Mar Menor suffers biggest crisis with five tons of dead fish on the beaches

by Lorraine Williamson
tons of dead fish

SAN JAVIER – What was once a tourist hotspot on Europe’s largest inland sea with clear blue waters. But now, it is murky and moribund with tons of dead fish washing up on several beaches. 

Intensive agriculture in the Mar Menor vicinity (Murcia) dumps thousands of kilos of nitrates into the lagoon in an uncontrolled manner. These leave a deadly trail of hundreds of fish that have died from lack of oxygen. Since August 13 this has been happening every day. Numbers now point to the worst ever crisis in this regard in this place. During a previous serious crisis in 2019, a total of 3,000 kilograms of dead fish, shellfish, and crustaceans were involved. But in just ten days it is now more than 5,000 kilograms. This is shown by figures from the regional Ministry of the Environment. 

According to Pedro García, director of the environmental group ANSE, in reality, it is probably much more. Every morning he goes to a different beach where the dead animals wash up depending on wind direction and current. 

‘Green soup’ 

Mar Menor received its first major blow in the summer of 2016 when a huge algal bloom arose. This was better known as ‘green soup’. It followed three years later by anoxia (complete absence of oxygen) that killed thousands of fish. This second episode of oxygen deprivation predicts the worst for the natural environment, which is not protected from eutrophication (over-enrichment of nutrients) caused by the intensive agriculture in the area. Farmers see this saltwater lagoon as a dumping ground for manure waste. According to regional government sources, 5,000 kilograms of nitrate flows into the Mar Menor every day. This comes through the Albujón riverbed along with 30 million litres of freshwater. 

Inactivity and political struggle 

According to ElDiario.es, the environmental crisis has sparked another political war between the regional and national governments. Murcia President Fernando López Miras appeared urgently on Friday, August 20, to address the situation. López Miras accused the government of inaction and pushed for the opening of the Marchamalo Canal connecting Mar Menor to the Mediterranean Sea. He also claimed jurisdiction over the coast and basin of the lagoon. Finally, he announced a ban on the dumping of nitrates in the Mar Menor. He indicated the central government must enforce this ban. He received support from the leader of his Partido Popular party, Pablo Casado, who, during a visit to the lagoon last Monday, pointed out that the powers to stop the discharges lie with the government of Pedro Sánchez. 

Complaint against Minister of Ecological Transition 

On Wednesday, Minister Ribera of Ecological Transition will visit Mar Menor to talk with mayors and conservationists from the area. Her visit follows President López Miras’s announcement to file a complaint against her. The complaint speaks of “her inaction and failure to implement measures contributing to the protection and restoration of the Mar Menor”. Her response came on national radio, saying she will “personally take care that the Mar Menor is not poisoned”. 

Heat caused tons of dead fish? 

The regional government attributes the large number of dead fish to the extreme heat ten days ago. “The biggest problem is eutrophication,” Ángel Pérez Ruzafa, professor of ecology at the University of Murcia (UMU), and member of the scientific committee of the Mar Menor told elDiario.es. In winter, the lagoon is more resistant to the ingress of nutrients through the water table. But in summer the situation is exacerbated by “high temperatures, the increase in primary agricultural production and the decrease in oxygen,” says the researcher. 

Agricultural model must change 

A line of thought shared by Julia Martínez, technical director of the Nueva Cultura del Agua foundation and former member of the same scientific committee that chairs Ruzafa: “People don’t want to recognise that the biggest problem is fertiliser dumping and intensive farming. In 2019, we warned this could happen again and that the agricultural model had to be changed.” The UMU professor regrets the past five years, after the 2016 crisis with the ‘green soup’, have been lost. As such, the regional authorities did not listen to the recommendations of scientists and environmental groups at the time.

cogesa expats

‘Done nothing’ 

According to scientist Julia Martínez, the three administrations are jointly responsible for the state of the lagoon. But it is the autonomous community that has the powers of irrigation, land and sea drainage, spatial planning, the environment, and management of the lagoon.  

Possible solutions 

Until the origin and seriousness of the problem is acknowledged, Martínez sees the prospects for recovery as “very negative”. In the short term, it is “impossible” to reverse the situation. However, in the medium and long term “there are opportunities for improvement, but slowly”. 

Ruzafa argues that the solution for Mar Menor also involves better water management, and advocates the use of desalination plants, denitrifiers, and conduit systems that ensure that the nitrate content of the water is reduced before it flows into the lagoon. The scientist believes that the crisis in the current natural environment is still no bigger than that of 2019, a situation that could be exacerbated by a ‘gota fría’ (severe weather with heavy rainfall) or higher temperatures. 

Mar Menor Protection Act 

In July 2020, the PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos introduced a protection law for the Mar Menor. A legislative initiative extending the protective strip – a non-construction area – around the lagoon from 500 to 1,500 metres, along with limiting the use of fertilisers around it. In addition, it includes a ban on new greenhouses in that perimeter and an obligation to restore illegal irrigation. A law that was assessed as ‘inadequate’ by environmental associations. 

Alternatives to save the lagoon 

Parallel to the Mar Menor law and the proposals of the last days of the government of Murcia, two alternative initiatives are underway to protect the lagoon. One is the citizens’ initiative promoted by ecologists and academics to grant legal personality to Mar Menor. Then legal action can be taken immediately if the rights of the inland sea are violated. The initiators have until October 25 to collect 500,000 signatures. The platform is confident that they will succeed in this. Only Spaniards who are eligible to vote can sign at specific points in the country. 

Mar Menor as a national park 

Unidas Podemos launched a campaign on its own initiative to turn the Mar Menor into a regional park and will register a non-legal proposal (PNL) to the Congress of Deputies to arrive at “final solutions” for the lagoon. The initiative aims to create a protective strip around the Mar Menor, which already includes protected areas such as Calblanque and Las Salinas de San Pedro. “A space free of nitrates and real estate”. 

Environmental tax agricultural companies 

Another proposal is to impose an environmental tax on agricultural companies. The proceeds would be used to finance the necessary investments for the protection and restoration of the Mar Menor, creating a specific item in the General State Budgets. 

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