forest habitats, took place mainly in 1950-1960, and led to loss, degradation, and fragmentation of habitats, as well as a decrease of biodiversity. Nowadays, the expansion of tourism areas and related infrastructure, combined with significantly increasing disturbance from visitors, and boat and car traffic (including off-road), represent a threat, especially for attractive, and at the same time sensitive, coastal habitats. The development of urban settlements, roads, agriculture, tourism, and industry in the catchment basin, with the associated increased abstraction of water, provides additional pressures on the downstream wetland ecosystems.

Several hydroelectric plants built on the River Drin during the last 30-40 years have reduced the sediment flow to the Buna/ Bojana River. This has led to increased coastal erosion, and the continuous loss of coastal land areas. A plan to construct dams on the Morača River – the main tributary of Skadar/Shkoder Lake, flowing through Montenegro – is likely to also have significant impacts on the water level of Skadar/Shkoder Lake.

In addition to non-sustainable levels and means (explosive) of fishing, the populations of some introduced non-native fish, like Goldfish, European Perch, and Topmouth Gudgeon, had negative impacts on the population of the native fish species, such as cyprinids, and especially the commercially-important wild Carp. Wood harvesting and the expansion of pastures contribute to continued deforestation.

The low level of public awareness about environmental issues is a specific problem, resulting in the lack of appreciation of the ecosystem services and natural values.

Transboundary wetland management

The lake, including a narrow strip of its shoreline, has a specific legal protection status in both countries, and was designated as a Ramsar Site. Also, on the Albanian side, the outflowing river Buna/Bojana (forming the border with Montenegro in its lower course), its delta and coastal areas, as well as the adjacent part of the Adriatic coast, have national protection status, and are included in the Ramsar List.

The Albanian Lake Shkodra and River Buna (49,562 ha) Ramsar Site includes a number of nationally-protected areas beyond Shkoder Lake and the Buna River and its delta, notably Velipoja beach, Domni marsh, Viluni lagoon, Rrenci mountain, and Velipoja forest. The Montenegrin Ramsar Site (20,000 ha) coincides with National Park Skadarsko Jezero, including some strictly protected areas (permanent ornithological reserves of scientific importance). The National Park has three visitor’s centers in the villages of Vranjina, Mirići and Rijeka Crnojevića.

Environmental protection and sustainable development issues are included in a number of on-going transboundary Albanian- Montenegrin initiatives on Skadar/Shkoder Lake, including the Lake Skadar/Shkodra Integrated Ecosystem Management Project, financially supported by the GEF. The Concept on Cross-Border Development of the lake Skadar/Shkoder area has been prepared by GTZ Albania and Montenegro in the GTZ project “Cross-boundary spatial planning Lake Skadar/ Shkoder region, Albania and Montenegro”, which has been implemented since 2006.