Saturday, August 29, 2015

Samothraki: Nature conservation ideas 2015

Personal thoughts.
What Samothraki needs…
(Late July 2015)

Samothraki is “on the edge”….On the edge of the NW Aegean, the edge of Greece, the edge of change. It feels good to be between the Greece of yesterday and the present. Many things on Samothraki still bring to mind Greek “island-worlds” of the early ‘80s: few roads on the mountains, wild unbuilt coasts, real shepherd communities, a strong local dialect and living ethnography, relaxed island situations, hippies…Yet present-day Greece has affected Samothraki a lot and continues to affect it. 

As nature conservationists we often think about what a place “needs”...especially in such times of change. How to help it? How to save it! What to propose as important steps towards its well-being? An island-world such as Samothraki is suitable for such study, such thoughts and proposals.

I have some thoughts from a week’s stay during late July this year; but they are totally raw and unintegrated. I share them here. 

1) The overgrazing problem. With respect to over-grazing, yes there is an overgrazing problem  here (contra the case of “widespread abandonment” everywhere else in Greece with several outstanding local exceptions). The island is said to hold a gigantic number of sheep and goats (estimated by researchers at approx. 70 000 head). Although this is an incredible number, even if it is smaller, the effects are noticeable everywhere: nearly no tree regeneration anywhere on the island for at least three decades. So, although – total abandonment from grazing is now a “problem” in the rest of Southern Europe it’s not a problem on Samothraki... The lack of regeneration leads to deforestation after fires (a typical “vegetation degeneration” process commonplace in Greece about 50 years ago). To change this we need to really treat the issue of EU subsidies and agricultural policy…and also replant some trees (especially oaks). Oaks are suffering both from goats and over-cutting.  This issue is also a social problem, the shepherd communities are sensitive; it’s practically their mountain – this issue needs study, strategy and adaptive management. 

2) Deforestation. A lot of hap-hazard logging takes place and is unaccounted, unregulated or enforced by anybody. Life on Samothraki is totally lax in terms of any kind of biodiversity conservation enforcement. The Greek state seems to be absent. Due to the “crisis” the enforcement is more lax I think. So, you can make money by cutting trees – many hundreds of stately deciduous oaks, holm oaks, kermes oaks, terabinths, spiny pears, and planes… each year! Logging of this kind is crippling the landscape elements that make Samothraki so rich – each ancient tree is an ecosystem. Deforestation is a serious threat- Samothraki could look more “Cycladic” in the decades to come; the landscape may become more homogenized, simpler, poorer.

3) Marine ecosystems. The situation at sea is no better. Overfishing has certainly ravaged the steep slopes beneath the shores. No control (trawling near shore; spear-fishing is rampant; even dynamite is still used). My colleagues and I snorkel and see nearly no large fish. This is the Northern Aegean, not any open shallow oligotrophic Levantine backwater….here are some of the most productive waters in the Eastern Med basin…what else can explain this total stillness in the sea. It’s a disgrace. Do something about it? (A tragedy of the commons….Lets keep it quiet…no one will hear…). 

4) Protecting terrestrial habitats. I mean to remark on “really special and scarce habitats”; these are habitats and landscape units that make this island especially distinct and remarkable as a conservation hotspot. They are rare, scarce or particularly well represented here, compared to other Greek islands. Also these include places at the nexus of human-nature – cities, ports, beaches. Some comments: 

A) Coastal wetlands. What is their state of being? Is there any enforcement of legal protection enforced anywhere? Any special zoning or interest by the state (at all levels of government)? You guess the answer. 

B) Riparian forests. And the unique Platanus shoreline forests of the north coast. Any true protection? (Two of the best sites have been turned in to camping sites with little reference to their management as forest lands). Are these woods – forests and savannas demarcated and delineated as protected areas. Of course not. 

