Europe’s largest saltwater lagoon under attack

The environmental danger of Spain that alerts the maritime world

Salty lagoon

Off the southeastern coast of Spain, Mar Menor, Europe’s largest coastal saltwater lagoon bordering the Mediterranean Sea, has been grappling with severe contamination for the past four decades. Excess nitrates and phosphates, common chemicals found in fertilizers used in the neighboring Campo de Cartagena, the region’s largest agricultural croplands, have led to numerous ecological collapses, pushing endemic species like the Spanish toothcarp or Iberian killifish to the brink of extinction.

The environmental degradation has not only affected the lagoon’s biodiversity, but it has also taken a toll on the local economy and the community’s way of life. Once renowned for its pristine waters and teeming marine life, Mar Menor is now known as the “green soup” due to its murky green appearance. Fishermen have been catching more algae than fish in recent years, and the shoreline is often lined with green triangular piles of algae.

The contamination of Mar Menor is not a recent issue. After four decades of rampant urban development, regulatory mismanagement, and the rapid expansion of livestock and agricultural production, a steady stream of nitrogen and phosphorus has flowed into the lagoon. The lagoon’s ecological woes reached a critical point in 2016 when excess nitrogen and phosphorus led to eutrophication, a process characterized by rapid algae growth. These algal blooms covered the lagoon’s surface, blocking sunlight from reaching the water and leading to the death of underwater plants and marine species struggling to find oxygen.

In the midst of these environmental challenges, local farmers like Eladio Sánchez Egea have found themselves under public scrutiny. Despite their efforts to follow new regulations and implement measures to reduce pollution, they are often unjustly blamed for the lagoon’s deterioration. “I was angry at how people perceive us farmers,” Egea recalls, emphasizing the need for collective responsibility in addressing the issue.

Efforts to combat the pollution in Mar Menor have been a combination of addressing the consequences of pollution and tackling its source. This has involved organizing cleanup operations to remove algae from the lagoon and implementing legislation to limit the use of inorganic fertilizers. Additionally, farmers have been encouraged to plant natural barriers like hedges to reduce nutrient flow and prevent soil erosion. Illegally irrigated lands have also been targeted to regulate water use for agricultural purposes. Despite some improvements in the lagoon’s ecosystem, experts warn that more drastic action is needed to reverse the damage and ensure long-term recovery.

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