At dawn, the lagoon fills with birds. Gulls, herons, cormorants... You can only hear the birds singing and flapping their wings. A flock flies over the calm water, which reflects them like a mirror. In the background, the first rays of sunlight begin to make themselves seen behind the tall skyscrapers of La Manga. In a little while, when the wind will blow, the light that now has red and blue reflections will show cloudy water. Dark green algae floating and mud on the shores remind us that this trompe l'oeil of paradise is the Mar Menor, Europe's largest saltwater lagoon.
It is 9 o'clock in the morning and Isabel Rubio has already read all the day's press. This retired English teacher is one of the people who keeps a close eye on the state of the lagoon, one of the main tourist destinations in the Region of Murcia, in south-eastern Spain.
With 135 km2 (its original size was reduced when artificial beaches were built), extreme temperatures and a higher salinity than the Mediterranean Sea, the Mar Menor has its own ecosystem which has been badly damaged in recent years.
Rubio explains the characteristics of this interesting place like someone talking about the history of her family, only instead of uncles and distant cousins, here she talks about islands, seahorses and invasive species.
“If they take the Mar Menor away from me, I'll die. It hurts me so much, how we have been able to destroy this beautiful place, how the power of money has been able to overcome the preservation of beauty!”
She gets emotional when she answers, as does everyone I talk to when I ask them the same question: What does the Mar Menor mean to you?
Along with several colleagues, Rubio is part of the Pacto por el Mar Menor. The association was created in 2015 with the aim of informing people and generating pressure about the deterioration of the Mar Menor, while seeking to build bridges between politicians, administration and citizens. Accompanied by environmental groups, Pacto por el Mar Menor has been a key player in making the degradation of this ecosystem known to the public, both to the residents of the affected riverside towns, as well as in the European Parliament where they have gone on several occasions to denounce the situation.
The degradation of the lagoon by massive construction and tourism over the last decades was very noticeable. Despite all the pressure it was under, the Mar Menor continued to resist, in an increasingly tense equilibrium. Until it could take no more and, in 2016, collapsed.
In just a few decades, what was once a hypersaline lagoon with an exceptional ecosystem changed completely. Its transparent waters, full of flora and fauna, turned green in 2016, a time known as "la sopa verde" (the green soup). Rubio explains the process of eutrophication of the lagoon in the talks she gives with photos and graphics, making the public familiar with the term.
“If the water has an excess of nutrients, there is an increase in microalgae. The development is very large, because these microalgae consume a lot of oxygen, growing in a brutal way. They grow so much that the sun can't get down [into the water] and doesn't allow the algae meadows to photosynthesize."
But the degradation had just begun. On the day of El Pilar in 2019, the first major fish die-off occurred, with more than 3 tons of dead fish and crustaceans washing up on the beaches of San Pedro del Pinatar, to the north of the lagoon. In August 2021, in the middle of the summer season, the episode was repeated but this time in La Manga: 4.5 tons of fish died due to the lack of oxygen in the water. The images are saddening.
Since then, the Mar Menor has been in agony.
Chronicle of a death foretold
The problem is very complex; it involves multiple fronts and there is no single solution. Nor was it unforeseeable. It had been years in the making, the result of unbridled urban and tourist pressure, changes in the ecosystem due to the opening of canals to allow larger ships to enter, poor management of urban waste and mining waste, and intensive livestock farming and agriculture without any control over the management of waste and polluted water.
Although scientists and experts had been warning of the disaster, nothing was done. The inaction of the responsible administrations and this "laissez-faire" attitude for several decades caused illegal wells, desalination plants and discharges full of nitrates and brine to grow throughout the Campo de Cartagena basin, which were dumped into the streams and ended up polluting the waters of the lagoon and the underground aquifer.
The problem has so many edges, and the main victims are the people who live or work in the area.
