Towards co-management of Gialova Lagoon : A Natura 2000 coastal wetland in Messinia, Greece

Abstract: The management of Natura 2000 sites is considered as the cornerstone for the conservation and restoration of biodiversity within Europe. However, protected ecosystems provide a plethora of benefits to local societies, and support the local economy. Thus, to seek solutions for complex environmental issues within Natura 2000 sties it is imperative to approach the site of concern as a connected social-ecological system, and to strengthen the participation of stakeholders in decision-making following a co-management approach.Gialova Lagoon wetland, in Messinia, Greece represents an example of Natura 2000 site which needs to be managed. The overall aim of the PhD thesis was to assess the problem of lagoon salinization, and provide policy recommendations for wetland restoration and management of associated freshwater resources under a changing climate. The thesis has followed a social-ecological approach, by integrating DPSIR framework with participatory Systems Dynamic modelling and the concept of ecosystem services. Knowledge gaps about major social and ecological components were assessed by applying a variety of methods, namely (a) field monitoring and observations, (b) GIS analyses, (c) consultation with stakeholders, (d) modelling and scenarios.The thesis results suggested that past human interventions had multi-fold effects on the Gialova Lagoon wetland, namely hydrology alteration, ecosystem fragmentation, loss and transformation of natural habitats. Furthermore, the combined effects of alterations in hydrology and climate change have led to increased salinity in the wetland over time. These alterations had profound implications on wetland ecosystem services such as the diversity of habitats and waterbirds and the provision of fish. Under contemporary hydrological connectivity and on-going climatic conditions, the mean annual salinity of the lagoon has increased from approximately 35 g/L during the period 2016-2018 to approximately 40 g/L during the period 2021-2023 indicating a salinization increase of approximately 1 g/L per year. To identify restoration alternatives, the work under the PhD thesis has engaged scientists with local stakeholders from the sectors of agriculture, fishing, tourism, and public administration, in a co-management approach. The end product, an SDM (Systems-Dynamics model) co-created with stakeholders, was suitable for exploring scenarios for salinity regulation and management of associated freshwater resources, under a changing climate (RCP 4.5). The derived management suggestions, namely restoration of the connectivity with the surrounding freshwater bodies (river, artesian springs) and between habitats (e.g., lagoon-marshes), could result in the de-salinization of the lagoon within a 10-year period, and could be applied within the Natura 2000 framework as they consider social and ecological needs (e.g. enhancement of biodiversity and fish production). However, under current abstraction rates for irrigation and municipal water-supply, there is a high risk of groundwater scarcity during years with dry conditions, and thus investments in water-saving technologies (e.g. smart irrigation) should be promoted to ensure adequate water availability for restoration, and enhanced resilience of the local economy against groundwater scarcity.