The Lagunas de ECUASAL in Salinas and Pacoa, in the province of Guayas, are man-made lakes situated less than 200 m from the coastline, which were dug out in order to extract sea salt for commercialization by the Ecuadorian Salt and Chemical Products Company. (ECUASAL). The Salinas lakes face the sea (towards the west) and are surrounded by different types of urban and industrial infrastructure, while the Pacoa lakes are still mostly surrounded by an arid semi-desert area.
The Lagunas de ECUASAL are located in the southwestern coastal region of Ecuador (Santa Elena Peninsula), so most of the time they are under the influence of the cold Humboldt Current. Throughout the year, the environmental temperature fluctuates between 22ºC in summer (between June and November) and a maximum temperature of 33ºC in winter (between December and May). From June, when the southern winter sets in, the temperature of the sea surface decreases. Masses of relatively cold sea air enter the coastal strip resulting in drizzly weather with very weak rain values, so this is an area of dry weather with a maximum average of 250 mm a year. It is precisely for this reason that this is one of the few areas in the country which facilitates salt production at industrial level.
The lakes are currently home to thousands of resident and migratory water birds throughout the year, and this already prompted its designation as Important Bird Conservation Areas (IBAs) (Birdlife 2005). The lakes are an important stopover place for migratory birds, particularly during the months of August and September when they gather in large numbers. Up to 32,000 individuals of the same species –Wilson’s phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor)—have been counted in the area (more than 2% of the total population). Additionally, the site is home to over 20,000 water birds.
During the last 15 years, ECUASAL, owner and manager of the two production plants, has lent its facilities to local ornithologists for the study of the birds, and has shown great interest in supporting bird conservation.
Ecology & Conservation
The lakes are formed by a series of man-made pools, intersected by dykes, where the salt is extracted by means of solar evaporation. The water coming from the sea enters the lakes via mechanical pumps. Because the water flows between the lakes, there may be a slight variation in the water level, but there is no tidal influence. There are a few remaining dry thickets around the lakes.
Birds using the site and maximum counts
The area is home to over 20,000 water birds each year.
|Scientific Name||Common Name||
|Phalaropus tricolor **||Wilson’s Phalarope||
|Charadrius alexandrinus *||Snowy Plover||
|Calidris mauri||Western Sandpiper||
|Calidris pusilla||Semipalmeated Sandpiper||
|Calidris minutilla||Least Sandpiper||
|Himantopus mexicanus||Black-necked Stilt||
Apart from shorebirds, other birds, among them some threatened visiting or permanently resident birds of the site have been recorded, such as Peruvian Tern, (Sterna lorata) (NT), Chilean Flamingo, (Phoenicopterus chilensis) (NT) and Elegant tern, (Sterna elegans) (NT). Some species breed there in significant numbers, which is the case of the Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica) (250 pairs) and the Grey-hooded Gull (Larus cirrocephalus) (500 pairs), while the nesting records of the Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus) and the South American Tern (Sterna hirundinacea) are the first records in the country. Additionally, the area has interesting records of wandering species, such as the Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus), the only record in South America for this globally threatened species. Furthermore an almost threatened species has been seen: the Buff-breasted Sandpiper (Tryngites subruficollis) and on another occasion, the Southern Pochard (Netta erythrophthalma), which although not globally threatened, is at the national critical danger level. On the other hand, the site maintains 1% of the biogeographical population of the Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), the Grey-hooded gull (Larus cirrocephalus) and the Gull-billed Tern (Gelochelidon nilotica).
Impacts and disturbance for the birds
Possibly the greatest source of disturbance for the birds are the dogs from nearby urban areas and particularly from the shrimp larvae laboratories, and employees working on projects near the Lagunas de ECUASAL. Dogs often come into the area and scare the birds.
On the other hand, there is enough surveillance to prevent people gaining access to the lakes. The entry of fishermen has been recorded and in many cases they leave pieces of net and residues which may cause the death of the birds. This activity has increased in the lakes during recent years and on several occasions, the nets set had to be removed by ECUASAL personnel. At the Salinas lakes, laboratory staff use the dykes as a short-cut to their destination, whether by bike or on foot and some people often travel with children and pets.
From time to time the security guards of the larvae laboratories also fire shots into the air which also stresses the birds. There is constant noise from the pumps and other lab equipment, as well as from Ecuadorian Air Force planes, since it is very close to the landing strip of the military base, but the birds would seem to have grown used to this disturbance.
Threats to the site
The most important threats to the area are the lack of territorial regulations (uncontrolled development, the legal and illegal occupation of land around the lakes) and the lack of political decision to enforce the municipal laws regarding solid and liquid waste management, particularly the inadequate management of waste from shrimp larvae laboratories. Although the water that this waste is dumped into is not mixed with the water in the lakes, the impact that it may have on the bird populations that feed on the liquid waste around the site is still not known. Furthermore, the laboratories use the areas adjacent to the pools to dump construction material, thus causing a clear visual and environmental impact.
Although occasional, there is mortality of young birds in the dykes (i.e., Snowy Plover, Gray-hooded Gull, Gull-billed Tern, Black-necked Stilt) due to cars passing by (transit is restricted in the rest of the area. Employees of the plant usually ride bicycles).
