On the Wilder Side of Venice

“Ah, Venice!” exclaims the first time visitor, when adjectives seem inadequate to express his fascination for a city that appears to rise not so much out of a lagoon than straight out of his dreams. Yet it is the very pragmatic forces of tourism and industry that have kept Venice “alive” and economically afloat. These forces have also unfortunately contributed in a number of ways to increase the city’s fragility. In recent years the Commune of Venice and its six municipalities, through the creation in 2002 of such organizations as the Osservatorio Naturalistico della laguna, have been trying to reverse certain ill effects by greater environmental concern and are, by the same token, directing tourism towards a broader experience of Venice. Limited by time and money, the average tourist will typically cram into three or four days a visit of the most iconic sights. During this accelerated experience he will be aware of the glaucous body of water around him primarily as the mirror in which Venice contemplates its unearthly beauty. The lagoon will otherwise appear to him as a rather two-dimensional background and as the inevitable passageway to the most visited islands of Murano, Burano, Torcello and Lido. If by chance, (a more frequent one these days) the tourist is forced to pull on his rubber boots to wade through a few inches of water to San Marco he will be keener to see Venice before it sinks than to discover more of that surging lagoon. This bittersweet emotion has been an integral part of the Venetian experience.

Hiding spot for hunters on a barene half-underwater
BY Stephanie Sears

But to the Venetian the largest lagoon in the Mediterranean basin (550 km2) is a tangible and vital way of life which has been systematically and simultaneously adapted and preserved since the fifteenth century to accommodate permanent human settlement and provide protection against foreign intrusion. Without such efforts the lagoon in which the city is set like a gem would have filled in and become part of the Adriatic coastline.

The fluctuation between transformation and preservation continues today but the acceptable equilibrium requires increasingly complex efforts. The MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Ellectromecanico) project, started in 2003 as a response to the November 1966 high waters (acqua alta), has — as a possible destabilizing factor on the lagoon’s morphology and hydrodynamics — been the subject of debate between environmentalists and government. To some, the intricate system of mobile gates closing off the three main entrances to the lagoon (Lido, Malamocco, Chioggia), conceived by Fiat engineers, may be more a display of Italian engineering know-how and a means to provide jobs than the best manner in which to preserve the city; and if it does preserve adequately the city, it risks having adverse effects on the lagoon itself. But it has had at least the virtue of drawing international attention to Venice’s natural environment and to the close interdependence between the lagoon’s urban center and the surrounding ecosystem. It has provided further opportunity for scientists of the Institute for Marine Science (CNR ISMAR) to study in depth different aspects of the lagoon. And joining forces with the Commune of Venice, a number of research groups have contributed to an interactive website called “‘L’Atlante della laguna”, which, while allowing different scientific branches to share their respective data, has also made constantly updated information on the lagoon available to the general public.

…it is the very pragmatic forces of tourism and industry that have kept Venice ‘alive’ and economically afloat. These forces have also unfortunately contributed in a number of ways to increase the city’s fragility.

The lagoon is a subtle milieu composed of various aqueous “tissues” which are the marshes, the mudflats known locally as barene, and the tidal shallows or velme. Among them streams and man-made channels circulate water as through the veins of an organism, one that has suffered much, however, from the polluting effects of Porto Marghera, primarily in the 1960s, from maritime activity, but also from agricultural run-offs on the fringes of the lagoon, household pollutions and medical residues such as hormones and antibiotics. Other activities though not directly polluting, have aggravated things. As an example of this indirect impact, the commercial dredging for mollusks has simultaneously torn up the sea grass that is a natural habitat for fish and a natural stabilizer for contaminants in the water; though currents flush out some of the pollutants closer to the coast their effect becomes weaker inland. The diverting of rivers — of which there are originally seven leading into the lagoon: the Brenta, Piave, Bacchiglione, Marzenego, Dese, Zero, Sile — to avoid excessive sedimentation, has helped preserve the lagoon but has diminished the fresh water supply so that land birds have become fewer or disappeared altogether from the wetlands. Transformation of the latter to allow agriculture has not only reduced bird populations but also eliminated the buffer zone that preserved the marshland’s ecological integrity.