C) Dunes and beach landscapes. Aren’t they important for the “tourist image”? ...and the conservation of something extremely attractive for a few months of the year?  How are they treated? (These are extremely sensitive landscape features and threatened). 

D) Especially Scenic Landscapes: there are some especially scenic landscape areas. Are they identified and protected? Look at Pachia Amos: is this area a protected landscape? ( of the most scenic spots in Greece) What of the small wetland complex immediately west of Kamariotissa (Agios Andreas) – should this area be turned into an industrial park? (Wind Farm? Cost-benefits?). 

E) Modern urban, peri-urban architecture. With the notable exception of Chora what is happening elsewhere? (Answer: Incremental change and unplanned building – and thanks to the economic crisis a momentary halt…). Already a few too many buildings such as hotels etc. are too close to the Palaiopolis landscape (the Island's major archaeological site). Scattered buildings are localized by other Greek island standards. Sadly the main port is typically ugly and modern looking. Greeks have good term for this “kakogoustia” (bad-taste). [However, an ugly port town - a gateway - can keep tourist masses away...]

5) Surface water management. Water is usually “not an issue” since Samothraki is rich in waters! (Same situation in Southern Euboea…rich until mismanagement creates a crisis!). But this kind of criminal negligence of water management does finally have serious land-use and conservation consequences. Water is usually “stolen” from the state-run bore-holes (lax attitudes have prevailed here too). The mayor told us 14 of these have now become “regulated” and a fee is finally being levied! However, water is pumped directly from rivers each summer and weirs help it go out to fields (also in PVC pipelines). What are the results: Some streams stop running to the sea during summer (artificially intermittent degraded states; Eels for example are now rare in the streams, perhaps this is one reason for their decline…). Second, this water stress affects the precious and fragile small wetland environments. Lastly there is some locally increased pollution since sewage and other effluent enters rivers with unnaturally low water flow creating localized pollution perhaps augmented by low self-cleansing situations due to the low or no flow conditions. This shouldn’t be happening on Samothraki. Finally, due to the wastefulness of attitudes and disorganized state of water dealings, there is a feeling of “water stress”. A new irrigation reservoir is being built and it will take waters from the Ksiropotamos River – locals are in disarray and unable to fathom the impact. Perhaps impacts will be small-scale and localized but what is the feasibility of this? (It’s not clear to me even though I did read the EIS….). 

6) Tourism as an incentive to protect nature? Do we really need a tourism strategy? (Some may say that the absolutely Ad Hoc is just great thank you very much!). Is there any interest in really expanding the tourism season? Or in bringing special tourism that focuses on nature, culture, archeology, events, science, and education. Sure, some tourist happenings are taking place (some medical conferences etc.) but I feel much much more can be done if selected stakeholders, experts, planners and protected area experts sit down and dwell seriously on a tourism strategy. I feel a kind of lax just-floating-by attitude pervades tourism development here. For example, the island has some amazing trails and trekking opportunities, these are poorly developed. These AMAZING wilderness trails rival Greece’s best (e.g. NW Samos and SW Crete…that caliber). Why doesn’t the government and conservation movement “capitalize” on this? Could this be a sustainable incentive for protected area development? What about environmental education – Samothraki seems like a great destination – the “edge” location is an advantage here…Samothraki could invite schools, teams, academic groups etc. from Eastern and Central Europe and Turkey. Samothraki is a breath’s way away from Thessaloniki, Istanbul, Edirne, Bucharest, Sofia. 

