European Wilderness Society

Marine disaster in Spain

For the past week, more than 4.5 tons of dead fish have washed up on the coast of the Mar Menor. It is one of Europe’s largest saltwater lagoons in the region of Murcia, Spain. However, it is slowly dying as a result of agricultural pollution. Why is this happening and is there still hope for a solution?

What is happening exactly?

The southeastern Spanish region of Murcia has extremely fertile land but the climate is dry with very little rainfall. Therefore, for over a century locals have been looking to extract water from whatever source possible. According to Spanish government spokesperson Isabel Rodríguez, there are around 8,000 hectares of land being used for agricultural purposes near the Mar Menor area which have not been awarded concessions to use water. But agricultural companies have been able to install hundreds of desalination machines nonetheless. Like this they made the Mar Menor’s brackish groundwater of aquifers suitable for irrigation.

Hundreds of tonnes of nitrates from fertilisers leak, however, back into the waters. Eventually, they end up in the Mar Menor. This has been contributing to the growth of algae and other microorganisms. They consume oxygen and block the light causing now a phenomenon known as eutrophication. This is basically a collapse of the aquatic ecosystems. Sadly, this is already the second such major episode since October 2019. At this point three tons of dead fish had to be removed. The latest environmental collapse is being blamed on the increase of water temperatures due to a heatwave. This added to all the factors that have created a truly toxic environment for marine life.

Who is responsible?

Who is actually responsible for the disaster and also should take action to solve it is still on debate. For Murcian authorities, it is the state’s turn to intervene. The national government on the other hand accuses Murcia’s regional government of allowing these practices to proliferate illegally for years, despite knowing that the outflow of brine and nitrates end up in the Mar Menor. Agricultural groups have rejected accusations from authorities. They argue they are not to blame for the Mar Menor crisis and that they are fully compliant with local legislation. The reason: not having a registered licence does not really prevent them from extracting water. 

What can be done?

One of the solutions being suggested to solve the catastrophe is to empty this gargantuan amount of pollutants from the aquifer. But environmentalists are divided over whether it will cause more harm than good. The local population is now protesting on the beaches. Many people wore black and others held up banners reading: SOS Mar Menor. Organisers estimated up to 70,000 people joined the protest.

In order for the Spanish Parliament to consider a draft law spearheaded by citizens, half a million people must put their name down to express support for the Mar Menor crisis for it to go up for debate.  If they reached the 500,000-signature mark, it would allow the rights of the Mar Menor to be defended in court as if it were a legal person or business. Only like this it is likely that enforcing actions can be taken. Spokesperson for the Mar Menor Scientific Committee, Ángel Pérez Ruzafa, has said environmental catastrophes such as the one seen in recent days “will happen again two, three, four times, with even greater severity” as long as the entry of nutrients into the ecosystem persists. His organisation has listed 100 ideas where everyone from neighbours to trade unions and town hall authorities can help save the Mar Menor. 

Photo of Mar Menor as seen from International Space Station. Source: Nasa

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