The cultural, economic and environmental facets of Venice have come to be more and more in competition with each other: what is palliated on one side becomes a disadvantage to another. This conflict of interests within a same organism makes for a baffling panorama of contradictions.

Northwestern part of the lagoon,
usually unknown to tourists
BY Stephanie Sears

Mauro Bon of the Museo di Storia Naturale reports that levels of dioxin and diesel in both air and water are high and that historical Venice suffers particularly from the sulfur emanating from fossil fuel. During summer the whole lagoon is negatively affected by the circulation of thousands of boats; yet new menaces loom ahead. One is a project to enlarge the existing port’s capacity that already receives three hundred meter ships like the Emerald Princess cruise liner. This project, according to Mauro Bon, goes against common sense when one considers the damage already caused by ships in the Canale dei Petroli, a main passageway leading to and from the Malamocco entrance where levels of pollution are high and ship waves erode the barene.

During a field trip with the ISMAR marine geologist Luca Zaggia and his team, our two boats are anchored one behind the other, aligned with the incoming current between the Lido and Cavallino barrier islands. Nearby, the MOSE work in progress shows its impressive proportions. The goal of the research coordinated by Corila (Consorzio Ricercha Laguna) is to determine the effect of the MOSE dredging and construction on water quality, and how already in-place submerged structures affect hydrodynamics and transference of sediment. An Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler and a Laser In Situ Scattering and Transmissometry (Lisst100x) respectively measure the speed and direction of the current, the amount of the sediment transported and the grain size. On the other boat the more grueling and tedious task of plunging, retrieving and emptying “sediment traps” (bags), at regular intervals, capture the bed load in order to identify the weight of the sediment, its grain size and the organic matter content.

A later field trip with ISMAR biologist Davide Tagliapietra serves to determine the conditions that favor, or not, the small but destructive Teredini bivalve that eats into the wood piles or bricole that stud the lagoon to signal the navigable channels. Once inside the wood the mollusk stretches out of its shell and worm-like eats its way right through the bricole. In parts of the lagoon plastic piles have begun to replace the traditional ones which Davide hopes to save and reinstate through his research. It becomes nonetheless evident that the lagoon has already other prosthetic replacements, namely artificial barene and reinforcements around natural ones.

A half-submerged hunter’s cache on a small barene
BY Stephanie Sears

The lagoon also gradually shows itself to be an open scientific laboratory where high tech artifacts appear like alien objects dropped from space such as the odd R2-D2-like current monitors on stilts (Centralina multiparametrica per le acque servizio antinguinamento del magistrato alle acque), and trihedral corner reflectors planted on mudflats receiving radar signals that measure the degree of subsidence of the lagoon floor.

Further northwest, the lagoon seems almost left to itself. Sea lavender is blooming and among the reeds appear graceful white egrets and motionless Grey Herons. Migrating Cormorants, going east, form myriad geometries in the pellucid sky. Large square nets hang over our heads like festive canopies and an occasional fisherman in his small boat plies his hand net through the water amidst an extraordinary quietude. Thanks to the flow of the Dese river through this part of the lagoon, the water is meschizza, in other words, a fluctuating mixture of fresh and salt water which endemic flora thrives on; as do the birds that suddenly seem more numerous in contrast with other parts of the lagoon where this brackish mixture is mostly replaced by sea water.

The best-preserved areas in the lagoon, according to Davide, are the privately-owned valli di pesca or fish farming areas concentrated in the north and south west of the lagoon next to the mainland. They extend over 9000 hectares of the whole lagoon surface and serve to capture young fish migrating inland from the sea in spring. A more centralized management than in the rest of the lagoon has better preserved nature in these areas and offers a more favorable terrain for a burgeoning eco-tourism.

Densely forested until the end of the Middle Ages, the borders of the lagoon were once rich with fauna such as wild boar, roe deer, wild goat, wolf and fox. Otters occupied the lagoon itself until the 1970s when the Mustelid disappeared because of pollution, increased boating, hunting and fish nets.

