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Press release: 6 October 2021
In a formal complaint submitted today to the European Commission, environmental experts from ClientEarth and Ecologistas en Acción state that Spain’s continued failure to protect the Mar Menor – an internationally protected site and popular tourist destination – from chemical overload breaches EU and national laws.
The European Commission is being urged to launch immediate action against Spain as harmful agricultural practices push Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon to the brink of ecological collapse.
The continuous build-up of fertilisers from nearby agricultural land has created toxic conditions in the Mar Menor, decimating the site and resulting in recurrent episodes of mass deaths of marine life and habitats with the most recent episode of mass die-off occurring this August.
EU nature laws require national authorities to take necessary measures to avoid the deterioration of protected sites and water bodies, like the Mar Menor. However, the environmental groups believe Spain has failed to comply with this legal obligation by taking only superficial steps to safeguard the Mar Menor from damaging agricultural practices.
Meanwhile, species are being depleted and tourists are being driven away by the sight and stench.
ClientEarth wildlife and habitats lawyer Soledad Gallego said: “Spain’s lack of meaningful action to protect this iconic site means we are witnessing the Mar Menor breaking down before our eyes. Protected species and habitats clearly cannot survive, let alone thrive, under the suffocating conditions caused by current industrial farming.
“Continuing to allow intensive agricultural practices will have long-term consequences. Continuing to compromise the Mar Menor and the surrounding farmland in favour of short-term gains is already causing irreversible harm and will eventually leave the area barren, which will have environmental as well as economic and social repercussions.
“The European Commission must urgently act to stop this environmental crisis. As legal guardian of the Mar Menor, the Spanish authorities have a duty to safeguard the lagoon, not purely because of its natural beauty, but because it is vital for the health of people and nature, which risks disappearing forever.”
Scientists have warned of the impacts large amounts of fertilisers have on this unique site. However, the regional government of Murcia and the Spanish Government have failed to control the unsustainable increase in land being irrigated – partially illegally – and to effectively reduce the use of fertilisers and their subsequent discharge into the lagoon.
Experts at Ecologistas en Acción believe that the Mar Menor could recover if the necessary measures were introduced to change the way the land is managed. Measures include reducing the amount of irrigated land, imposing stricter limits on the amount of fertilisers used and applying natural solutions to help retain excess nutrients and prevent soil loss.
Instead, the regional government has opted for insufficient and short-term measures, such as only banning certain fertilisers over a small area, which fail to address the magnitude of the issue in the long-term. All the while, the national government has failed to step in.
Ecologistas en Acción Murcia coordinator and renowned scientist, Julia Martínez said: “There is an opportunity for farmers to move from being the main part of the problem to becoming part of the solution, by leading a shift from the present unsustainable agricultural model to a new one, compatible with the ecological recovery of the Mar Menor.
“This would position the Mar Menor farmers as an international example of how an intensive irrigated agriculture can become sustainable and allow the conservation of water, soil and biodiversity, as well as restoring a healthy ecosystem that many other economic activities depend on.”
ClientEarth and Ecologistas en Acción are asking the European Commission to launch infringement proceedings against Spain.
Located in the south-east of Spain, the Mar Menor and its surrounding area is legally protected under the EU Nature Directives through the designation of several EU Natura 2000 conservation sites. It is also a Ramsar Wetland and Protected Area of Mediterranean interest under Barcelona Convention of the United Nations Environment Programme. Priority habitats include coastal lagoons and seagrass (Cymodocea nodosa), which due to their status, mean they are more heavily protected. Environmental measures under the EU Water Framework Directive and Nitrates Directive also legally protect the Mar Menor.
For the past 20 years, the Mar Menor has suffered significant environmental degradation, primarily due to excessive nutrients pollution (nitrates, phosphates) from intensive agricultural practices in the region. Three catastrophic pollution events occurred in 2016 and 2019 and most recently in August 2021, decimating marine life and habitats (seagrass beds) in the lagoon. These events were caused by excess nutrients entering the lagoon making it ‘eutrophic’, which leads to massive growths of algae, which deoxygenate the water. This then effectively suffocates life in the lagoon, leading to mass deaths of marine life and habitats. These pollution events caused asphyxiated wildlife to float to the surface of the lagoon and eventually thousands of specimens wash up on the coastline.
The Mar Menor acts as a natural defence against climate change – 80% of the Mar Menor is made up of seagrass, which is able to capture and store vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.
The eutrophication event in 2016 resulted in the death of 85% of the seagrass beds in the lagoon and the mass death of several endangered species, some of them at risk of extinction, such as seahorses (Hippocampus guttulatus) and the fan mussel (Pinna nobilis). Preliminary data from the latest episode in August 2021 estimates that 90% of the seagrass beds have died. There are no signs that these species are recovering. However, species may recover over the medium-to-long term if appropriate conditions (cut-off of most nutrient inflows) are in place.
Sustainable agriculture measures
According to research, the Spanish authorities should implement long-term measures to ensure that agricultural activities do not impact the Mar Menor’s ‘carrying capacity’ i.e. its ability to maintain a healthy ecosystem. Agricultural methods that do not negatively impact the lagoon – such as agro-ecological and organic practices – should be preferred to ensure enhanced integration between farming activities and nature objectives.
ClientEarth is a non-profit organisation that uses the law to create systemic change that protects the Earth for – and with – its inhabitants. We are tackling climate change, protecting nature and stopping pollution, with partners and citizens around the globe. We hold industry and governments to account, and defend everyone’s right to a healthy world. From our offices in Europe, Asia and the USA we shape, implement and enforce the law, to build a future for our planet in which people and nature can thrive together.
Ecologistas en Accíon de la Región Murciana is a non-governmental organisation, founded almost two decades ago. We are part of the social ecology movement, which understands that environmental problems have their origin in an increasingly globalised model of production and consumption, from which other social problems also derive. In order to transform this model and avoid the consequences of the ecological crisis, we carry out awareness-raising and information campaigns, public or legal complaints against those actions that damage the environment, and we elaborate concrete and viable alternatives in each of the areas in which we work. We also promote multiple activities in degraded areas and/or areas with high environmental values for the territory, as a way to raise awareness in society and involve young people through volunteering.