Ulcinj Salina (Montenegro). Photo: © MedWet/ C. Amico

Saving the Salina 

Do you know what connects an artisanal table condiment, 250 species of birds, and a Balkan state’s application to join the European Union?

Not many people would respond ‘an artificial wetland’, but that’s the surprising answer. Specifically, we’re talking about the salt pans at Ulcinj, Montenegro – and we’ll explain the connection in a moment.

First, though, some background. Salt pans – or ‘salinas’ as they’re often known – are a unique kind of coastal wetland, whose use dates back to pre-Roman times. There are a variety of salinas across the world which work in different ways, but they all share the same basic principle: shallow basins are constructed to trap salt water from the sea or coastal lagoons, which then evaporates naturally in the sun, leaving behind salt crystals.

Salt-making is very much part of the cultural heritage of the Mediterranean, a fact reflected by its many salinas. As has been the case with agriculture, also based on the harvesting of natural resources, salt production has gradually evolved to become an efficient modern industry – but the salt pans themselves have changed little over centuries. During that time, despite their artificial origins, many Mediterranean salinas have become vitally important sites for wetland biodiversity.

Ulcinj Salina is one of the largest in the Mediterranean region, with its system of basins covering some 1,500 hectares. It’s the last stop-off point for birds migrating across the Adriatic, and provides crucial nesting, wintering and roosting grounds for many others. More than 250 species of birds have been recorded there, including flamingos, black-winged stilts and Dalmatian pelicans. The saltpans at Ulcinj are also home to many endangered fish, amphibians, reptiles and saline plants.

Birds in Ulcinj Salina. Photo: © MedWet/C. Amico

The saltworks themselves were set up by state-run company Bajo Sekulic in 1935, producing up to 40,000 tonnes of salt each year at their peak and providing more than 400 sought-after jobs for the local community. Former water-pump operator Mujo Taffa, himself the son of a salina worker, remembers that “When we were growing up, we children always wanted to work in the salina. We loved it, because through the work that Dad did we had a high standard of living, even though there were many of us. So it was always the salina which addressed our needs.”

Salworks in Ulcinj Salina. Photo: © CZIP

Even as the salina transformed the landscape around Ulcinj, nature benefited. Pumping out fresh water and pumping in salt water through its dykes and channels maintained the ecological processes of a complex wetland system, providing a unique habitat for hundreds of species. Ulcinj Salina was a superb example of how industry and biodiversity could coexist.

At least, it was until 2002.

That was when Bajo Sekulic was bought out by investment fund Eurofond, and the site was gradually allowed to run down in the face of mounting debts. The salt harvest finally stopped in 2013, and the remaining workers were dismissed as the owners filed for bankruptcy. Ulcinj Salina deteriorated as legally questionable efforts were made to sell it and construct a luxury hotel resort with golf courses and a marina. Gradually, its systems ran into disrepair, and the unique character of the habitat and its ecological processes became threatened by fresh water infiltrating the saltpans. As a result, the salt basins began to dry out, destroying the wetland habitat so many species had come to depend on.

The story could have ended there, one more example of something good gone bad, of nature losing out to greed (or maybe just incompetence). But here’s the thing: that’s not what happened.

Instead, a remarkable coalition came together to – as the hashtag they adopted put it – #SaveSalina and restore it to its former state. Spearheading the high-profile campaign alongside members of the local community were the environmental organisation EuroNatur Foundation and its partners BirdLife Europe and Central Asia, Center for Protection and Research of Birds (CZIP), Dr. Martin Schneider-Jacoby Association (MSJA) and Tour du Valat. And their efforts had international political support: notably, the ambassadors of France, Germany and Poland jointly intervened to call on the Montenegrin government to halt the proposed sale of the site, restart the saltworks, and breathe life back in to the region’s biodiversity.

After years of work the sustained campaign won a landmark victory in June 2019, when the saltpans were declared a national protected area in recognition of their ecological and cultural value; then in a further major boost Ulcinj Salina was added to the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. In June 2022, the municipality of Ulcinj confirmed that the salina was registered as state property, and announced that a management body would be in place by October.

There’s still work to do before the long-term future of the site is secured – but the world is watching. The European Commission has made it clear that action on Ulcinj Salina will be required for Montenegro to join the European Union, in light of its environmental importance.

Nevertheless, the direction of travel is very encouraging, and the major battle to #SaveSalina has been won. There are jobs again at the saltworks, and plans for the future. The area is already a growing attraction for birdwatchers and ecotourists. And this artificial coastal wetland is once more working for the birds and biodiversity of Montenegro and the Adriatic.