Though commercial fishing became less important in the eighteenth century it continues today: the best period being from the end of summer to autumn and the most favored catch being the dory, bass, five different species of mullet and eel. Hunting in the lagoon is legal from the end of September to January and small camouflage shelters for the hunters can be seen at the edge of the barene, used mainly for duck shooting.

Northwestern part of the lagoon,
usually unknown to tourists
BY Stephanie Sears

While fauna is no longer as numerous as it was, the diversity still present in and around the lagoon may surprise someone used to thinking of Venice and its immediate surroundings as a place of cultural rather than natural beauty. Among the more noteworthy animals, a few jackals venturing from the Balkans have been seen around the lagoon; but more typically regional remain the wild boar, fox, deer, badger, polecat, marten, squirrel, three types of bat. Dolphins have been occasionally seen inside the lagoon near the outlets to the sea. Two sorts of snake, three sorts of turtle inhabit the lagoon itself. Within its perimeter, however, it is bird watching that would seem to be the main hope and focus of eco-tourism. Pink flamingos are found in the northern valle of Grassabo. Other characteristic or rare birds in the lagoon include the Pettegola or Redshank, the Fistione Turco or Red-crested, the Gruccione or Bee-eater, the Ghiandaia marina or Roller and the rarer Aquila (Anatria Maggiore).

Alien species, some introduced accidentally, others intentionally, as to benefit commercial fishing, find a niche in the warm, shallow waters. These are mostly mollusks, crustaceans and algae; but the Nutria, a large beaver-like South American rodent, is another.

The answer to this may well be that if nature is further allowed to recuperate and thrive in harmony with other aspects of Venice, success will almost certainly be assured.

The Commune of Venice, in collaboration with a number of environmental associations and scientific organizations, has in the last few years set aside protected areas or oasi to serve as sanctuaries for migratory or local fauna and flora and to provide Venetians with more parks. The largest, the Valle dell’Averto, is in the southwestern portion of the lagoon. At the Lido’s northern and southern tips are, respectively, the oasi of San Nicolo (1 km and a half long) and oasi degli Alberoni (120 ha). South of the Lido, on the island of Pellestrina, is the oasi di Ca’ Roman (70 ha) near the Chioggia passage.

Of the thirty-two larger islands among the hundred and eighteen in the lagoon, most have remained more or less terra incognita for the average traveler. But some of these are gradually entering the tourist main circuit and have, in most cases, both a cultural and a rural appeal. Tourists seeking escape from the crowds and wanting a different perspective on Venice will find these destinations easily accessible by public transportation. La Certosa, closest to the city, Lazzaretto Nuovo, Mazzorbetto and Mazzorbo, San Francesco del Deserto, San Giacomo in Paludo, offer a charming combination of historic buildings and the contemplative mood of their natural setting. The uninhabited Isola dei Laghi, and the larger Le Vignole and San Erasmo, traditionally used for horticultural, as well as by Venetians in need of greenery and fresh air, are more rural; leaving the campaniles and domes delicately etched in the distance, one is brought here a little closer to the wilder lagoon. Taking a step still further towards wilderness will lead one to a number of private enterprises offering eco-tours to groups of two to fifty people. One named “Laguna Eco Adventures” offers sail or motor day expeditions in traditional flat-bottomed boats from April to October. Il Bragozzo offers trips all year round. Most of these small enterprises will tailor the trip to the client’s wishes. The question is whether a sufficient portion of the growing tourism to Venice will take this new bait. The answer to this may well be that if nature is further allowed to recuperate and thrive in harmony with other aspects of Venice, success will almost certainly be assured. The idea that the famously beautiful city could in the future achieve a balanced cohabitation with its nature and restore its wildlife to former standards offers an irresistible prospect. The obvious cultural restrictions put on urban expansion, and the lagoon’s traditional functional but also recreational role, along with a coordinated will to improve the quality of its environment, might just make this possible.

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