The forgotten village
The dead fish did not reach Los Urrutias, but its story is one of neglect and abandonment linked to the decline of the Mar Menor. Due to its geographical location, this village receives all the waste water that reaches the lagoon through the nearby Albujón stream. In addition, due to several constructions, the water remains stagnant in some areas of the beach. The black mud, the recommendation not to bathe, the bad smell and the plagues of mosquitoes are a daily part of the last few summers in this area of the lagoon, a family beach where the water barely reaches the surface.
Although there are areas where it reaches 7 meters, one of the characteristics of the Mar Menor is its shallowness: you can walk for hundreds of meters and the water barely reaches your waist. On the shore of Los Urrutias the sea looks transparent, but if you look closely you can see black areas.
"If you go in, you'll sink," warns Ana Pineda, the president of the Los Urrutias Platform.
It is a cold winter morning and the community cleaning services are removing the algae from the beaches. Groups of six people armed with rakes and knee-high boots work from 7am to 3pm, every day, removing kilos and kilos of caulerpa prolifica, with a strong smell and a dark green color. They put them in piles which are then removed by a tractor.
The same image can be seen in the neighboring village of Los Nietos. It seems that misfortune has struck this area. Both municipalities were the main victims, along with Los Alcázares, of heavy floods and torrential rains in the autumn of 2019.
Ana Pineda explains that all her childhood memories are of the village and the beach. That this is where she met her husband and this is where they got married. While we walk through the beach, she points out all the empty houses in front of the seaside.
“This is an absolute sadness for those of us who are deeply rooted. The Mar Menor is our life. On an emotional level it has touched us all very much.”
Today's Mar Menor bears little resemblance to the one Carmen Conde wrote about in her poems.
Palm trees in flocks, carob trees,
olive and almond trees, the pomegranate trees
shelter the one who eats from the waters,
mixing sea salt with dark oil.
The carob, olive and almond trees have been exchanged for endless fields of lettuce and melons, most of which will end up on the shelves of foreign supermarkets. Fields farmed by immigrant workers, who are now renting the houses in which the locals do not want to live.
From the counter of his bodega, Severo Sánchez explains that he was president of the village residents' association for eight years. On the shelves there are bottles of wine and different types of alcoholic drinks. There are also barrels with wine in bulk and a tobacco machine that he has to activate every now and then with a remote control. A silent orange cat dozes curled up in its basket, oblivious to its owner's worries. When Sánchez speaks, he voices the frustration of feeling cheated by politicians and the desire to do things to change reality. He even went so far as to propose changing the name of the village to "Los Olvidados" (The forgotten) in the hope of drawing attention to the situation. Because if people can't bathe, why would they come to this area?
“When I met my wife, she lived here in Los Urrutias. I fell in love with her because I first fell in love with the Mar Menor. This lagoon is my life, my passion.”
A lagoon with no fish
Rubio walks along the promenade of Los Nietos pointing out the old fishermen's houses. At 72 years of age, she remembers her first summers there, in a childhood in the '50s and '60s that is hard to imagine today.
“I knew the old Los Nietos yacht club, and I remember swimming under the wooden bridge.”Next to the current bridge, made of concrete and cement, there is only stagnant water, some reeds and mud.
Cinthia Quintana is 39 years old. Although she was born in Paraguay, she has been fishing in Los Nietos for 12 years. With two teenage daughters, she will be a mother again this summer.
“My husband is a fisherman and in the end I have become a fisherwoman," she says, explaining her link with a trade that in the area is passed down from father to son.
Fishermen are one of the main groups affected, with some 100 families fishing in the Mar Menor. Quintana has her boat in the port of Lo Pagán and since the autumn of 2022 she has been going out to the Mediterranean to fish because there is nothing to be found in the lagoon. She also complains that the price of fishing in the Mar Menor has dropped a lot.
This morning the wind blew strong and the sea was rough. However, the water in Los Nietos was hardly moving.
