Restoring abandoned salt pans as a waterbird habitat.

A flock of greater flamingos, among one of the many waterbird species that used to occur at the Swartkops salt pans. Credit: Paul Martin
The Swartkops salt pans in July 2019, dry and depauperate. Credit: Johan Wasserman

Overview

A solar saltworks at Swartkops Estuary, Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape, South Africa) was abandoned in 2018 due to the continuous theft and vandalism of the infrastructure. While operational, the salt pans were utilized diverse waterbird communities (of resident and migrant species), and formed an integral component of the Swartkops Global Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA). The salt pans were particularly important for providing safe nesting sites for resident species in the form of salt marsh islands isolated from mammalian predators and humans. These islands supported some of the largest breeding colonies of various species (such as Caspian terns, white-breasted cormorants and kelp gulls) in southern Africa. However, the pans have been left to dry and consequently bird abundance and diversity has greatly decreased, leaving this previously diverse ecosystem depauperate.

A local non-profit organization and conservation establishment, the Zwartkops Conservancy, along with Cerebos (the previous operating company) are currently planning to restore the salt pans with the main management objective of habitat provision for waterbirds. This entails filling the dry pans with water seasonally so as to coincide with the breeding season of resident birds (during the austral winter). Various options are currently being explored to accomplish this. Among these options are opportunities for treating polluted stormwater and incorporating small local businesses into the restoration. Additionally, the restoration of the site will assist the Conservancy’s efforts to safeguard the IBA status as well as their plans to have the Swartkops Estuary awarded with a Ramsar wetland designation. With the increasing abandonment of salt pans, both in South Africa and abroad, this project will also aim to inspire and produce valuable lessons for similar cases of restoration in the future.

Quick Facts

Geographic Region:
Africa

Country or Territory:
South Africa

Biome:
Coastal/Marine

Ecosystem:
Other/Mixed

Area being restored:
230 ha

Project Lead:
Cerebos

Organization Type:
Private Company

Project Partners:
Department of Mineral Resources Zwartkops Conservancy Nelson Mandela University

Project Stage:
Planning / Design

Start Date:
2019-01

End Date:
2024-01

Primary Causes of Degradation

Dams & Hydrology, Mining & Resource Extraction

Degradation Description

While operational, the salt pans, although an man-made ecosystem, were a hotspot for biodiversity (particularly waterbirds through the provision of safe nesting sites). However, the pans have now dried up, leaving behind a large area of depauperate land. Recent bird counts and site visits have revealed that all but one colony of sacred ibis have not returned to nest at the pans since abandonment last year.

Among the birds found at the pans are various Palearctic migrant species that overwinter in the area. The global loss of wetlands and decline in waterbird numbers is a regional and international issue that can be addressed through local actions regarding the management and restoration of wetlands. There is much potential in creating and maintaining artificial wetland systems that provide important habitats for migratory birds.

Saltworks are in decline locally and globally, leaving behind large areas of hypersaline and derelict land. Saltworks restoration projects are likely to become more common. However, little to none such projects have taken place in South Africa. This project will explore various options for restoring the pans, including the potential for economic gain, and inform and inspire other similar restoration initiatives in South Africa through providing insights in a regional/national context.

Defining the Reference Ecosystem

The reference ecosystem is primarily based on historical information about ecological attributes at the site prior to degradation.

Reference Ecosystem Description

This project focuses on restoring the hydrology of the salt pans. The pans lie several meters above sea level, so water was actively pumped into them prior to abandonment. The project is exploring different mechanisms for pumping water into these pans to manage them as a waterbird hotspot. It is necessary to restore this artificially managed hydrology to provide suitable breeding islands for the many waterbird species that used to frequent the area. The vision of the restored site is one of high waterbird diversity and abundance. Thus, bird counts will be the primary indicator of restoration success. A comprehensive, long-term dataset already exists thanks to the ongoing Coordinated Waterbird Counts (CWAC) programme. Ideally, the restored area will host similar bird communities (in terms of numbers and diversity) as the past, when the pans when the pans were a nationally and internationally important waterbird habitat.

Project Goals

This project aims to restore the defunct salt pans such that a satisfactory amount of IBA trigger (waterbird) species return to the area, and to assist with the area (and adjacent estuary) to be designated as a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

Monitoring

The project does not have a monitoring plan.

Stakeholders

The Zwartkops Conservancy are the primary stakeholders. The Conservancy is currently planning the actions to be taken, and funding thereof, for restoring the area. Their interests lie in safeguarding the area as a Global IBA and to have it designated as a Ramsar wetland. Public participation will commence once further plans have been made among the responsible parties.

How this project reinstated appropriate physical conditions (e.g. hydrology, substrate)",:
It is planned to restore an artificially managed hydrologic regime to the degraded area. Various ways of accomplishing this are currently being explored, such as pumping water via a pump on a floating pontoon, or constructing a windmill. Another option is to pump water from an artificial wetland that is currently receiving too much stormwater to properly treat, and to use one of the pans as a treatment pond before the water is released into the adjacent Swartkops Estuary.

How this project achieved a desirable species composition:
The project's primary aim is to restore the abundance and diversity of waterbirds to reflect past conditions (before the salt pans were abandoned).

How this project recovered ecosystem functionality (e.g. nutrient cycling, plant-animal interactions, normal stressors):
The hydrologic function of the pans will be restored, reinstating the stressors and functions that were previously acting in the area.

How this project reestablished external exchanges with the surrounding landscape (e.g. migration, gene flow, hydrology):
The study site is notably used by various Palearctic migrant waterbird species, which are already under high pressure from habitat loss and degradation.

Activities were undertaken to address any socio-economic aspects of the project:
Various economic opportunities for local communities will be explored for incorporation into this restoration project. As the project is still in the early stages of planning, it remains flexible for many different socio-economic opportunities. Among these are creating and maintaining a popular bird watching area with guides from local communities, aquaculture, and less obvious circular Blue Economy possibilities.

Ecological Outcomes Achieved

Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved

Long-Term Management

As the project is still in the early stages of planning, these details have not yet been confirmed. However, Cerebos, as the operating entity, are responsible for the rehabilitation of the area. The activities, and duration thereof, are yet to be confirmed by the national Department of Mineral Resources.

Related Research

This restoration project is currently the focus of a Masters dissertation in the Department of Botany, Nelson Mandela University, which will provide the baseline environmental conditions of the dry salt pans to inform the potential ecological consequences of different approaches to restoring the area. This dissertation will be completed in 2020.

Primary Contact

Organizational Contact