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Nature rebounds

October 25, 2010

Germany's Wadden Sea National Park, along the North Sea coast, turned 25 this month. As the world struggles with agreements to reverse biodiversity loss, the Wadden Sea shines as an example of transnational conservation.

Pied Oystercatchers sitting in the salt marsh
Many bird species are at home in the protected mud flats and salt marshesImage: EUROPARC Deutschland e.V.

The Wadden Sea is one of Central Europe's most important nature reserves.

The strip of North Sea coast is home to the biggest contiguous area of mudflats in the world, and stretches from Den Helder in the Netherlands to Esbjerg in Denmark via three German states.

Much of the Wadden Sea was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2009 because it serves as a flourishing habitat for some 3,200 species of animals, provides an important way-station for migratory birds, supports a wide variety of plants among its salt marshes and has played a crucial role in restoring seal populations over the past two decades.

Today the Wadden Sea is seen as a model for promoting cross-border conservation, but the road to success was not straight forward.

Road to riches

Seal in the north sea
Seal populations are recovering thanks to a nurturing environmentImage: AP

The Wadden Sea National Park is really three parks divided between the German states of Schleswig Holstein, Lower Saxony and the city-state of Hamburg.

The oldest is the park established in Germany's northernmost state, Schleswig-Holstein, in 1985.

It was prompted by a dawning awareness that piecemeal legislation was proving inadequate at dealing with the growing impacts of industrial and agricultural waste, development and commercial expoitation on the region.

At first, proposals for a park met with stiff resistance from locals, who feared for their hunting and fishing rights, resented impositions on their freedom to use the area and worried about an influx of tourists.

Yet through a mixture of compromise and consensus-building, the state's then premier, Uwe Barschel, managed to build enough support to pass legislation.

"It sounds crude, but we were just trying to get people on board," recalls Detlef Hansen, the head of the national park.

"We formed working groups with fishermen, with shepherds, with hunters, and let them have a say in the decision making."

In the end, it was conservationists who felt they were getting the short end of the stick and initially dismissed Barschel's plan as a sham.

Yet over the years, protection was extended: In 1990 a deal was struck to protect seal populations in the Wadden Sea – the first accord signed under the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species.

Today, that accord between Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark is held up as a model for multilateral species protection programs.

Success has boiled down to "defining common objectives" and "working together" with all stakeholders, said Jens Enemark, Secretary of the Common Wadden Sea Secretariat - the international organization tasked with facilitating cooperation in the Wadden Sea.

This has meant identifying and mitigating the main human threats to the region, namely pollution, disturbance and habitat destruction.

Hiker walking along the sea bed at low tide
When the tide is out, visitors enjoy walking on the sea bedImage: AP

Local dividends

And it's not just seals that have reaped the rewards, says Detlef Hansen.

"Today, you stand on the dike and you realize that it has become a quiet, peaceful place - there's no more bird hunting, no low-flying planes, and military maneuvers are history. Visitors, and also the inhabitants, can enjoy the blooming salt marshes," Hansen said.

Locals now overwhelmingly support the national park, and while Jens Enemark says conservation authorities continue to have different priorities to fishermen and others who depend upon the region for their livelihood, relations are far more cordial than they were two decades ago.

Indeed, the thriving environment has proved a boon for another industry.

"More than two million guests a year spend vacation on the North Sea coast of Schleswig Holstein," said Konstanze Hoefling-Hoff of the North Sea Tourism service.

"We know from polls and headcounts that more than a million of them stop at the visitors- stations of the national parks," with popular activities including "guided hikes on the mud flats and other excursions."

To prevent the region from being loved-to-death by over-eager visitors, the Wadden Sea has a unique partnership program, which ties together the national park service, volunteers, and conservation groups.

The German branch of the World Wildlife Fund fro Nature (WWF) praises the partnership.

It says nature has been able to recuperate, as a result, and that at least in the tidal mud flats, species have ceased to die out.

The North Sea is also cleaner, and the animals in the mud flats are less frightened than they once were, according to Hans-Ulrich Roesner, a spokesman for the WWF in Husum, in northern Germany.

Oil on the horizon?

tourists walking on mud flats
Guided tours describe the biodiversity of the tidal marshImage: DW

Yet the WWF also says causes for concern remain.

"The biggest blot on the national park is the oil exploration which is still taking place in the Mittelplate oil field, in the southern part of the region," Roesner said, claiming that this disrupts wild geese in their molting areas, and can leave them unable to fly in summer.

Unsustainable levels of commercial fishing are an ongoing problem too, from WWF's perspective, and on this score "something needs to change soon," Roesner says.

Within Germany's borders, financial considerations also loom.

There isn't enough money to go round for rangers, and changes to Germany's system of compulsory military service, mean that there is likely to be a knock on effect for social work, as fewer young men opt for this alternative service – a useful source of labor for everything from medical care to nature conservation.

Despite these challenges, the Wadden Sea serves as a useful case-study for others seeking to strike a deal to save nature.

Author: Werner Junge, Jennifer Abramsohn
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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