Green Pearl of Coastal
Jasmina Mužinić, Croatian Medical Journal broj 48 svezak II.
Te lower course of the Neretva
river is a marshy valley. This bioecological complex is divided between two
countries: the delta-shaped river mouth, with the lakes of Modro oko, Desne, and
Kuti belongs to Croatia, while the Nature Park of Hutovo blato belongs to Bosnia
and Herzegovina. In many ways, the Neretva delta is different from other parts
of coastal Croatia. Its unique landscape is a result of digging and depositing
of the marsh soil, so-called “jendečenje.” Furthermore, Neretva is the only
river in this region with a delta at its mouth. At the same time, it is also the
area of the most intense man-made landscape transformation. In spite of the
conversion of wilderness into tamed waters and arable land, the landscape around
the Neretva delta has preserved its beauty and romance. The alluvial plains in
the carst setting have become both the inspiration for artists and a topic of
In the Pleistocene, the region around the present river mouth of Neretva
looked signifcantly different. It was occupied by the then middle course of the
Neretva river, the bed of which stretched along the today’s peninsula of
Pelješac. Te river few into the sea in the proximity of today’s town of Vela
Luka on the island of Korčula. With the end of the ice age, the sea level rose
about 100 m, which resulted in shortening of the river and formation of a new
mouth, situated approximately at the location of the present river mouth and in
the proximity of three triangular widenings. These widening are not the result
of erosive activity of the river, but of tectonic predisposition (1). From then
on, the material eroded in the upper course of Neretva has been depositing
there, thus forming the today’s delta.
The unique landscape and the specific culture have made the Neretva delta
an attraction for both Croatian and international tourists. However, this has
not always been the case. In the eighteenth century, this region was beset by
fever that grew particularly strong in autumn. The Padua professor and physician
Giuseppe Pujati termed it neretljanska bolest (the Neretva disease) in his
treatise De morbo Naroniano (On the Neretva disease) (2). For the fear of
contagion with a disease of an unknown cause and treatment, sailors who
accompanied Alberto Fortis on his voyage to Dalmatia at first refused to travel
to this region. Pujati believed the disease to be a kind of plague, from which
one could hardly be saved. He described it in the following way: “Te water that
stagnates at certain places becomes so pestiferous that it kills the fish that
swims in it; marsh birds that live there in large numbers often fall down
poisoned by lethal evaporations.” It is debatable if these birds died from bird
malaria. At the same time, Fortis’ observation raised suspicion of the
prevalence of human, mosquito-transmitted malaria in this area (2): “Each
inhabitant of the region has a small tent as a protection from mosquitoes and
related insects during sleep… A priest once told me that he suspected the fevers
troubling them were caused by insect bites, because after these insects had
sucked the blood of fish, dead four-legged animals, or noxious herbs, they came
to suck people’s blood.” It is known today that the Balkans once had Pannonic
and Mediterranean malaria zones, and that the regions of Istria-Kvarner, Zadar,
and Neretva were the foci of malaria in the coastal Croatia (3). Today the
Neretva region, as well as other parts of Croatia, are free from this disease.
It, however, continues to be widespread worldwide; according to 2002 estimates,
there were half a billion cases of the lethal form of malaria in the world,
which is 50% more than the estimates of the World Health Organization (4).
In the past, Neretva delta was not only well known because of malaria,
but also because of the abundance and diversity of bird and fish fauna, as well
as by the activities of hunting and fishing, partaken by almost all inhabitants
of the region. Dense marshlands were overgrown with hydrophilic vegetation,
which provided excellent conditions for fish spawning and bird nesting. This
explains why this region was in the past a home to various species of herons,
cormorants, ducks, and other water-birds, as well as colonies of the today
regionally extinct species of Dalmatian pelicans, Pelecanus crispus. In that
period, Neretva branched into 8 armlets near the town of Opuzen and made a wide
delta; Opuzen itself was located on the island of Posrednica. Over the last 100
years, 310 bird species, out of which 115 were breeding birds, were registered
in this region. Around 35 species are water-birds (5). Te Central and
Northeastern European bird populations used the delta for wintering. Te shallows
and shoals of the Neretva river mouth were of great importance for the migration
of waders, terns, and gulls, and so were reed beds and water surfaces for the
migration and wintering of geese and ducks.
Although the region of Neretva delta has always had an extraordinary
biological and ecological importance, it is still relatively insufficiently
explored. Tis greatly hinders an accurate assessment and protection of this
highly endangered region. It is particularly worrisome that the extensive
melioration, which took place about thirty years ago with the fnancial support
of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), was conducted in the absence of
any biological-ecological studies. As a result, a significant proportion of the
area has been completely transformed from wetland into agricultural land. At the
same time, the protection of nature was not taken into account.