7) A Protected Area? The island is a Natura 2000 site. On paper. What can be done? I will begin by saying that the regional government (and municipal government should take a stand – and fast before it’s too late…). They should both work to promote the best possible plans for a protected area and promote the completion of a special environmental study (and management plan) needed by Greek state law to have a functioning de facto protected area. This is a priority for the island for the following reasons: a) It will bring money and a new kind of “energy” to the island and its incentives since it is immediately connected to EU structural funds, smart developments, agricultural reforms, the overgrazing issue etc. …all seen as priorities by EU bureaucratic approaches. b) If drafted with care and negotiation it will help legislate the protection of some important landscapes, special habitat types, scenic areas etc, etc. (However, for some aspects such as grazing, fishing, water management some special studies are also needed). We have proposed Samothraki National Park with a peripheral eco-development area and zoning to protect both special places and special ecosystems yet allow for sustainable development, agriculture etc. The protected area is large enough, with unmatched wilderness-values, spectacularly scenic qualities, varied cultural landscapes, world-class archeology, and biodiversity richness both on land and sea. The flora, fauna, woods and many special habitats are enough to make this area eligible for this kind of status. A lower key park designation (Nature park etc would also be fine but the area does have a distinctiveness and grandeur to be of National Park status – and this kind of recognition and distinction may help the island propel itself forward as a proper protected area of international dimension with special management initiatives backed by national and regional governments). The National Park idea is akin to the MAB reserve idea. Both are complementary, they lend distinction and are based on special zoning, and world-class promotion for conservation.

8) A research and education laboratory. Research on an island is of “local interest”. The locale should gain from this. Samothraki is attractive as a long-term research area (as were other Greek islands back in the ‘60s and ’70s.. i.e. for foreign university groups, mostly on archaeological, ethnographic surveys and such endeavors). And since several researchers already have fallen in love Samothraki, we have a responsibility to contribute towards policy-relevant “useful” science that aims directly at helping conservation and sustainability. Of course, this is not easy, research is easy. But research must help policy, must assist resource management and planning- and it can. So this is the reason I think it’s really important to focus on local research here. And it can be a good example for more such “useful” research in other islands as well. 

In summary, I want to stress that I do not feel the major problem on Samothraki is overgrazing – and I have had similar experiences with this in Crete, Evia and Skyros (etc.). The problem has a multivariate nature and is deeper. Rapid agro-pastoral changes are accompanied or driven by imminent cultural changes – a roller-coaster of change and uncertainty. Can we control this; should we? A really chaotic system –especially in times of economic and other crises. The main issue for me is the lack of a strategic design for conservation and development within a protected-area framework. So, I urge we keep our minds open and dwell in deeper inter-disciplinary approaches with as much local involvement as possible. 

My fresh musings may need refinement. I may have misinterpreted things- I am still working on these ideas with friends and family.  I thank my science friends on Samothraki for their contributions: Nikos (HCMR research leader), Marina, Jurgen & Panos (from Austria), Anastasia, Natalia and Vassiliki. I wish us back in Samothraki soon!

I share some snapsshots from this year’s field working in our Samothraki Nature Observatory work.

Eleanora's falcons hawking insects above Chora. We tallied 47 bird species on the island this year. 

Terebinths in full seed at Ksiropotamos.

Near Ksiropotamos.
Near Varades. Bracken and a savanah of Planes and Spiny Pears.

NE part of the Island. Maple hedgehoge shrublets. Yes Maple (Acer sp.). Overgrazed.

The goats.

With the Tourists along the SE coast.
Dolphins are nearly always seen around the island.

North coast. 
Results of a rapid summer burn. NW of Chora.

Abandoned Olive Oil press at Ksiropotamos.
Nearby we found this kind man stewing sheep meat: the Shearing of the Sheep was taking place: a small festival.
Sheep shearing at Ksiropotamos.
Spending some time with the locals at the sheep shearing spot in the riparian forest.

Sheep shearing at Ksiropotamos.
Sheep shearing at Ksiropotamos.

Small salt lake, near Agios Andereas. Vassiliki scanning round.
Small salt lake, near Agios Andereas. Grey herons, Stilts.
Small salt lake, near Agios Andereas.  Anastasia taking water measurements.
Behind the beach near Agios Andereas. 


  1. We endorse your concerns regarding over-grazing and de-forestation. Combined efforts must be made to preserve this unique island.

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