May 5, 2018 - The butterfly shape formed by the peninsulas and the straits of the Boka Kotorska Bay is an image which has led the bay to be included on the list of the 25 most beautiful bays in the world. At the same time, the only fjord in the Mediterranean is an extremely vulnerable marine ecosystem and is facing numerous pressures of development which is not thought through strategically, nor with the imperative of nature protection as its priority.
In 1991, Montenegro became the first country in the world which proclaimed itself to be an ecological state, and the provision is also contained in the constitution of Montenegro as one of the fundamental social consensuses which define it as a state. However, environmental protection, although underlined as imperative in all relevant legal acts, is often not necessary in the work of state institutions, which often make decisions whose consequences are ecocides of smaller or larger proportions. In that context, the closed sea of Boka Bay has been exposed in recent years to significant pressures which, if controls are not established, could lead to long-term environmental consequences.
"Our reality is far from what we call sustainable development," says Vesna Mačić Ph. D., a marine biologist and the head of Laboratory for General Biology and Marine Protection at the Institute of Marine Biology (IBMK) in Kotor. “We are constantly talking about ecology, about the ecological state, about environmental protection. We have even laws that largely give us the ability to do that, but we are experts to circumvent laws, find holes in laws, even violate laws. What we have as a result is that the ecological situation in the bay, and not just in the bay, is anything but good.”
We often witness the implementation of projects which clearly, even for uninformed persons, have adverse effects on the ecosystem of Boka Kotorska. “We can see that even projects that change the terrain of the Boka Kotorska Bay are being approved and implemented. For example, there is the case of Verige Strait and the project of the so-called temporary building which has been constructed there, but which is by no means temporary. There is also the case of Dobrota, where a beach is being constructed for a tourist resort under the label of revitalisation. They are revitalising a beach which never existed before; the rocky coastline is being covered with sand and is being expanded to the detriment of the sea in a UNESCO protected natural and cultural area. That is contrary to the Law on Natural and Cultural Heritage Area of Kotor. We all know there has never been a beach there, just wooden platforms on metal poles. People who have allowed that cannot defend themselves by saying that they did not know, that they cannot distinguish platforms from beaches. Such level of ignorance is impossible, and I think people who are not doing their job in the right way should be held accountable,” says Mačić.
Two platforms will frame the 120 metre-long sandy beach in Dobrota with the total surface area of 600 square metres which will, in addition to changing the shape of the shore, changes the hydrodynamics of the bay as well. “All the micro-currents change when we introduce obstacles into the sea. The composition of the sea bottom is altered physically; its configuration is changed. When sand brought from other areas is added to the coastal belt it is washed out, a certain amount of nutrients and mineral salts comes into the sea, algae blossoms, there are changes in food chains. All this affects the quality of seawater, causes a change in the colour of the sea, and this influences the living world in the sea. With any construction on the coast, whether it is a beach or a platform, you physically destroy all living world that used to exist there. The development of a beach for the needs of the Dobrota Palazzi tourist complex is threatening the nearby fishing post. The ordinance on fishing posts says that nothing can be built within a radius of a hundred metres from the protected post, there must be no platforms or buoys which could prevent fishers from pulling their fishing nets. All of the above shows that there are several laws which deal with the protection of nature and resources which have been broken, but the facility still has all the permits from the competent authorities and is currently being implemented.
When the environmental impact assessments are made, it is very wrong that people look just at individual locations, according to the investor's wishes. “We forget that nature, and especially the sea, is a whole that cannot be viewed in a narrow sense; it cannot be studied or protected on a narrow basis. If something enters the sea, it will not stay in one place but will spread and cause consequences for all organisms. This is not the problem of individual locations. Construction of a single beach or platform will not cause catastrophic consequences for the sea and the living world in it. But, what is disastrous is the fact that this is not just one beach or platform. We have a large number of illegal beaches, illegal platforms, illegal shore changes. When all this is put together, of course, there are major changes.”
An even more significant problem than illegal changes to the coast are projects that are implemented with all the required permits and approvals received. Mačić is afraid that this practice could be repeated at other locations. Speaking about the site of the Dobrota Camp, she says that wrong and unlawful decisions of institutions have led to the situation that the project has all the necessary permits, adding that the state prosecution should look into the activities of the competent institutions in this case.
“Time will show how much we as a state are capable of bringing such processes to an end and of making sure that those responsible for herbicides and ecocides are adequately punished for their actions,” says Mačić, adding that we have been behaving unreasonably for decades and that the sea has been giving us clear signals that a lot of things are wrong. “It is up to us to look at the situation and begin to behave reasonably, stop damaging both the sea and ourselves. This does not help us use resources from the sea, nor to develop tourism on which we declaratively insist, nor to develop our towns, or anything else. I really do not see the purpose of our such behaviour towards nature,” says Vesna Mačić, Ph.D., an expert on the protection of the marine ecosystem.
Narrow benefits for the current users of individual small-scale locations in Boka indeed exist, but they are not a reason nor justification for the dysfunctionality of institutions that should be concerned with the protection of natural heritage. Changes in micro-currents in the sea water of a deep and quiet fjord are a very serious problem, which further makes difficult the already slow exchange of the water in the bay, especially in the UNESCO’s area of Kotor-Risan basin.
