Pollution from hundreds of intensive pig farms may have played a bigger role than is publicly recognized in the collapse of one of the largest saltwater lagoons in Europe, according to a new survey.
Residents of the region of Murcia, in the south-east of Spain sounded the alarm in August after dozens of dead fish began to wash up on the shores of the Mar Menor lagoon. In a few days, the toll climbed to more than five tons of rotting carcasses littering the beaches that were once a major tourist attraction.
Images of the lagoon's murky waters and complaints about its stench dominated media coverage across Spain for days, as scientists blamed decades of nitrate-laden runoff for triggering large algae blooms that had depleted the oxygenated water - leaving mostlyent the fish suffocate underwater.
A four-month investigation by Lighthouse Reports and journalists from elDiario.es and La Marea examined how intensive pig farming may have contributed to one of Spain 's worst environmental disasters in recent years.
This summer, as lifeless fish continued to appear 'beached on the banks of the Mar Menor, the regional government prohibits the use of fertilizers within 1.5 km (0 , 9 miles) from the lagoon, hi Responsibility for the crisis rests solely on the vast expanses of agricultural fields that the lagoon. The central government was more direct, accusing local officials of laxity when it came to irrigating the fields.
But neither has mentioned the pig farms which have proliferated in the last decade in the watershed ofe la Mar Menor.
In 2019, a report from the Spanish Ministry of the Environment estimated that these pig farms - which at the time numbered nearly 800,000 animals - could be responsible for 17% nitrogen in the Mar Menor aquifer.
Drone photos and satellite images of the area, collected in September by journalists working on the new investigation, appear to show pig waste escaping from slurry ponds, dumped on neighboring land or stored in large holes in the ground.
" It is obvious that the main source of pollution is intensive agriculture in the Mar Menor basin, but there are around 450 pig farms in the watershed that nobody talks about, "said Maria Gimenez Casalduero, former professor at the University. of Murcia and representative of Podemos at the Murcia Assembly. "It 's like giving amnesty to the pork industry. Spain ' s booming pork exports
The number of pigs in the region of Murcia soared to logging levels , reflecting an increase in farms and slaughterhouses across Spain. Over 56 million pigs were slaughtered throughout Spain last year, 3 million more than in 2019, and increased export demand has allowed Spain to exceed Germany as the EU's largest pork producer this year. 2019 revenue exceeded 15 billion euros (£ 13 billion), said Gimenez Casalduero.
Almost half of the demand for Spanish chorizo, fillet and lard came from China, which lost around 40% of its pigs at an outbreak of the deadly swine disease African swine fever.
" Mar Menor is a wake-up call, ”she said. "If yous want to supply China with jamon [ham], you do so by destroying the territory and becoming a dumping ground for waste from the international pork market. "
This is a cost that rarely appears in discussions about exports, she added." We must decide: how far can we continue to use our natural resources and impact our environment to satisfy international markets? The region of Murcia cannot become the toilet of Europe .
The infl ux of dead fish on the shores of the Mar Menor this summer was the latest chapter in a decades-long collapse. In 2016, algae blooms transformed the waters of the Mar Menor into a dense, green soup, while inIn 2019, thousands of dead fish and shellfish washed up on its shores.
As scrutiny intensified on the intensive agricultural fields ing the lagoon, groups representing farmers argued that they fully comply with environmental legislation.
Almost 45 km (27 miles) from the shores of the lagoon, the Municipality of Fuente Álamo houses at least 289 farms which represent 80% of the livestock intensive in the Mar Menor basin. The basin has 1,055 slurry ponds - filled with waste including feces, urine and blood - according to regional government figures from 2018.
The regional government refuted the Ministry of Environment 2019 report, claiming in an email that it, "does not correspond to the reality of the area ".
" Ponds are naturally impermeabilized, a method that is recognized by national, current and previous legislation, "he said, adding that this method of insulation was allowed when the soil was considered to have low permeability with little risk of contaminating the soil. 'aquifer.
Since 2019, the regional government has said it has carried out 40 inspections, resulting in three cases in which it plans to take action.
Officials in the region, as well as the municipalities of the Mar Menor basin, have been reluctant to suppress the growth of the pork industry, said Andres Pedreno Canovas, a sociologist there professor at the University of Murcia.
"Pig farms have grown without any control, creating a bubble fueled by the markets international and in particular exports to China, ”he said. "But bubbles always burst, and thisit will leave behind a devastated, polluted and in crisis territory. "
Interporc Spain , which represents the white pig sector - the breed widely used in intensive breeding - said that the Spanish industry has been making "great efforts" for years to protect the environment. "In Spain, more than 90% of the Pig manure is reused to replace fertilizer, but it can also be processed and turned into electrical energy, "he said in a written statement.
The professional body also addressed the 2019 report of the Ministry of the Environment. "If deficiencies were found, it is obvious that the farm must correct them and the administration must ensure that this is done" , he said. "But statements cannot be made.industry wide due to errors detected in some cases.
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