Ambitious plan to save Spain’s largest saltwater lagoon Mar Menor

by Lorraine Williamson
Largest salt water lagoon in Spain

For at least 30 years, the government of Andalucia has failed miserably on what is the region’s central problem: reconciling environmental protection and economic development. This applies to Doñana, to macro farms in the countryside, and to the Mar Menor, the largest saltwater lagoon in Spain.

Everyone seems to agree that something needs to be done for the Mar Menor. The question is why no one is doing it? On October 12, 2021, the Mar Menor was struggling with thousands of dead fish and shellfish on its beaches. According to Javier Gilabert of the Scientific Committee of the Mar Menor, this was “the worst situation of the Mar Menor in its entire history”. The lagoon was a bomb about to explode. Now, the country’s top experts have come together to defuse the bomb.

The Polytechnic University of Cartagena has organised a conference (“Science at the service of the restoration of the socio-ecological system of the Mar Menor”). The university collaborated with the Technical Bureau of the Mar Menor of the Ministry for Ecological Transition. The goal is to analyse all the factors that ultimately affected the lagoon. Major culprits are urbanisation, pollution and agriculture.

The activity with the greatest impact on the natural environment

According to José María Rey Benayas, professor of ecology at the University of Alcalá, the impact of current agriculture is enormous. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. At the very least, it is possible to look for models that respect biodiversity without harming producers. The problem is that, as the past few decades have shown, this is not easy.” Moreover, it makes no sense to only look at the Mar Menor. If we want to solve the problem, we need to look much further and initiate a comprehensive redevelopment of the entire region.”

Added to this is the problem of climate change. There are two phenomena that are making the problems around the lagoon worse. The first is the intervention of man for many years. It has turned the entire river basin into a “direct channelisation” of crops to the Mar Menor. Not a problem in itself, but the torrential rains take the fertilisers from the fields and in this way they end up in the lagoon. Where rain is a blessing in many areas, here it is disastrous for nature.

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A lot of research is still needed because we still know very little about how the water moves in the subsurface of the area. In addition, the situation also calls for a series of measures that put agriculture in order throughout the river basin and restore the entire drainage network that surrounded and protected the lagoon. However, over the past decade, heavy rainfall in the catchment area has increased “very significantly”.

There are now three proposals on the table. First of all, “the renaturalisation of the plots in the first two kilometres of the coastline by removing irrigation”. Secondly, “dedicating 20% of the agricultural landscape to natural or semi-natural vegetation”. And the the third is “establishing a network of hedges up to 10,000 linear kilometers that ‘enable control’ over runoff (one of the main problems of the Mar Menor).”

Will we be able to save the Mar Menor?

Despite all the efforts (and the new regulations), the situation of the lagoon is still critical. Salvation seems impossible, but there are also reasons to be optimistic. Although the agricultural protests of recent months have paralysed many measures, the new European regulations could help to protect the area.

Good news for the future of the Mar Menor is the fact that the balance of power has changed somewhat since 2021. Traditionally, there have been areas (with the greatest tourist interests) that have escaped the most serious effects of pollution. This is starting to change. It is becoming increasingly clear that the deterioration of the area may inhibit the economic development of the region.

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