Blue Lab: improving the environmental status of the Natura 2000 marine site of l’Albera in Llançà through restoration and local engagement

 

BlueLab is a SUBMON project that seeks to improve the environmental status of the Natura 2000 marine site of l’Albera, in Llançà, a marine area of high conservation interest. The project, initiated through a stewardship agreement in 2021 between SUBMON, the Llançà City Council, and the Generalitat de Catalunya, boasts an innovative approach. Its bottom-up perspective prioritises local stakeholder involvement and marks BlueLab as a pioneering initiative in Catalonia. The project encompasses a range of activities, such as restoration, conservation, and educational initiatives aimed at restoring and protecting the marine biodiversity within this area. 

BlueLab is led by SUBMON in collaboration with the Llançà City Council, the Cap de Creus Natural Park, the Llançà Fishermen’s Guild, and the local community. 

The project

 

BlueLab is a comprehensive marine biodiversity conservation project that started in 2021 with an agreement signed by the Llançà City Council, the Generalitat de Catalunya, and SUBMON. This agreement covers the marine area of the Natura 2000 site ES5120014-L’Albera, a designated Special Conservation Area (SCA) of immense environmental value. The agreement is valid for a period of 4 years (until May 2025) and can be extended for a further period of 4 years at the end of its term.

This area hosts both Posidonia oceanica and Zostera noltei, two marine plants that create vital ecosystems in the Mediterranean, as well as other species of interest. However, despite being officially protected with defined conservation goals, the area was not effectively managed, and many people were still unaware of the site’s protection status. All these circumstances led to the creation of this innovative initiative.

With this in mind, BlueLab pursues two primary objectives: firstly, to guarantee the maintenance or restoration of the good environmental status of the site; and secondly, to engage and involve the local population in the conservation of this marine Natura 2000 site, fostering a deeper understanding of its marine biodiversity and ecosystem services.

BlueLab has turned L’Albera into a unique space where conservation activities seamlessly integrate with opportunities for engaging the local community and visitors. It now stands not only as a stronghold for preservation but also as a hub for collaborative efforts aimed at protecting the marine biodiversity of the area.

The area

 

L’Albera, situated on the shores of Canyelles and el Rastell in Llançà, is a Special Conservation Area (SCA) covering both terrestrial and marine environments, totalling around 5 hectares.

This marine zone houses a meadow of Neptune seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) and another of Zostera noltei, two keystone species of the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, it serves as a popular spot for recreational activities like snorkelling and kayaking, making it an ideal location for environmental education initiatives.

L’Albera area is part of the Natura 2000 Network, a European network of biodiversity conservation areas created from Directive 92/43 /EEC and whose objective is to promote the good state of conservation of habitats and species of community interest and contribute to stopping the loss of biodiversity. It is the most extensive network of protected areas in the world and is the main instrument for nature conservation in the European Union. Marine spaces represent 38% of the total area of this network.

Map of the Natura 2000 site of l'Albera
Mapping of marine phanerogams in the Natura 2000 area of l'Albera.

BlueLab accomplishments

acord custodia Albera

1. The stewardship agreement (May 2021)

The BlueLab project is based on a marine stewardship agreement, a relatively underexplored concept in Europe’s protected areas and the marine Natura 2000 network. In 2021, the Department of Climate Action, Agriculture and Rural Agenda (DACC) of the Generalitat de Catalunya, the City Council of Llançà, and SUBMON signed the agreement, which covered the marine area of the Natura 2000 Network ES5120014- La Albera, located on the beaches of Canyelles and el Rastell, in the municipality of Llançà. This collaborative endeavour aims to conserve and promote the marine biodiversity within this area while raising awareness among the local community about its protective designation. 

Marine stewardship is a conservation and protection strategy aimed at fostering responsibility among competent organisations and users of the marine environment for its preservation and sustainable resource utilisation. This legal agreement, applied to the marine space of L’Albera, regulates all protective, conservation, restoration, and awareness initiatives conducted by SUBMON in this area. It complements the efforts of the authorities in managing the protected zone.

Since the inception of the marine stewardship commitment, SUBMON has directed its efforts towards assessing the environmental conservation status of the area, leading to the identification of various anthropogenic impacts. Some of these impacts are the impoverishment of water quality, global warming, or the mechanical impact on the seabed, mainly caused by boat mooring and anchoring. As a result, a series of targeted actions have been implemented in the area in order to address these impacts.

2. Evaluation of the status of the Neptune seagrass meadow (July 2021)

The study of the environmental status of the area started as soon as the contract was signed. During this initial assessment, we examined the density and coverage of Neptune seagrass shoots and mapped 30,000m2 of Posidonia oceanica meadows. 

As a result of this initial assessment, various anthropogenic impacts were identified. In many cases, these were due to visitors’ lack of knowledge of the protected area and the lack of monitoring and control of human activities in the area. 

One of the threats identified was the unregulated anchoring of recreational vessels. Anchors, chains, and concrete blocks placed without permission by users create a mechanical impact on the meadows, leading to habitat degradation. In this context, we proceeded to locate and extract anchor blocks that were impacting the meadows. A total of 16 objects were removed, with a total weight of 1.72 tons of waste. In order to raise awareness about this issue, we also organised educational days for the local population, organisations and tourism companies in the area.

