Bahía de Ceuta / Ceuta Bay, Mexico

Bahía de Ceuta  (23º54 N, 106º57 W) located about 1 hour north of Mazatlan is one of the most important coastal wetland in Northwest Mexico. Ceuta is most famous for its sandy beaches which provide an important hatching grounds for the endangered Olive Ridley Turtle and other sea turtle species. Our partners from University Autónoma de Sinaloa are running in association with the nature protection agency CONANP a conservation program to save these magnificent creatures. But the area has a lot more hidden treasures to offer which are unknown to most people, even the locals. Bahía de Ceuta is characterised by a huge range of habitats, including mangroves, dry forests, a large lagoon system and open salt flats. In total more than 200 bird species have been recorded in the Bay together with many protected plants, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates. This bay is particularly important for waterbirds, which use it as a stopover and wintering site during their long migrations. In winter thousands of shorebirds can be observed feeding and resting at the lagoon, salt flats and beaches. Even harder to observe are the shorebirds that breed at Ceuta. The breeding site is especially important because many similar wetlands in Northwest Mexico have been destroyed in the past.

For several hundred years humans have used the salt flats at the Southeast end of the Bay to harvest salt using the energy of tides, wind and solar radiation. However, in an attempt to establish an oyster breeding program North of the Bay an artificial opening at the Northern end of Bay was created in the middle of the 20th century leading to the mingling of fresh water and sea water in the Bay. This fresh water influx decreased the salinity of the tidal waters that coverthe salt flats during most of the year. The oyster breeding attempt failed and the program ceased but the damage done with the opening was never repaired. Contrary, over the years the opening widened through the power of severe weathers and the sea. Soon after the salt production decreased and became unprofitable. The salt works were finally closed at the end of the 20th century. Probably already during salt extraction and since then the salt works have provided extremely valuable breeding habitat for threatened marine birds such as Least Tern (current population size at the Bay is about 200 pairs) and Snowy Plover (100 pairs) during spring when the water of the lagoon retreats and the salt flats briefly dry out. The threatened birds are joined by other ground nesting birds such as Wilson's Plovers (50-100 pairs), Killdeer (50 pairs), Black-necked Stilts (30 pairs) and occasionally Gull-billed Terns.

Ceuta Bay, Mexico

How is Bahía de Ceuta threatened?

Bahía de Ceuta has been a safe haven for migratory and breeding birds for decades, but recent increases in human development means that this area is no longer safe and undisturbed. Brush clearance and deforestation have reduced shelter for the animals and protected plants such as mangroves and the beautiful Guayacán tree Guiacum spec., a rare protected endemic have been destroyed. Grazing livestock and careless visitors driving through the area on bikes or in AWDs have destroyed the nests of ground nesting birds. Garbage is illegally dumped in some parts by reckless restaurant owners and locals which then attracts feral dogs and cats that further threaten wildlife. Because the resources are severly limited authorities are often struggling to keep the threats at bay and only rarely are able to enforce regulations. Withouth conservation management this natural treasure will soon be lost.

As a weird twist of destiny, nature is providing one of the biggest challenges for the future of Bahía de Ceuta. The decompensation of the old structures (dams of channels) of the ancient salt works means that the area is now covered by water longer and longer and the window for breeding birds is getting shorter and shorter. In spring the water is retreating now later and later forcing the birds to delay their breeding and breed during suboptimal times. Snowy Plovers usually breed from January to August. But now at Ceuta the breeding ground is only available from Early May to Mid July.

Even worse, breeding conditions deteriorate rapidly, since the lagoon completely dries out and in the middle of the breeding season when most chicks hatch.

For these unlucky chicks there is often no food and every year more than a hundred chicks die from starvation. However, this is not all. Because of the brackish water vegetation is slowly creeping in from the edges reducing breeding space. Without interference and conservation actions the salt flats will disappear. Therefore, we urgently seek funds to restore the century old water management system to save the rare birds and improve their breeding conditions.

What can we do?

There is some hope. Bahía de Ceuta is now protected by several agreements, primarily the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve network (WHSRN) and the RAMSAR conventions. But further protection is necessary and we lobby hard to improve protection and conservation.

We are currently working out an agreement with the concession owners of the salt works. This process has taken several years but we now have real hope that this can be concluded within the next few weeks. Both companies are socially and environmentally responsible, so we are optimistic to reach a conclusion very soon. It has been a long process because the situation for plovers and terns is pretty critical now. 

Of course, there are also things what you can do. Check the Get involved! section to see how you can help.