Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Samothraki Island Natural History

Mid August 2013

Samothraki = unique island nature!
It's like several separate biomes in a single small island. A 178 square-km naturalist's hotspot.

I first visited the island in '83. Not too much feels changed. A rocky mountain rising high above the Thracian Sea. Not all rock: Dry rolling lowlands like Lesvos; lush village orchards like Euboea; big plane-woods like western Anatolia; and the high craggy peaks seem almost Carpathian....The sea here is different, deep dark, not the Southern Aegean.

Its not the most beautiful island in the Aegean; few pretty post-card beaches. This may have kept mass tourism from invading. But I was impressed in a touristic sense too. I found the island to be a great retreat: aspects of the tourism culture here reminded me of Greece in the early '80s... Visitors and residents were friendly, unpretentious, open. Greek visitors and many locals had a laid-back feeling. Many people hitch-hike on Samothraki. Many hippies retreat here.

The deeper reasons I was so impressed involve natural history assets and local conservation issues: 

1. Unique relief and geology. The island looks like a chunk of the High Tatras in the Aegean! The igneous rock that dominates Samothraki is rare in the Aegean (most islands are calcareous, or simply limestone dominated). Over 20 river valleys break-up a steep rugged mountain range peaking at 1611 m. asl. It is one of the highest peaks in the Aegean (only Euboea and Crete are higher!). The high relief situation also creates a special bioclimatic situation- lots and lots of snow in the winter.  

2. Unbelievable mountain waters. Many dozens of kilometers of mountain streams flow perennially, and small rivers continue to flow and create spectacular "river pools" in mountain valleys even above 800 m. elevation. Huge granite river pools, locally called "Vathres" are unique in the other island has this much mountain lotic water in Greece. We estimated at least 10 river basins have long perrenial stream reaches - another unique attribute for an such a small Mediterranean island.

3. Old and extensive natural woods. Although large areas of the mountain were denuded by fire and have  undergone rapid vegetational degeneration due to goat over-grazing pressure, there are still old native woods. Ancient oriental plane woods and extensive stands of Quercus petraea oakwoods are fantastic. Extensive Alder (very rare in the Aegean islands); and dense tall Strawberry Tree, Tree Heather woods and mixed high-maquis of various types clothe lower parts of the mountain. Even canyon woods and juniper woods exist. But most of the mountain is totally bare - with a real alpine feel. 

4. Wonderful small wetlands. At least 16 wetland sites are identified (12 in a recent WWF inventory); I visted 12 sites - four new to the inventory (and this was a dry year; so the list is incomplete...).  The most remarkable and largest is Agios Andreas Lagoon. This wetland complex with its two adjacent lagoonal wetlands, the headland sand-spit and rolling landscape near Kamariotissa is an excellent birding area - one of the most interesting I have seen in the Aegean islands. Next "most important" is the Vdelolimni lagoon- the only one I know in the Greek Islands which is fringed with Alder. Most of these were dry this summer - only four wetland sites had fishes this summer. So although some naturally dry-out, others are certainly vulnerable to artificially desiccation due to water over-exploitation.

5. Wilderness coasts and mountains. About 60% of the island is a mountain wilderness -  NO ROADS! How many places in Greece's mountains have no roads? (Very few...). The south coast from Kipi Beach to Pacheia Ammos is an amazing 11 km long coastline of high gradient wooded slopes and moonscape rock-faces, scree slopes - it seems like 100 kms long.... It reminded me of Agion Oros (the Holy Mountain). No mountain villages exist - above the settlements is a landscape akin perhaps to the Madares (or High Desert) of Crete. Very rocky - raven's country....

6. The cross-roads island biogeography. An island in the "Northern Aegean Marine Ecoregion" right next to the Dardanelles Black Sea Water Inflow and across from the shores of Thrace and Anatolia. A stepping stone between Europe and Asia. Winters are Balkan-cold here; summers are Mediterranean, and the mountain feeling is Eastern European- perhaps almost Pontic - eastrn! This is how Samothraki's biogeography felt to me.

7. The rarity of things. 15 endemic species of plants as a recent review shows (Biel and Tan 2013 in progress); although "Samothraki remains one of the botanically least explored of the major Greek islands". The flora is rich and is an "interesting mixture of continental and Aegean elements" says Strid and Tan (2009) and many continental species exist while many Aegean species find their northern outpost here. Its not just rare (or range restricted plants); some very interesting habitat types exist also (Juniper woods, heaths, alpine rock areas, pseudo-phrygana, various wetland types etc, etc..). And wildlife too: In terms of birds, or other animals the island is poorly studied - much of it is so inaccessible. But rarities exist, despite the generally depauperate insular wildlife communities as compared to the adjacent Thracian mainland. I recorded only about 44 bird species on this trip but was not really looking hard. Some small raptors were present and some rather rare waterbirds in the wetlands (it is and official terrestrial IBA also) - so more surveys are needed.

8. The "riches" of the sea. A different sea: The "Northern Aegean Marine Ecoregion". Many reasons make this so different: The "Black-Sea-Water" and respective currents; proximity to the Evros estuary and Samothraki's many rivers; uncommon geology, the great Anatolian Trench (900 m. deep) etc. It is much more eutrophic perhaps than the south and central Aegean. Snorkeling in these waters brings up differences- the benthos seems "bushier", yet two of the 7 sites I snorkeled had great visibility (over 18 m.). Marine life is seemingly quite rich. The sourrounding waters are Marine Important Bird Area (IBA). Wildlife thrives here - we counted up to 25 Audouin's Gulls at one spot near Kipi; Med Shags are common everywhere, and we saw Striped Dolphins twice. But overfishing has probably precipitated catastrophic changes here as well (spearfishers everywhere...).

