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ENVIRONMENT

Five stats to understand why Spain’s Mar Menor is full of dead fish

Thousands of dead fish have washed up on the coast of Spain’s Murcia region for the past week. What’s behind this environmental catastrophe that keeps getting worse year after year?

mar menor dead fish spain
File photo: JOSE LUIS ROCA / AFP

Beneath the calm of one of Europe’s largest saltwater lagoons, whose coastline stretches some 70 kilometres (45 miles), a toxic storm has long been brewing, the product of years of nutrient pollution from intensive agriculture and rampant urban development.   

The southeastern Spanish region of Murcia has extremely fertile land but the climate is dry with very little rainfall, meaning that for over a century locals have been looking to extract water from whatever source possible. 

The advent of desalination and extraction machinery meant they turned to the Mar Menor (Smaller Sea), a coastal saltwater lagoon separated from the Mediterranean by a huge 22km sandbar. 

For years, runoff water loaded with nitrates has entered the lagoon causing a vast bloom of algae which, as it died and began decomposing, decreased the amount of oxygen in the depths, creating a pocket of toxic anoxic — or oxygen-free — water that wiped out everything living there.

Experts say the fish died of suffocation, caused by a phenomenon known as eutrophication, an environmental hazard that causes aquatic ecosystems to collapse due to a lack of oxygen in the water.

Poor sewage systems in nearby towns – which have boomed in recent decades as tourism grows in the region – as well as discharge from mining activities have added to the problem.

Photo of Mar Menor as seen from International Space Station. Source: Nasa

The latest environmental collapse is being blamed on the increase of water temperatues from 28.5 C to 31 C in just two days as a result of Spain’s latest heatwave, added to all the factors that have created a truly toxic environment for marine life.

The Mar Menor crisis is a multifaceted catastrophe of enormous environmental consequences which Spain has failed to solve for decades. 

Here are five stats to understand the latest incident of countless dead fish washed up on Murcian shores in August 2021 and why this environmental tragedy just keeps happening. 

1985

When exactly the destruction of Murcia’s Mar Menor began isn’t reported but 1985 was the first time the issue got some attention in the local press, when La Verdad journalist J.M.Serrano called out the “disproportionate growth of tourism” and the shortsightedness of coastal and regional authorities for not reacting to the “unstoppable deterioration of our saltwater lagoon”. 

Since 1987, no plans have been made to reduce water extractions as mandated by Spain’s 1985 Water Law, which theoretically protected groundwater and classified it as public property.

1985 article on the destruction of Murcia’s Mar Menor in local daily La Verdad. 

Three decades on and the situation has only worsened.

In 2016, the Mar Menor started to be described as a “green soup”  by environmentalists (due to its high temperature and the abundance of phytoplankton triggered by excessive nutrients).

Images of mountains of dead fish piled up on the shores have been common almost every year ever since, and the latest evidence of this in August 2021 is the worst on record.

4.5 tonnes

That’s how many tonnes of dead fish have been cleared in the past week since the inhabitants of Murcia started noticing what was occurring. This represents 1.5 tonnes more than in 2019, which was the worst example of destruction in the Mar Menor up until then.

Almost all the species being washed up lived around the sea bed, including fish species such as gobies or big-scale sand smelt, shrimp, crabs, eels and more. 

By 2015, 85 percent of the Mar Menor’s seagrass had been killed.

8 closed beaches 

This year, authorities in the Murcian city of Cartagena have had to close eight beaches as the amount of rotting fish built up on the shores of the southeastern region became a health hazard for locals and holidaymakers. 

Although these may just be temporary closures, images of the environmental catastrophe have been covered by the BBC, The Guardian and other international media, with Murcia hoteliers and real estate companies expressing concern over the negative impact it could have on the region’s international reputation. 

President of local hotel association Hostecar Juan José López told local daily La Opinión de Murcia there was a “considerable” drop in tourism income and holiday bookings following the 2019 environmental crisis. 

“Then came the pandemic, which did not help and now this. It’s disheartening,” López said about the impact this latest catastrophe can have in a region where 10 percent of the population works in the tourism industry.

In 2017, all beaches in the Mar Menor were stripped of their blue flag status.

8,000 ilegal hectares 

Who is accountable for this increasingly dire situation is now the centre of political wrangling between Murcian authorities and Spain’s national government.

According to Spanish government spokesperson Isabel Rodríguez, there are around 8,000 hectares of land being used for agricultural purposes near the Mar Menor area which have not been awarded concessions to use water. 

But agricultural companies have been able to install hundreds of desalination machines nonetheless in order to make the Mar Menor’s brackish groundwater of aquifers suitable for irrigation.

For Murcian authorities, it’s Madrid’s turn to intervene, whereas Pedro Sánchez’s government accuses Murcia’s regional government of allowing these practices to proliferate illegally for years, despite knowing that the outflow of brine and nitrates end up in the Mar Menor.

300,000 tonnes of nitrates

The impact this immense underground network of illegal installations has had on the Mar Menor is hard to put into numbers, at least in terms of the number of flora and fauna species that have perished.

Spain’s Environment Ministry estimates 4,000 kg of nitrates end up in the Campo de Cartagena aquifer on a daily basis, which in 2018 amounted to 300,000 tonnes of nitrates derived from intensive agriculture. 

One of the solutions being suggested to solve the catastrophe is to empty this gargantuan amount of pollutants from the aquifer, but environmentalists are divided over whether it will cause more harm than good.

The Campo de Cartagena is a plain of about 1,600 sqm whose waters flow into Murcia’s Mar Menor. 

Agricultural groups have rejected accusations from authorities, arguing they aren’t to blame for the Mar Menor crisis and that they’re fully compliant with local legislation, as not having a registered licence does not really prevent them from extracting water. 

500,000 signatures 

In order for the Spanish Parliament to consider a draft law spearheaded by citizens, half a million people must put their name down to express support for the Mar Menor crisis for it to go up for debate. 

As of August 2nd 2021, they had collected 224,000 in-person signatures, meaning they require a further 276,000 more signatures by October 28th, something which is proving particularly challenging during the pandemic as digital signatures do not count in this case. 

If they reached the 500,000-signature mark, it would allow the rights of the Mar Menor to be defended in court as if it were a legal person or business.

Spokesperson for the Mar Menor Scientific Committee Ángel Pérez Ruzafa has said environmental catastrophes such as the one seen in recent days “will happen again two, three, four times, with even greater severity” as long as the entry of nutrients into the ecosystem persists.

His organisation has listed 100 ideas where everyone from neighbours to trade unions and town hall authorities can help save the Mar Menor. 

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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