Research output

Harbouring nature: port development and dynamic birds provide clues for conservation

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingContribution to a report not published by INBO



Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings 'Dunes and Estuaries 2005': International Conference on nature restoration practices in European coastal habitats
Number of pages12
PublisherVlaams Instituut voor de Zee (VLIZ)
Publication date2005
Publication statusPublished - 2005


During the twentieth century, many coastal areas in Europe changed dramatically due to coastal protection works, human expansion drift and booming beach tourism. As a result the natural area of suitable nesting habitat of many coastal birds has decreased enormously and a large number of species are now listed as threatened. Some species were able to exploit new opportunities offered by human activities, but most coastal birds are now confined to islands, protected areas or artificial sites (nature development projects, restored coastal habitats and even floating rafts). Protection of local resources, as well as further development and management of breeding sites is considered vital in maintaining the populations of threatened coastal breeders. The rationale behind nature restoration and development is often solely based on offering suitable habitat to the birds, while its success is mainly judged from the evolution in the number of birds present. As more and more information becomes available on the reproductive performance of coastal birds, it becomes clear that in some protected areas long-term reproductive success is below self-sustaining levels. Apparently humans are able to create artificial nesting habitats that are highly attractive from the birds’ perspective but are in fact pitfalls for the population in the long term. In contrast, the port of Zeebrugge, Belgium, is an excellent example of an artificial nesting habitat of high quality in terms of attraction as well as reproduction. Here, vast sandy areas were raised in a former marine habitat in the 1980s. The works mimicked natural dynamic processes and coastal breeding birds instantly reacted. Within 20 years, the area has developed from open sea to a breeding site of major international importance. Peak population figures by far exceed the 1% of the total biogeographical population. At present, Zeebrugge harbours more than 4% of the total north-west European Common Tern population, thus making it the largest colony in Europe. It is a highly productive population and acts as a major source of recruits for the biogeographical population as a whole. Until recently, the success of the bird populations was based on the ongoing creation of suitable nesting habitats and management measures, like removal of the vegetation and covering areas with shell fragments. Further development of the harbour, the arrival of the fox and competition for nesting habitat with large gulls are major threats for the bird population. Therefore part of the colony was allocated to a peninsula and further steps are now being considered to preserve this valuable population. Apparently feeding conditions are very good and the harbour itself and its direct surroundings function as a major source of small prey fish of which the availability is facilitated by the heavy shipping traffic and the sheltered conditions of the feeding areas.
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