Lake Bardawil, a shallow saline lake in North Sinai separated from the sea by a narrow ridge of sand, is both a major fish resource and a valued temporary home for migratory birds. A place of serene, idyllic beauty, it is one of the few lakes in the world that remain unpolluted.
Yet the present condition of the lake is alarming. Tarek Qanawati, director-general of biodiversity at the Ministry of Environment’s natural reserves department says: “In the past few years, the condition of the lake deteriorated; its fish production declined drastically. Many native species are now endangered and overfishing has depleted the lake’s natural resources. This has led to the exponential growth of foreign species which made their way into the lake. For instance, the landings in Lake Bardawil used to consist mainly of gilt-head bream and grey mullet but, because of overfishing, the numbers of these species are decreasing and other species such as shrimp and crabs are on the rise. This is an alarming sign and indicates a change in the lake’s ecosystem. The current lake production stands at 3,000 tons of crustaceans and 2,240 tons of fish a year.”
The Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture closes the lake for fishing about four months every year for the spawning season. This usually begins during the winter season and runs into Spring.
The lake was recently cleared of 2,700 tons of debris, mainly vehicle and tyre waste. A plan is being set up to make better use of the lake produce by improving the fish storage system, building new facilities for processing and production, and establishing a hatchery for European sea bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) and gilt-head bream (Sparus aurata). The Lake Bardawil development project is expected to cost EGP3 million.
To learn more about the cleansing process and the future development plans for Lake Bardawil, Watani talked to Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmy, who confirmed that the eastern extension of Lake Bardawil is already a protected area, as per a prime ministerial decree in 1985 amended in 1996, in accordance with the protected areas law 102 of 1983.
The hyper-saline water lake, which covers an area of 165 feddans, is in Egypt second in size only to Lake Manzala on the Mediterranean coast of North Sinai at Port Said. Bardawil also lies on the North Sinai Mediterranean coast some 35km east of Port Said and 50km west of al-Arish. It is 70km long and 40km wide. Its eastern side runs into the Zaraniq Protected Area, a strip of land 40km long and 3km wide.
Lake Bardawil is separated from the sea by a narrow sand ridge the width of which varies between 1km and 100m. The lake is shallow; its depth ranges between 50cm and 3m and it is often flooded with seawater. The bottom is sandy. As well as sea bass and bream, the fish that make up an annual 2,240 tons include grey mullet (Mugil cephalus), sole (Solea solea) and golden grouper (Epinephelus alexandrines). The fish is highly reputed and sells at high prices on global markets.
Dr Fahmy says that cleansing processes inside natural reserves must be supervised by the Ministry of Environment’s Protected Areas Department to ensure no harm is done to any natural habitat, and to avoid any possible environmental hazard.
The fish nursery project, which aims to increase fish production, is run by the Ministry of Agriculture. It is not unusual for some parts of natural reserves to fall under the control of other ministries, as in case of Bardawil and Burullus lakes where some projects follow the Ministry of Agriculture, the Fisheries Development Authority (FDA) or the Agricultural Development Authority. In this case, these ministries run the project while the Ministry of Environment exercises a managerial and supervisory role, and sets the rules and environmental regulations that must be respected.
Migratory birds stop to feed at Lake Bardawil during their annual migration and pose a possible concern for the lake’s fish population. Dr Fahmy explains that the issue of the protection of migratory birds on one hand and the need to maintain the balance between the birds and the elements of the ecosystem on the other is governed by international treaties. “If anything occurs that disrupts the ecosystem, for instance a decrease in fish population,” he says, “we immediately resort to fish culture by introducing fish seed to restore the balance. Less fish in the lake means less feed for migrating birds, possibly spelling a death sentence. So the delicate ecosystem must be maintained; any disruption in its elements constitutes a real threat.”
Yet the decrease in the number of fish in Lake Bardawil, Dr Fahmy explains, is not necessarily linked to the migratory birds. Other reasons relate to the quality of the lake water, decrease in oxygen levels in the water, overfishing, and human activity, all of which pose environmental hazards.
The fish production in Lake Bardawil has gone through three main phases: the first from 1952 to 1967 in which the average yearly production was 1,460 tons, and the second during the Israeli occupation of Sinai when the average yearly production was 1,530 tons. The third and latest phase began after Egypt regained control over Sinai in 1982, after which the average yearly production rose to 2,240 tons. The target now, he says, is to raise the figure to 5000 tons.
The Ministry of Environment is taking serious measures to protect the lake from detrimental human activity. Such measures include forming groups of workmen to guard the lake and patrol its shores, water surface, and the bridges leading to it. Any violations are penalised, Dr Fahmy says.