The extremely heavy ENSO events constitute another sporadic and very outstanding impact; on those occasions the lakes have to be emptied of the fresh water accumulated within them. The presence of fresh water not only stops salt production but also causes the disappearance of the birds. For industrial reasons, ECUASAL makes sure they replace the rain water with sea water as soon as possible, which restores the birds’ habitat.
In the past, the military had the habit of conducting target practice on the birds however the owner was able to prevent further actions thanks to the insistence of local ornithologists and his concern for the birds in the area.
Habitat protection measures and conservation efforts
Since the late 1990s, ECUASAL has had security guards at the lakes who help minimize the entry of people not related to the company and activities such as hunting, the collection of birds eggs, stepping on bird eggs and disturbances, however it is almost impossible to prevent these in 100 % of the cases given the size of the area. On the other hand, the company has been extremely open to the carrying out of studies on the birds at the lakes and has made such surveys possible for the last 15 years. The company has also sponsored the printing of an informational leaflet about the birds at the site and a list of the species present throughout the year (produced by Ben Haase).
The declaration of a greater area incorporating the Lagunas de ECUASAL in Salinas as a Protected Marine Area is also being promoted.
Management activities and priorities
Both sites, ECUASAL-Salinas and ECUASAL-Pacoa, are operated strictly as plants for producing salt by solar evaporation. So far there are no management plans related to the presence of the shorebirds. However, the owners and managers of the company are willing and eager to cooperate to the extent possible for the conservation of the birds at the lakes. Among the most urgent measures, the following are required:
- Work with local governments in order to improve environmental control with respect to the operation of shrimp laboratories and promote land planning in order to create a buffer zone in the area adjacent to the lakes.
- Develop a Management Plan for the area that encompasses such matters as:
- Improve the surveillance of the lakes and prevent the entry and presence of animals, particularly dogs, as well as keeping the workers’ dogs out of the dykes and away from the pools.
- Raise awareness among the local population regarding the importance of these sites and ways they can support their conservation.
- Control the activities of non-industrial fishing in the pools.
- Reduce the transit of staff along the internal dykes of the evaporating pools where the birds are nest during the breeding season (between March and July).
- Keep records of the people who visit the site for scientific purposes or for bird-watching.
- Carry out studies on the reproductive biology of the species nesting at the lakes and identify the preferred nesting sites.
- Build watchtowers with the purpose of improving surveillance, as well as facilitating bird-watching for visitors and preventing people from crossing the dykes.
Research on shorebirds, including bird banding and counting activities.
Documents and references
Ben Haase has led the census and carried out the bird banding in the Lagunas de ECUASAL. Between 1991 and the year 2000, Haase conducted more than 200 systematic censuses of shorebirds and water birds. As of 2004, two annual water bird census have been conducted (contribution by Wetlands International through Aves&Conservación - Birds&Conservation), as part of the Neotropical Censuses of Water birds. Additionally, more than 2000 hours of shorebird banding has been carried out, with a total of 6400 birds banded, thanks to funds from the Canadian Wildlife Service.
Haase, B. (1987): Some aspects about the migration and presence of marine birds and shorebirds in Ecuador. Pp. 195 in H. Alvarez-Lopez, G. Kattan and C. Murcia eds. Report from the Third Congress of Neotropical Ornithology. Cali, Colombia: Ornithology Association of the Cauca Valley, University of the Valley and Colombian Valley of the International Board for Bird Preservation.
Haase, B. (1991) The Santa Elena Peninsula: an important stopover for migratory birds. Pp. 24 in Summaries of the Fourth Congress of Neotropical Ornithology. Quito, Ecuador: Ecuadorian Corporation of Ornithology (CECIA by its Spanish acronym).
In the same source: Haase, B. (1991) Presence and distribution of gulls in Ecuador. Pp. 154, and Haase, B. (1991): New marine bird and coastal bird species observed in Ecuador. Pp. 22.
Haase, B. (1996) Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus: a new breeding species for Ecuador. Cotinga 5: 73-74.
Haase, B. (1997) The impact of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) on birds: update from Ecuador 1997. Cotinga 8: 64-65.
Haase, B. (1999) Influence of the El Niño phenomenon on marine, coastal and shorebirds in the province of Guayas. Pp. 114-115 in Report of the 23rd Ecuadorian Conference of Biology. Cuenca, Ecuador: Universidad del Azuay.
Click on the pictures to view them in more detail.
Lagunas de ECUASAL: Haven for birds:
Click here to see an article (in Spanish) in the February 25, 2007 issue of “El Universo” (Guyaquil, Ecuador, newspaper).
Click here to download the article in pdf format.
Ecuatoriana de Sal y Productos Químicos C.A. (ECUASAL)
(593) 4 232 5666
(593) 4 277 8329 ó 277 7335
Museo de Ballenas de la Fundación Ecuatoriana para el Estudio de Mamíferos Marinos [FEMM]: http://www.mercaredsostenible.com/ambientales/femm.html
Aves & Conservación
(593) 2 2271800
Nicolas Febres-Cordero G.
Links to Additional Resources
La Fundación Ecuatoriana para el Estudio de Mamíferos Marinos [FEMM]:http://www.mercaredsostenible.com/ambientales/femm.html