LA MANGA, Spain – The Mar Menor, a saltwater lagoon on the coast of southeastern Spain, has long been renowned for its natural beauty, drawing tourists and retirees to its shallow, warm waters and the mild Mediterranean climate of the region.
But in recent years, the idyllic lagoon has been threatened. Tons of dead fish washed up on the shore as the once crystal clear waters choked on algae.
Scientists are divided over whether climate change – causing excessive heat that lowers oxygen levels in the water – is contributing to the problem. But they agree that the nitrate-filled runoff from fertilizers from nearby farms severely damaged the waters where oysters and seahorses thrived. But farmers in the region have been reluctant to take responsibility.
Hugo MorÃ¡n, a senior official in the central government’s Environment Ministry, estimated that 80 percent of water contamination resulted from the uncontrolled growth of agriculture. He also put some of the blame on local politicians, accusing them of long downplaying contamination and of coming up with unsustainable remedies, such as channeling much of the lagoon’s water to the Mediterranean Sea.
It would only create another victim, he said.
“To be cured, you first have to recognize the disease,” he said. “But what we have heard, instead, are sporadic claims from the Murcia regional government that the Mar Menor is doing better than ever.”
Similar problems have emerged recently in other parts of the world. The pollution, including that from nitrogen-based contaminants, has been accused of accelerating the secretion of a viscous substance called mucilage that has clogged Turkey’s Sea of ââMarmara. And the waste produced by an electric plan and a nearby oil refinery damaged the giant lagoon of Berre in southern France.
The area around the Mar Menor, with its fertile fields and temperate year-round climate, has proven to be irresistible for large farms, which often use nitrogen fertilizers that are harmful to the environment. Adding to the problems, there has been significant tourist development on the narrow 13-mile sandbar known as La Manga, or the sleeve, which separates the Mar Menor from the Mediterranean.
Whatever the fault, retired teacher MarÃa Victoria SÃ¡nchez-Bravo Solla has had enough.
When five tons of dead fish washed up in August near her lagoon home, she decided she was ready to move. She called it an “environmental disaster that should shame our politicians and all those who deny responsibility for allowing this to happen.”
Such massive fish kills have occurred a few times over the past five years, and the stench of rotting algae, which has made the lagoon’s waters darker and more murky, is yet another sign of the ecological crisis.
Local restaurants no longer serve seafood from Mar Menor and commercial fishing crews now trawl in the nearby Mediterranean instead. Few residents would even consider swimming in the lagoon.
As the problems escalated, so did the blame game.
The conservative administration in the Murcia region said Spain’s central government in Madrid, currently a left-wing coalition, should do more to help. Madrid say the responsibility lies with the local level.
Miriam PÃ©rez, head of the Mar Menor in the regional government, said she believed political rivalries were preventing the central government from doing more.
“Unfortunately I think political colors matter,” she said.
She said the central government had done little to support her right-wing administration’s cleanup efforts – including the removal of around 7,000 metric tonnes of biomass – mostly rotting algae – even after the region released a decree in 2019 to protect the lagoon.
In August, when another wave of dead fish washed up, scientists found the water temperature had risen dramatically. But in September, the Spanish Institute of Oceanography released a report that dismissed the idea that excessive summer heat helped kill fish.
Instead, scientists place much of the blame on agriculture. In 1979, a canal was opened to transport water from the Tagus – the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula – to southeastern Spain. The canal led to irrigation, which transformed Murcia into one of the agricultural powers of Europe, producing lettuce, broccoli, artichokes, melons and more for export across the continent.
Agriculture accounts for 8.5% of the region’s gross domestic product and provides around 47,000 jobs, according to a study released last year by the University of AlcalÃ¡, near Madrid.
But farmers around the Mar Menor have deflected the blame, saying the contamination comes from water seeping into the lagoon from an aquifer in which toxic substances have accumulated over decades.
Vicente CarriÃ³n, president of the local branch of COAG, an agricultural union, said farmers now strictly use only the amount of fertilizer needed for plant growth.
“We are blamed for what happened 40 years ago”, as agricultural practices were less monitored and authorities focused on exploiting demand from across Europe, he said. -he declares.
Adolfo GarcÃa, director of Camposeven, an agricultural exporter that operates around 1,500 acres of land in the region, said most farmers have already switched to sustainable production methods. Latecomers should get incentives from the government to invest in green technologies rather than “stones thrown by people who have no knowledge of our modern irrigation systems,” he added.
âEven if we didn’t plant anything in this area for the next 50 years, the aquifer would remain heavily polluted,â he said.
But Julia MartÃnez, who grew up in the region and is now a biologist and technical director at FundaciÃ³n Nueva Cultura del Agua, an institute specializing in water sustainability, said the arguments about the aquifer were a red herring. . She said at least 75 percent of the lagoon water contamination came from runoff.
The impact of tourism – another giant contributor to the local economy – is another issue. The hotels and restaurants of the Mar Menor are concentrated along the La Manga sandbar, where dozens of apartment buildings have also been constructed, many of which are vacation homes. Almost every centimeter of the tape is developed.
Mr. MorÃ¡n, the Secretary of the Environment, admitted that the Mar Menor had suffered from an âopen barâ approach in terms of granting building permits. But most of all he blamed the runoff of fertilizer from the farms.
The lagoon was proof that “one of the major problems of Europe is the contamination of its waters by nitrates”, he declared.
Pedro Luengo Michel, a biologist who works for Ecologistas en AcciÃ³n, a Spanish environmental organization, said the agricultural and tourism industries have a wide influence, especially at the local level where the Conservative People’s Party has governed since 1995.
âWe are facing a very powerful agricultural lobby on which our politicians depend to stay in power,â said Luengo Michel.
Mr MorÃ¡n said his central government plans to use â¬ 300 million, or around $ 350 million, from the European Union’s pandemic stimulus fund to protect the natural habitat and waters of the Mar Menor. The plan includes replanting vegetation near the riverbanks, which can prevent contaminated water from draining from nearby fields.
For some scientists, monitoring the lagoon’s deterioration has been felt like a personal tragedy.
âI remember finding it amazing when I was a kid that I could see the sand at the bottom without even noticing the water because the Mar Menor was so transparent,â said Ms. MartÃnez, the biologist.
“Now we unfortunately have a green soup and I certainly stopped swimming in it a long time ago.”