“The lagoon has been crying out for help for a long time. It has been noticeable for years that the bottom of the sea has been rotting, black mud has been coming out. For me the Mar Menor is a source of work. I depend on it. And in the future I will continue to depend on the lagoon. I would be very sad if it were to disappear.”
A species bank to protect them from disappearing
"Guess what, it has the tail of a monkey, the head of a horse and it's a fish, what animal is it?” With this question Rubio addresses the children in the talks she gives in schools to introduce the seahorse, a species that everyone here associates with the Mar Menor because it was very common to see it on the shores.
The last time Rubio saw a seahorse in the Mar Menor was in 2018. The Hippocampus Association, which counts this species, estimates that there are less than 1,000 seahorses left in the entire lagoon.
Emilio Cortés spends his days amongst aquariums full of corals, goldfish, giant clams and other underwater animals. He is the technical director of the Aquarium of the University of Murcia and part of his job is, as he affectionately says, "to breed critters". At the Aquarium they are developing a species bank with the aim to ensure that emblematic animals of the Mar Menor, such as seahorses and mule needles, will not be lost. In tanks that imitate the real conditions of the lagoon, hundreds of these peculiar fish hibernate in different stages; some are so small that it is difficult to see them with the naked eye.
“We are very serious about this. We are very careful with the Mar Menor population in particular.”
Ideally, the populations in the lagoon would recover on their own and there would be no need for the species bank. However, the work is helping to improve scientists' knowledge and to obtain very interesting data on species such as the nacre. Similar to a mussel but larger, this animal is critically endangered: it is estimated that due to the action of a parasite, more than 98% of the nacre in the Mediterranean has disappeared. There are hardly any left in some specific areas and the Mar Menor is one of them.
Cortés and his team are immersed in the challenge of reproducing the species in captivity in order to be able to reintroduce it when the situation improves.
“Here we go to bed dreaming of nacres,” he jokes.
Cortés speaks of guttulatus, syngnathus or caulerpa with the familiarity of someone who uses scientific names constantly. Sometimes he corroborates what he says by taking out his mobile phone and showing a photo, like a father proud of his son's progress. The light in the room, with the bags of phytoplankton in shades ranging from green to yellow to brown and the constant murmur of the water in the aquariums give the sensation of being inside one of them.
Healing waters for body and soul
To understand what the Mar Menor means, it is sufficient to recall childhood memories. Sitting on a green and blue striped sofa in her house in La Manga, Isabel Rubio turns the pages of an old photo album. In black and white, there are many pictures of her at a very young age: a young girl in her swimming costume on the beach, another playing in the sea, and another showing her standing next to some fishermen's houses on the shore. In all of them she is smiling, with a happy face. Written in pen we read "alma de sirena" (mermaid soul).
Photography is an important part of her outreach work, especially since her former colleagues gave her an underwater camera when she retired. She collected so much material that she decided to start a blog, which is a continuous source of information for many lovers of the flora and fauna of the coastal lagoon.
In 1970, recovering from tuberculosis, she began to write comments on the photos in the family album, which she now looks back on with a certain nostalgia.
“I put on my goggles, my flippers and I am very happy in the crystalline coves of the Mediterranean. And when I go into the Mar Menor and see interesting things, I identify them. This is an intellectual stimulus for me. I feel much more alive now than when I was working.”
Always accompanied by her camera, in summer she is often seen with her kayak, looking out for any sign of concern in the lagoon.
Although it is now seriously polluted, the waters of the Mar Menor have traditionally had therapeutic properties.
Carmen López is a case in point. She explains that doing some exercises in the water of the Mar Menor and sunbathing a little every day was the key to reducing (and practically curing) her osteoporosis and fibromyalgia, along with an outbreak of morphea, a rare skin disease she suffers from.
What is certain is that the sound of the sea lulls and relaxes and that, although the salinity has been reduced, the water of the Mar Menor still has a higher concentration of salts and minerals than the Mediterranean.
“The Mar Menor has always been a natural medicine. What happened is that in this region they haven't known how to sell it.”