“The exchange of water between the bay and the open sea is very low because the bay is quite closed and that makes all these small currents very important. We also know that we have springs of freshwater at the seabed and near the shore. This is a specific feature of our bay, which is not a rare occurrence just on our coast, but throughout the Mediterranean. We even have some protected organisms; they are very rare and live here for a long time. We, instead of protecting them, are destroying them in various ways. We at the Marine Biology Institute have been working on studies of marine currents in the bay, but for a more precise picture, you need more time. A lot depends on the precipitation, temperature and other abiotic parameters. All the obstacles placed in the sea influence the situation, and the specific influence depends on dimensions, construction, and materials they are made of,” explains Mačić, pointing out that there are ecologically much less harmful solutions than those dominating the Boka area, including the construction of solid concrete platforms and the filling of sandy swimming areas.
“Another serious problem is the issue of cruise ships coming into Boka Kotorska Bay, which has been a widespread occurrence in recent years. They are huge structures at sea. Of course, it is nice to have them, they are beneficial for the development of the economy, the town and the country, but I think we have overdone it a bit. While these ships are turning, they are creating currents, whirlpools, changes that are simply not natural for the bay. A balance needs to be struck between the need for economic development and the preservation of the environment. I think we have already failed at this since we are only interested in how to increase the number of these ships as much as possible, how to have more tourists. But we can see that it has a negative impact not only on the sea but also on the coast where the situation is becoming unbearable. There are major traffic jams, huge crowds in the Old Town. There are both positive and negative effects, but it seems to me that the negative ones are becoming more prevalent.“
The need to establish controls over the number and dynamics of cruise ships has been recognised by other destinations. "Both Venice and Dubrovnik have limited the number of visitors because they realise that spatial capacities are something that cannot be changed just because of a strong desire for quick profits. I do not believe that it is our goal to have a sea in which we cannot swim anymore.”
It is complicated to link all the relevant services in the development planning, but Mačić is of the opinion that it would be equally difficult for us to do it even if there were expertise and synergies in the work of the institutions because there is no political will for these things to be done. Although the protection instruments are clearly defined by law, they are very often implemented just for show. An example is environmental impacts studies, whose drafting is obligatory for all projects planned at the coast and sea.
“I had several opportunities to read environmental impact studies for certain projects whose text had been literally copied from other documents, and I think that their ‘authors’ should be held responsible for malpractice. I think this is in some way a picture of the complete decadence of our society. If we have university professors who copy or allow that to happen, then it is certainly happening at other levels as well. The problem is critical and is present in various sectors. I think it is good that citizens have started to organise themselves in various ways and to point out a lot of what is not right. An excellent example is the Stop Illegal Fishing citizens’ group, which is organised around the long-time issue of illegal fishing. They have been able to make state institutions do their job a bit better. They have failed to solve the problem, far from it, but they did make a positive contribution. We need to point this out and congratulate them, and be aware that citizens with their activities can contribute to avoiding some mistakes in the future.”
The aforementioned example of positive moves on the issue of curbing illegal fishing shows an obstacle that often arises as crucial on the path towards establishing a more effective protection system in Montenegro. And that is the ultimate step – the activities of the prosecution authorities and the judiciary in prosecuting the offenders. Although the police and inspection services, in cooperation with civil society organizations and citizens, make significant efforts and succeed in catching and processing the perpetrators of criminal offenses, no one has yet been punished by law for criminal offenses, the most serious of which is illegal fishing with dynamite, which is, according to the data from the Hydrographic Institute from Split, present at 48 locations along the Montenegrin coast.
“I think this is the weakest point. We can see there have been no legal charges which we expected. Even in some cases where people were caught with illegal equipment or while carrying out illegal activities, they have not yet been prosecuted. We have no information about cases that occurred in June last year, which is a disgrace. The prosecution and the judiciary have not concluded the process. If all the previous steps are done, but in the end, the court case is trivialised, then one wonders what this is all about. And that is a proof of how much our system has failed at various levels,” says Mačić who, as an underwater researcher, is familiar with all the consequences that the “land-based” activities have on the living world and the sea landscape.
Boka Kotorska is the only fjord in the Mediterranean. It was created by flooding the mouth of the Crnoduboka River, which descended from the Montenegrin and Herzegovinian hills near Risno. It contains four smaller bays, which define two peninsulas – Vrmac and Luštica. It is a natural landmark and one of the 25 most beautiful bays in the world. It was recommended for the inclusion in the UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage List primarily due to the combination of natural and anthropogenic factors – a unique and harmonious cultural landscape that, in addition to exceptional cultural assets, fascinates us with its play of nature and the ability of the local population to uplift it. Nature was generous here, both in terms of the dynamic configuration of the terrain and the richness of the living world, comfortably located in the beneficial submediterranean climate. In recent years, under pressure from development which is not accompanied by a strategy and concern for heritage, Montenegro has been under threat that the only UNESCO site on its territory could be eliminated from the World Heritage List due to inadequate management practices.