SUBMON technician preparing for shoot density calculation in the area.
Replanted Neptune seagrass shoots.
Shoots of Neptune seagrass collected after the storms.

3. Replanting shoots of Neptune seagrass (2022-2023)

Neptune seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) plays a key ecological role as a fundamental habitat for many plant and animal species. It is decisive in many processes, such as mitigating the effects of climate change, capturing and fixing carbon dioxide, and protecting the coast from the impact of storms. For these reasons, it is a protected species at European, national, and regional levels.

Submon initially conducted a comprehensive assessment of the Neptune seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) meadow, leading to the launch of a pilot project aimed at replanting shoots of this seagrass species torn up by storms. The goal was to evaluate a non-destructive methodology for restoring degraded Neptune seagrass areas. Unlike conventional methods, which involve using cuttings from healthy meadows, this pilot trial used recovered shoots that have been naturally uprooted by storms. To date, more than 230 Neptune seagrass shoots have been successfully replanted, selecting the most viable specimens and using biodegradable bamboo canes to secure them to the substrate. Four months after replanting the first shoots, partial results showed a survival rate of 74.8%.

It’s worth noting that replanting Neptune seagrass shoots is a delicate task since this species is very sensitive to any disturbance. In fact, previous studies have shown a low survival rate for shoots after three years, underscoring the need for ongoing research into various methodologies and the necessity for long-term monitoring of replanted shoots. In light of this, SUBMON’s project has three clear objectives: first, to avoid impacting healthy meadows, focusing solely on replanting shoots that couldn’t thrive independently; second, to conduct sustained environmental monitoring of the replanted shoots within the stewardship area; and third, to engage the community in the project. This involvement extends beyond shoot recovery to using the project’s context to educate and raise awareness about the vital role of Neptune seagrass meadows.

4. Noble pen shells larvae collectors (2021-2023)

In this stewardship area, our efforts have extended beyond just replanting Neptune seagrass shoots. As part of the Pan-Mediterranean larval-collector network, in 2021, 2022 and 2023, we installed noble pen shell (Pinna nobilis) larvae collectors. This extraordinary bivalve mollusc, endemic to the Mediterranean Sea, flourishes in seagrass meadows, particularly those dominated by Posidonia. With some specimens reaching over a meter in length, it stands as a symbolic figure in the Mediterranean. Since late 2016, a notable decline in the Noble Pen Shell population along the Spanish coast has been observed, primarily attributed to a recently identified parasite, Haplosporidium pinnae. This parasite has led to a staggering 99% mortality rate among Noble Pen Shells on the Spanish Mediterranean coast and has subsequently spread to other regions.

In our dedication to safeguarding this vital species, we have implemented a series of strategic measures within our stewardship area. These encompass the meticulous placement of collectors, routine integrity checks, and periodic cleanings to ensure their continued effectiveness. Finally, as the last step, we conducted a thorough evaluation to assess the potential recruitment of noble pen shell larvae.

Installation of noble pen shells larvae collectors.
"Llançà't per la conservació" event.
Co-creation workshop with the local community.

5. Local engagement (2021-2023)

BlueLab stands as an innovative project that focuses on local engagement, showing the growing importance of communities in the restoration and conservation of protected habitats and species. Since its inception, BlueLab has managed to actively involve the Llançà community and local entities, thus promoting a better appreciation of the marine protected area. An excellent instance of this community engagement occurred during the Neptune seagrass replanting campaign, with local citizens actively participating in shoot collection, while other local entities offered their invaluable support.

BlueLab has also achieved remarkable outcomes through community-driven and citizen science initiatives. A great example was the launch of a co-creation workshop with the local community aimed at designing a citizen science project to monitor the marine biodiversity in the area. Thanks to the collaboration with EmpordaiNAT, an observation layer was created in the iNATURALIST app, with a record of over 4372 species observed by more than 77 users.

Additionally, the program “Sentinels of L’Albera” has garnered the support of 50 individuals who have actively committed to protecting the space and fostering environmental awareness within the community. Besides, on World Oceans Day, we organised an event called “Llançà’t per la conservació” to increase awareness about the Albera Natura 2000 Network area and its diverse marine life. We aimed to inspire individuals to safeguard this natural wonder and admire its exceptional beauty up close.

The awareness efforts to promote respectful use of the area and to raise awareness about its protected status have proven highly successful. Nearly two years since the beginning of the stewardship agreement, there has been a noticeable positive shift in how the local community values the protected marine area. Both local authorities and citizens have become more involved in its conservation. In essence, the BlueLab project is a shining example of how citizen involvement can significantly contribute to the recovery, restoration, and preservation of protected marine areas.

Next steps

The Blue Lab project is of strategic importance to SUBMON, and consequently, our goal is to ensure its continuity and further development in the future. In this regard, BlueLab is not just another project but one in which SUBMON truly believes. For this reason, SUBMON will continue to work to preserve this area of great environmental value.