The water is cold, but López has no problem taking off her shoes and putting her feet in. It's sunny and there's a gentle smell of saltpeter wafting in. As we stroll along the beach of Los Alcázares, she repeats several times that the Mar Menor has been her remedy and has given her back the will to live.
Dressed in a black T-shirt with the slogan “Mar Menor Vivo. Vertido Zero” (Long live Mar Menor. Zero spills) and the silhouette of a seahorse, she also wears a seahorse earring in her right ear. She explains that after bathing she left the salt on her skin all day. Carmen kept bathing until the situation worsened and then she changed her role from patient to activist, taking part in a citizens' movement called Banderas Negras (Black Flags). Moved by the desperation of seeing their Mar Menor dying, residents and holidaymakers from the coastal towns joined together to organize symbolic marches, to call in experts to explain the situation and, above all, to support proposals to reverse the deterioration. Through different associations and initiatives, citizen mobilization has been vital to publicize the problem and put pressure on the administrations.
A new way of engaging with nature
An innovative idea, a vision of ecological justice, a leader capable of bringing people together in the midst of a pandemic, a proposal for a Popular Legislative Initiative (ILP), more than 640,000 signatures collected, a law that gives rights to the lagoon, a way to rescue the Mar Menor: this is what Teresa Vicente and Eduardo Salazar have achieved as promoters of the ILP, not only to give legal personality to the Mar Menor, but also to open a path for the protection of nature.
The regulation, a pioneer in Europe, means giving the lagoon rights for its protection. With an important role for scientists, a series of committees have been set up to manage it, as if it were the board of directors of a company.
“The ecocide of the Mar Menor, the ILP and the law 19/2022 have been two sides of the same coin. We have all seen the ecocide and we have not been able to react until we saw the fish mortality. But I don't think we've seen a mass response like this anywhere else," explains Eduardo Salazar, an environmental lawyer, proudly.
The idea came from law professor Teresa Vicente, as Eduardo tells us from her office in the center of Murcia.
“ She is always talking in her classes about changing the relationship between human beings and the environment.”
What seemed like a utopian idea began to develop and to have the support of many people, despite being in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the main difficulties was to get the 500,000 signatures needed to present the proposal to Congress. Then there was the parliamentary processing of the law. And all the objections and reticence on the part of many voices that did not quite understand it. However, they succeeded. And Law 19/2022 is the fruit of that dream.
In parallel, at state and regional level, a series of priority actions and measures have been proposed to restore the Mar Menor. They propose to address and intervene in the causes of the problem in order to improve the situation, although reaching agreement among the parties involved is a challenge due to its complexity.
“The ILP process has been beautiful, to live it and to tell about it. And precious because the spirituality of the people's relationship with the Mar Menor has been very powerful. This is a question of our identity in Murcia (...) The Mar Menor has a power that we cannot imagine. It is still alive, there are still transparencies in summer. If I were a pessimist I would have packed my bags and left. I am hopeful. I think it's going to recover, I think that's what I have to do. Where I have to be and where I want to be," says the lawyer.
The fact that nature is a subject of rights has happened very rarely in the world," says Eduardo. It has mainly occurred in Latin America, where two of the main references are the Atrato River in Colombia and the Constitution of Ecuador. In New Zealand, the Te Urewera National Park and the Whanganui River, in India the Narmada River... and some other examples in the American continent, but almost always linked to Indigenous areas. From autumn 2022, the Mar Menor will be part of this exclusive list.
In the evening, after spending the day with her, I get a message from Isabel on my mobile phone: "I don't think I told you that I wanted to spend my last years in Los Alcázares looking at the Mar Menor."
This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Revista LATE on 30 March 2023; this version has been adapted by EJN's Mediterranean Media Initiative.
Banner image: Los Nietos beach, with the shores full of seaweed, Mar Menor, Spain, 2023 / Credit: Ana Valiño.