The most significant transformation of the delta took place in the recent
decades with the intense and long-term melioration, the purpose of which was to
create agricultural land and to protect the region from floods. A significant
assault on the marshes was the drainage of Modrič lake and the entire lagoon. A
large part of the wetland was thus lost for migrating birds and spawning fish.
The further expansion of the port and settlement of Ploče, building of holiday
homes, industry, and the pollution of water from Mostar and other sources, still
endangers marshy valleys of the Neretva river.
An important problem in this region is bird hunting, which is a part of
traditional culture and customs. Ćukanje, a specific method of hunting the coot
(Fulka atra), resulted in almost complete extinction of this species of bird.
There is also illegal hunting of other species of wild birds. In addition to the
loss of fauna component of the wetland ecosystem, hunting is also accompanied by
emission of various pollutants into the ground and water. This aggravates the
life quality of the human population and has a negative effect on the flora and
fauna. Te current state of bird fauna in the Neretva valley requires a thorough
assessment and a change of the entire bird-wetland-humans relationship.
It is a contradiction of the Neretva delta that this region, although
highly endangered, is a home to many protected “objects of nature.” Protected
areas occupy the surface of 1624 hectares (13% of the entire region) and are
grouped into fve protection categories: ornithological and ichthyological-ornithological
reserves, “Horticultural Monument-Tree,” Significant Landscape, and Park Forest.
Te ornithological reserves Orepak (100 hectares), Podgrede (587 hectares), and
Prud (250 hectares) are the remnants of the Mediterranean wetland crucial for
the bird migration and wintering. Te southeastern part of the Neretva delta is
an ichthyological-ornithological reserve (250 hectares) where fish spawn and
birds arrive in the periods of migration and wintering, with some of them
breeding there. In Metković, cypress (Cupresus sempervirens var pyramidalis) is
protected as a “Horticultural Monument - Tree.” Modro oko and the lake Desne
(370 hectares) are protected within the “Significant Landscape” category,
because of their features characteristic of the lower course of Neretva. These
include alluvial carst depression with an abundance of water and wetland
biotopes. Predolac - Šibanica (67 hectares) is the protected area east of
Metković in the Park Forest category, which includes aleppo pine and
Mediterranean cypress with macchia elements.
Te list of specially protected objects of nature, composed in 1991 by the
Ministry of Environment, does not mention the protected regions of the
municipality of Ploče. These are Parila (410 hectares), Baćinska lakes (286
hectares), and part of the region around Modro oko (145 hectares). Furthermore,
the list does not include the area of the lake Kuti (ornithological reserve, 490
hectares), because of the lack of agreement between conservationists and the
local businesses. Te Kuti area combines wetland, lakes, and carst landscape, and
is abundant with marshland vegetation and freshwater fish, in particular eel.
Numerous strong streams supply the area with water.
Today, the region of the Neretva delta is subjected to agricultural
exploitation, but the draining of wetland is less intense. Te deserted
agricultural areas, by some perceived as neglected, have reverted to the old
natural state and immediately started to attract birds and fish. Te rest of the
area is cultivated land in the square form, sown with modern commercial crops.
Agrarian cultures between the marshlands give the area a green visual identity
and make it different from the rest of the coast. This is why the Neretva delta
is called the green pearl of the southern Croatian coast.
In spite of the large-scale disturbance of birds, as well as the
destruction and degradation of wetland in the past and today (6), the delta of
Neretva still presents a biologically valuable area. There is a diversity of
landscapes and wetlands, such as streams, rivers, lakes, marshes, and numerous
springs. There are both natural and man-made biotopes: meadows, agriculture
land, numerous channels (jendeci), dams, and settlements connected by roads.
There are proposals to include the Neretva delta and its population into a
future Nature Park to protect it from further devastation. The protection of
natural resources should be combined with the needs of further development and
it should take into account regional traditions.
1 Todorović B. The Neretva delta - from wetland to intensive agriculture [in
Croatian]. Available at:
http://www. geografja.hr/nov osti.asp?id_novosti=626&id_projekta=0
&trazi=neretva. Accessed: March 5, 2007.
2 Fortis A. A voyage through Dalmatia [In Croatian]. Split: Slobodna Dalmacija;
3 Malaria. In: Šercer A, Grmek MD, editors. Medical encyclopedia, part 4 [in
Croatian]. Zagreb: Jugoslavenski leksikografski zavod; 1969. p. 374-80.
4 Bad news [in Croatian]. Jutarnji list. 2005 March 11; p. 88.
5 Mrakovčić M. Identification of relationship between hydrological dynamics and
biodiversity values of the Neretva river delta [in Croatian]. Zagreb: Regional
Center for Environment Protection in Middle and Eastern Europe (REC - office in
Croatia); 2001. A document in possession of author.
6 Mužinić J. Neretva valley - threatened area in Croatia [in Croatian].
Proceedings of the fourth congress of Croatian biologists. Zagreb: Croatian
biological society; 1993.