As for overfishing, Dr Fahmy says the ministry is coordinating with the FDA to place a ban on fishing during specific periods in order to protect the juvenile fish and ensure their growth and reproduction. Fishermen are only allowed to use certified fishing gear and large mesh fishing nets that prevent the netting of small fish.
A social development programme is also being set up to provide new job opportunities for the fishermen of North Sinai, where more than 5,000 families, representing half the population of the governorate, depend on fishing or lake-related jobs. The programme includes a set of technical, social and economic measures that aim to create a balance between the rising number of fishermen and the available natural resources, and determine ways to deal with the various problems that may arise on that head. A number of countries that are home to the migratory birds have offered to help support the fishermen or provide them with alternative jobs during closure of the fishing grounds in the reproduction season.
Another serious problem that could be life-threatening to the fish population, Dr Fahmy says, is the decrease of oxygen levels in the water. This is tackled by ensuring proper ventilation and the free flow of fresh water from the sea. The lake inlets are cleared of any suspended solids and sediments that may block them. Other more complicated solutions include the introduction of certain species that excrete oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Many solutions are available, but they have to be thoroughly studied to determine which is better suited to the lake’s ecosystem, he says.
Lake Bardawil, however, is not entirely protected. Only the eastern section of the lagoon is included in the Zaraniq natural reserve, consisting mainly of sabkha (salt marshes) which is the natural habitat for some endangered species such as the Egyptian sea turtle. Its position as an important stop on the path of migratory birds makes birdwatching one of the key activities in the area.
Bardawil is also one of those lakes rare in Egypt where the boundaries have remained unchanged since the beginning of the 20th century. It is also one of the purest lakes worldwide in the sense that it has not been subject to any agricultural or industrial pollution.
Dr Qanawati warns, however, of current agricultural activity around the southern shore of the lake. This, he says, is an area of sandy soil, but parts of it are being reclaimed for use in agriculture. “This poses a serious hazard to the lake,” he says. “Any leakage of the agricultural drainage system or runoff to the lake is sure to pollute its pristine waters. Land reclamation so close to the lake’s delicate ecosystem must be preceded by careful studies to prevent such a disaster.”
No threat from birds
Several international treaties set a framework for the protection of migratory birds, Dr Qanawati explains. Egypt has ratified the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA), which came into force on 1 November 1999, and works to protect migratory birds during the migration seasons, particularly endangered species. The agreement aims to diminish the perishing of the birds owing to hunting or such other reasons as their direct contact with electric power lines and wind power generation plants.
Dr Qanawati does not regard migratory birds as a threat to the fisheries in the lake, especially in that their numbers have not increased over the past few years and that local fishermen have not expressed any concern. On the contrary, the birds that gather in the region for two weeks in autumn and spring are part of the region’s ecosystem and an important component of the region’s circle of life. They are mainly water birds who pause briefly at the lake during their seasonal migration to feed on the lake’s fish before continuing their flight to their destination.
“I disapprove of the idea of establishing additional fisheries in the lake on the pretext of compensating for the fish eaten by migratory birds,” Dr Qanawati says. “Any fisheries should be established outside the lake to guard against alternative solutions that would harm the lake’s marine life. We don’t need additional fisheries; all we need is a sound development plan and efficient management to revive the lake.”
“Efforts are currently being coordinated among the ministries of environment and agriculture and a company affiliated with the Armed Forces to study the reasons for the change in the lake’s ecosystem,” Dr Qanawati says. “They will draw up a plan to restore Lake Bardawil to its previous state.”
Dr Qanawati says the sanitisation work is a procedure regularly performed in the northern coastal lakes of Bardawil, Manzala, and Burullus, which draw their waters from the Mediterranean. Sanitisation clears the inlets of silt and debris to allow for the passage of fresh water from the sea which in turn helps conserve the marine ecosystem in the lake and prevent it from becoming a swamp. Silting is another major threat to Lake Bardawil which necessitates that the inlets be cleaned regularly and that protection heads and bridges be built at these inlets for constant monitoring of the state of the lake. The EU has donated suction dredges and marine service boats to help with the sanitisation.
“The first steps to implement the Lake Bardawil protection plan are already taking place,” Dr Qanawati says. “The ministries of environment and agriculture and the Institute of Marine Studies are currently collecting the necessary information. The time frame required to improve the environmental conditions of the lake and increase its fish production should not be long. The Bardawil fish are highly demanded in European countries such as Greece, Cyprus and Italy because Bardawil is renowned as one of the few remaining unpolluted lakes.”
2 September 2015