9. Low-key development. Many islands in the Aegean have lost their character; they are quite tacky - touristy, grotesque caricatures of their recent near-medieval being (see some of the touristy central Cyclades, for example). Samothraki is still a "working island". A big fishing harbour and a strong livestock breeding island. Tourism is also important here, but still very low-key- most people come from Alexandroupoli. Very few holiday homes, or out-of-conurbation tourist developments have been completed. There is still hope to curb mass tourism here. Perhaps quality tourism development can be an incentive (so there is still hope...).

10. Ecotourism potential. Samothraki is in the Evros Prefecture. The Evros - one of the most important ecotourism hotspots in SE Europe!!! Samothraki as an ecotourism destination ties in well with the Evros Delta and Dadia National Parks nearby (and Turkey also has a naitonal Park on its share of the Evros/Meric Delta). Samothraki's location next to the Turkish-Greek frontier is important in showcasing the island as a site of international conservation area status. The historic cities nearby are now modern Euro-Asian crossroads: Constantinople, Adrianople, Dedeagats, Salonica, Imvros, Sophia, Phillipoupolis: All very close to Samothraki - the only Greek Island to easily connect continental cities with the wild north Aegean. Can Samothraki become an international meeting-place that brings together the Evros Valley/Thracian conservation initiatives to the world? There is potential here I believe...

I spent time thinking about Samothraki. After a lot of discussions with my colleagues, with the Mayor, and many friends; much brain-storming and a lot of nature study throughout the island, I feel that Samothraki needs a proper protected area development. The Mayor proposed "National Park" status. Also an excellent proposal for a UNESCO MAB reserve designation has been drafted. Of course, a "real protected area" now, in mid-crisis Greece, in this far-flung place, is not easily possible. (This, despite the fact that already most of the island and the surrounding seas are designated Natura 2000 areas - so Greece has an obligation to provide conservation here). A real reason for a high-status protected area designation is the really pressing local environmental problems here. The anthropogenic pressures on Samothraki's landscapes are at a crucial threshold - so now is the time to think strategically and act locally!

Urgent study and practical measures are needed to deal with the following pressing environmental issues. I isolate these four since they where most noticeable as "issues" degrading the island's nature during our 2013 expedition.

a) Land-use planning, tourism management, building sprawl; poor urban planning/architecture issues. These issues are changing the landscape- impinging on aesthetics and creating artificial fragmentation: roading, fencing, in-filling of wetlands and mini land-conflicts. Agriculture land may be reverted to buildings if tourism begins to boom (hopefully it will not boom!). The problems are mostly on the north coast but locally elsewhere. Aesthetically sensitive landscapes such as the beautiful Pacheia Ammos are obviously threatened. Fortunately these problems are localized but significant. 

b) Water mismanagement and water/ river corridor conservation, including wetland protection, riparian buffer protection and enhancement-restoration. Although the island is water-blessed; water mismanagment is serious and widespread. The issues range from creating 'artificially intermittent' reaches in formerly perrenial streams (due to ignorant irrigation abstractions), to drying-out of wetlands, wasting waters and other insiduous mismanagement. A comprehensive management for water does not exist and EU-funded plans to further exploit river surface waters for irrigation (i.e. at the Ksiropotamos) need to be carefully reviewed and assessed. Most people don't realize that the watery life-blood of the island is so threatened. (However during this summer only one river flowed perrenially to the sea- the Fonias; under natural conditions I would expect at least 5 to reach the sea during summer. And as a consequence - we located eels in only two rivers..). The many lower portions of the rivers are degraded, and we found polluted sections too (urban sources).

c) Grazing management and forest protection. Severe vegetational degeneration has recently taken place and old growth woodlands are threatened; this is one of the most difficult and widespread threats on the island. I don't think the erosion problem is so severe, loose-soil tectonically active places like this naturally create local badlands (see the Ksiropotamos Valley); but grazing does increase erosioal phenomena. The grazing pressure has increased due to EU subsidies- so the vegetation degeneration process is a critical problem. Nowhere did we see deciduous oak tree regeneration. Places like the Martini Forest which are being logged for firewood are have NO REGENERATION whatsoever -so I don't understand how and why they are being selectively logged. Fire strategy does not exist; this is a problem. But on a positive note, the grazing does keep forest litter low - and this may help abate canopy fire or megafires. I predict a catastrophic fire will take place if care is not taken - so a scientific comprehensive multidisciplinary approach to solving the overgrazing problem is needed.  (Also, in my experiance in Arta and Karystos band-aid applications through fencing small plots or even larger plots are not the sole solutions).

d) Overfishing and fishery management. Planning, enforcement, policing and awareness are critical. Spear-fishing for example is rampant and totally uncontrolled on Samothraki. Even dynamite is used for blast-fishing still (we where told by several locals). In my snorkling serveys I did not spot a single Dusky Grouper - could this be indicitive of a catastrophic decline? Generally this issue of over fishing is problematic across the Greek Aegean - how can we make it better here? (A pilot applicaiton maybe...this has some potential since the island is small and can be easily policed if there is a will for this...).

In this sense, a "mega-incentive" for landscape protection, rational resource management, sustainable agro-pastoral development and ecotourism promotion could be the island's upgraded "protected-area" status. I vote for "Samothraki National Park" but scientific study is gravely needed here first. Secondly, monitoring -carefull long-term observation must be applied to follow-up and guide eco-development.

Hope we will stay close to Samothraki....

(I would like to thank HCMR river monitoring sampling team, our Ichthyologist volunteer from Poland, and many local friends for all thought, work and support that went into the 2013 Samothraki Expedition; I will not post pics on this blog post - too busy this period - sorry...the air-photo is from the intenet - Big thanks to whoever took it!)

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