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Home > Editorials > Seagrass Continues To Be Contentious

Seagrass Continues To Be Contentious

In July last year, the Balearic Government laid down the law when it comes to the protection of posidonia seagrass.  It approved a very restrictive decree (Decret 25/2018) prohibiting anchoring on any of the posidonia meadows surrounding the Islands.  Anyone caught contravening the rules would be fined –ranging between a palatable 100 euros up to an eye-watering two million euros.

The problem was, nobody quite knew the finer details of the law and confusion reigned, not only amongst ordinary boaters, but seemingly also among the official patrol vessels.  The good news is we now have full clarification of anchoring restrictions by way of an official 48-page document, complete with maps of high-value existing posidonia meadows (in red) and meadows that need regulation to regenerate (in yellow).  The bad news is these anchoring restrictions apply to some of Mallorca’s favourite cruising grounds, including Portals Vells-El Mago, Sant Elm and Sa Foradada.

So what’s all the fuss with this so-called ‘lung of the Mediterranean’?  Named after Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, posidonia oceanica has lived in the Mediterranean for more than 100,000 years and covers more than 650 square kilometres of Balearic waters – 50% of the total found in Spanish sea.  In fact, the Balearic posidonia meadow is said to be the largest and longest-living organism in the world – quite some assertion.

The plant filters sediment, is a source of food for many species, and contributes to our islands’ turquoise waters by providing a home for marine organisms with calcium carbonate shells and skeletons that wind up as white sand.  Moreover, posidonia maintains the quality and oxygenation of the underwater ecosystem, with one hectare of seagrass generating five times more oxygen than one of Amazon rainforest and soaking up more carbon dioxide per square metre than any forest in this latitude.  And, with 18 of the 19 warmest years on record occurring since 2001 (NASA), we need all the carbon sinks we can get.

The Balearic Government has blamed damage caused by anchors and chains sweeping the seabed.  In its ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ zones, there will be no anchoring at all – even on the sand areas included within those zones.  From now on, the only anchoring allowed will be on low-impact buoys installed by the relevant authorities. (These buoys must be removed out of season.)  The only exemption applies in case of force majeure or when there is danger to the safety of human life at sea (or indeed if the boat is undertaking scientific research or managing the protection of the posidonia).

How well has this news gone down with the nautical industry?  Well, it’s certainly creating some extra admin for the yacht charter companies.

“Of course this topic affects our business,” said Benjamin Kang, CEO of Majorca Boat Charter.  “We have been advising our customers, especially those who charter a bare boat without skipper, about the posidonia issue.  Each one of our customers receives a leaflet explaining these plants, as well as the fines involved when anchoring in restricted areas and/or destroying posidonia.  A very good solution seems to be the controlled installation of buoys, for example in the Formentor bay, where boats can use them for a small fee on a daily basis and there is no need to anchor anymore.”

“I think no matter how well you publicise this, it is responsibility of the charter company to give clear and comprehensive instructions to our clients regarding this topic.  We can’t expect foreigners to be informed about our local coastal issues,” continues Benjamin.  “We have been quite successful with our information approach as we have not had a single anchor with seagrass on it, and not a single fine by the coastal control guards – and they have issued quite a few, in particular in the north coast area around Pollensa and Formentor.”

“Whatever we can do to protect our coastline is an investment in the sustainability of our business and tourism in general.  Much more concerning and difficult are other topics regarding the Spanish maritime law and, notably, the way things are handled by the local authorities here on Mallorca.”

The law is also generating a good deal of head scratching and disgruntlement amongst charter yacht crew.  We spoke to two captains working on boats in the 20 to 35 metre size range, neither wanted to be named but both shared similar views.  With Sa Foradada ruled out, how would boats take shelter in inclement weather on the west coast, with no harbour between Port Andratx and Port Soller?  With Portals Vells-El Mago ruled out, how would the established beach restaurants fare without a steady stream of wealthy boat charter guests gracing their premises?  And, how many years have boats been anchoring in these spots, yet the seagrass still looks to be pretty abundant?  Is the yachting industry really the main problem?  Or does it have something to do with sewage?

Mallorca has had a long-standing issue with sewage.  The Island’s treatment plants are outdated and overextended and struggle to cope due to overpopulation and mass tourism.  In heavy rain, the plants can’t absorb all the rainwater, so it mixes with household waste and can be released unfiltered into the sea.

Simon Relph, owner of monthly yachting magazine The Islander, isn’t afraid of voicing his opinion:  “The nautical sector recently commissioned an independent survey on the subject and the results showed that the yachts have a minuscule effect of the posidonia.  This has become a political battle with the ruling parties ignoring the results.  What baffles me is the same politicians are happy to see raw sewage pumped into our waters day after day causing untold harm to sea life and human health.  It’s absolutely absurd and downright irresponsible.”

Indeed, Simon is right.  The comprehensive 87-page document released in December 2017 is ‘the only one to date’ that has tried to establish a scientific ranking of the threats facing posidonia.  The report concluded that waste water discharges could have affected an area of between 500 and 600 hectares of posidonia in the Bay of Palma in the last three decades.  It cited not only poorly treated water, but also excessively salty (‘hypersaline’) discharges from the desalination plants and dredging operations in sensitive areas.  Indiscriminate anchorages were seen to have a much smaller impact on the destruction of seagrass.  Author Joan Ramon Vidal considered that, in the worst case, anchorages could cause the loss of some 27,500 square metres per year – equivalent to 0.003% of the total area of this plant on the Balearic coast.  Far from the huge dent that deficient water treatment has made.

So why are boats always blamed – and fined?  There just seems to be a lack of understanding amongst locals of just how much the superyacht industry brings to the Islands.  Putting aside the huge revenues received from taxation, yacht provisioning, marine fuelling and fine dining, the nautical industry generates stable employment with generous wages.  The repair and refit industry has a turnover in excess of 150 million euros on Mallorca alone, and much of this is carried out in winter when the tourist-driven economy is at its weakest.  Yacht crew take great pride in what they do, the sea is their home and their workplace and they are the least keen of all to see its devastation.

Decret 25/2018 (27 July) on the conservation of posidonia oceanica can be found in full here:  www.caib.es

The study on the impact of different activities on the seagrass of Mallorca’s coastline can be found in full here:  www.cambramallorca.com

By Sarah Forge