Ulcinj Salina has been declared a national protected area! For the past 15 years, our Montenegrin partner CZIP has fought tirelessly to block a controversial building development poised to destroy one of Europe’s most important migratory bird sites.

By Gui-Xi Young – Editor & Campaigns Officer, BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

Ulcinj Salina © CZIP

At long last, the salt pans of Ulcinj Salina have been declared a national protected area! For the past 15 years, our Montenegrin partner CZIP has fought tirelessly to block a controversial building development poised to destroy one of Europe’s most important migratory bird resting and breeding sites. BirdLife partners up and down the flyways join CZIP in celebrating this epic victory for nature and people. 

For almost a century, salt – the precious “white gold” of Ulcinj Salina – ensured that life here was good for birds and people alike. The huge salt production complex, in operation from the 1920s until 2013, miraculously transformed the landscape around the small coastal town of Ulcinj into a living expression of harmonious coexistence between nature and people. With 40,000 tons of annual salt production came employment and prosperity for the local community, along with thousands of migratory birds attracted by the unique, biodiversity-rich ecosystem created by the man-made salt pans.

Breathtaking flocks of Greater flamingo and Dalmatian pelican, along with over 250 different bird species, earned Ulcinj Salina its international reputation as a great bird paradise of the Adriatic. But in 2005, the golden age of Ulcinj came to an end. The salt pans were privatized and the new ownership’s agenda was soon revealed when it won governmental approval for its controversial plans to drain the site and build a luxury tourist resort. When the company went bankrupt in 2011, workers lost their jobs and the salt pans were left to fall into ruin. The water pumps – essential for maintaining water levels for nesting and foraging birds – were turned off overnight. Their abandonment has had hugely damaging consequences for the site’s fragile man-made ecosystem; nests have been flooded and noticeably fewer birds have been coming with each passing year.

Our Montenegrin partner, CZIP, has spent the last decade fighting tirelessly to block the resort development and see the resumption of salt production, without which they warned “this place will die”. Despite public support, the road to victory seemed to be blocked by insurmountable odds – from acts of vandalism and allegations of business corruption, to the raiding of flamingo nests.

But last year, the fight started to gain international attention when BirdLife joined CZIP and the German environmental NGO EuroNatur to launch the #SaveSalina campaign. The online petition succeeded in gathering more than 100,000 signatures, making it one of the biggest petitions of its kind in Montenegro. Its presentation to the Montenegrin Prime Minister Duško Marković in April was a watershed moment, with the head of government pledging his commitment to saving the salina.

Finally, on 25 June, the local parliament of the Ulcinj municipality voted to declare the salt pans a national protected area in recognition of their distinct ecological and cultural value. “This is the great victory for nature in recent Montenegrin history” says CZIP’s Executive Director, Jovana Janjušević. Crediting the support of the 100,000 Europeans who signed the #SaveSalina petition she adds “All these people showed that in today’s world, there is no greater luxury than protecting nature.”

And of course, it is also a victory for the birds of Ulcinj, such as the Little tern, Kentish plover, Black-winged stilt or Common shelduck. CZIP ornithologist Bojan Zeković notes optimistically that “there is hope for species that have nested in the past or have had failed attempts in recent years, such as the Pied avocet, Oystercatcher, Greater flamingo”.

This protection of Ulcinj – a critical site within a wider Mediterranean network of coastal wetlands – is also “an important piece of a bigger puzzle” remarks Sofia Capellan, IBA Conservation Officer at BirdLife Europe. Coastal wetlands act as buffer areas when extreme events such as storms and floods happen. They have an important role to play as nature-based solutions to tackle big societal challenges such as climate change, but also water pollution, human health and natural disaster.

Conservationists will continue to keep a close eye on Ulcinj. Its newly awarded protected status must “not become a fig leaf for the government” warns EuroNatur Director, Gabriel Schwaderer. Now is the time, he adds, to “revitalize the salt works”. This site, once protected and well managed, could support a vibrant economy of salt production and sustainable tourism in which people and nature truly benefit from each other.