“Lagoons are expanses of shallow coastal salt water, of varying salinity and water volume, wholly or partially separated from the sea by sand banks or shingle, or less frequently, by rocks.”
According to the Habitat Directive the Coastal lagoons habitat (1150*) is of priority for conservation and the Atanasovsko Lake Natura 2000 zone is the most significant site in Bulgaria and the second most important for its protection within the Black Sea Biogeographical Region after the Danube Delta.
The conservation status of the lagoons in Europe, including also the lagoon Atanasovsko Lake is “unfavourable-bad” with the changes in water-body condition and pollution of the surface being the main hazards faced by this habitat type.
The mentioning of Atanasovsko Lake evokes different images in people’s minds: pools of healing lye which relieves pain in our bodies, snow-white mounds of sea salt, shallow pink waters – every photographer’s dream or the sight of endless flocks of birds – a true ornithological paradise. Indeed, there is something for everyone here. Business and tourism go hand in hand with nature conservation. But what exactly is this lake?
Atanasovsko Lake is part of the Burgas Lakes complex. It is situated north of Burgas and part of its southern half even extends to the urban territory. The lake is split into two by the Burgas-Varna highway and each half is different from the other. The northern area is a liman, whilst the southern has the characteristics of a lagoon. The lake covers a total area of 1690 ha, it is 9 km long, 4,3 km wide. The natural coastal habitats were turned into salt production sites in 1906. Dykes and barriers split the lake into pools of different sizes. It is only 30 cm deep and its waters are hypersaline.
Salt production is performed in a traditional and environmentally-friendly manner which does not have a negative impact on the inhabitants of the reserve. This is a good example of how an economic activity can have a beneficial rather than harmful effect thus protecting the conditions conducive to the existence of the richest biodiversity in the region.
A plethora of habitats can be found within Atanasovsko Lake. The most typical sight in the lake are the shallow waters divided by dikes and barriers either bare or covered to different degrees with common glasswort. This is the most common type of habitat in the lagoon. Along the lake’s borders, you can find freshwater pools with aquatic vegetation where the narrow-leaf cattail, broadleaf cattail, and common reed prevail. The lake is surrounded by freshwater bodies, swampy meadows, a system of channels and dry land overgrown with in-field sagewort, bulbous bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, etc.
Numerous bird species are attracted to the variety of habitats where they feed, nest and rest, making the coastal lagoon a place inhabited by the highest number of bird species in Bulgaria. More than 315 bird species out of nearly 450 found in our country have been sighted in the Atanasovsko Lake area.
Each breeding season black-winged stilts, avocets and Kentish plovers find shelter for their nests on the dykes and barriers. They are joined by the little terns. The collared pratincole, albeit in small numbers, also breeds in the lagoon or along its shores. It has been chosen as the symbol of the reserve. These birds nest in colonies and very often oystercatchers, Mediterranean gulls and the gull-billed terns also enjoy the group protection of the colonies.
The Atanasovsko Lake lagoon is located along the second largest bird migratory route in Europe – Via Pontica. It is a typical ‘narrow migration front’ site for migrating soaring birds. During the autumn migration period, you can observe around 240,000 white storks, over 30,000 great white pelicans and around 60,000 birds of prey. The highest concentration of migrating great white pelicans and Dalmatian pelicans, western marsh harriers and red-footed falcons in Europe can be found here. Atanasovsko Lake is second only to the Bosporus in numbers of migrating lesser spotted eagles.
The shallow and hypersaline waters of the lagoon freeze over only in very cold winters. That is why the overwintering Dalmatian pelicans, greater white-fronted geese, greylag geese, and red-breasted geese prefer it as a place to roost. Atanasovsko Lake is the most important breeding and overwintering location for the common shelduck.
Scientists from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences visited Atanasovsko Lake in the 70s and were captivated by the large diversity of bird species they sighted there. The established field stations to conduct scientific research and initiated efforts to protect the lagoon. The northern half of the lake was made into a reserve in 1980. The following year the southern part and the territories adjacent to the lake’s shores were designated a buffer zone. In 1984 Atanasovsko Lake was declared a wetland zone of international importance in accordance with the Ramsar Convention and this territory was expanded in 2003. In 1989 the land was given the status of an Important Bird and Biodiversity area by BirdLife International.
In 1998 the lake was designated a CORINE site due to its significance on the European level for the protection of rare and endangered bird species. The territory was re-categorised into ‘maintained reserve’ in 1999 in order to comply with the requirements of the Protected Areas Act. In 2007 the buffer zone became part of Burgas Salinas Protected Area. As of 2008, Atanasovsko Lake is part of Natura 2000.
It is thanks to this legal protection as well as the work of many scientists and conservationists that the Atanasovsko Lake lagoon continues to be:
- the area with the highest number of bird species in Bulgaria;
- the biggest salt production site in Bulgaria;
- the place with the richest deposit of medicinal mud in Bulgaria.