On Menorca, locals push sustainable tourism to save a critical species

On Menorca, locals push sustainable tourism to save a critical species

Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor.

Yachts are seen anchored – some above Posidonia seagrass – in one of Menorca’s many inlets, July 10, 2021. Despite a 2018 regional decree that prohibits anchoring above the Posidonia, many boaters, and especially tourists, are not aware of the ecological importance of the seagrass.

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August 27, 2021

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The ribbon-like Posidonia oceanica seagrass, which lives underwater in expansive meadows, is known to some as the “lungs of the Mediterranean.” Occupying around 250 square miles in Spain’s Balearic Islands alone, the plant is as important in the fight against climate change as it is for the local ecosystem. But it is disappearing at the alarming rate of 5% per year.

One of the Balearics, Menorca, has earned a reputation for its sustainable model of tourism, in many cases having prioritized environmental protectionism over tourist development. But as tourism has grown in recent decades, and Posidonia meadows continue to shrink, the island is facing a new and serious challenge.

Why We Wrote This

The island of Menorca is a rare success in sustainable tourism. But the threat to Posidonia oceanica, known as the “lungs of the Mediterranean,” shows that there is still work to be done.

Menorcans are working to solve the problem by digging deep into the values that have made the island the oasis it is today: respect, balance, and care for the island as a whole.

“High quality tourism is tourism that understands and values what and who we are,” says local official Isaac Olives Vidal. “This is the most important thing: that the people who come to your house, or to Menorca, or to any other place, value what you are, what you have, and that they respect it.”

MAHÓN, SPAIN

When the yacht lowers its anchor into the sea off the Spanish island of Menorca, nine-year-old Nubia Manzanares, playing on a nearby dock with neighbors, immediately notices the ecological blunder and leaps into action.

The untrained eye wouldn’t notice anything wrong. But Nubia, who has snorkeled in these waters her whole life, knows immediately that the ship has anchored itself directly on top of a meadow of Posidonia oceanica, a seagrass most tourists have never heard of. The anchor will damage the precious plant and likely tear it out of the earth when it goes to leave.

She grabs her paddleboard and oar and sets out to warn the boat that it is parked illegally. (She brings her uncle along as well, just in case the boater doesn’t react kindly.)

Why We Wrote This

The island of Menorca is a rare success in sustainable tourism. But the threat to Posidonia oceanica, known as the “lungs of the Mediterranean,” shows that there is still work to be done.

Nubia is one of many Menorcans who are doing everything they know how to protect the ribbon-like Posidonia, which lives underwater in expansive meadows, known to some as the “lungs of the Mediterranean.” Occupying around 250 square miles in the Balearic Islands alone, the plant is as important in the fight against climate change as it is for the local ecosystem. But it is disappearing at the alarming rate of 5% per year.

Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor.

Nubia Manzanares, right, and her uncle, Gabriel Manzanares, paddle toward a yacht that is anchored above a bed of Posidonia seagrass in a Menorca bay near Nubia’s home in Sa Mesquida, Spain, July 5, 2021.

Menorca has earned a reputation for its sustainable model of tourism, in many cases having prioritized environmental protectionism over tourist development. But as tourism has grown in recent decades, and Posidonia meadows continue to shrink, the island is facing a new and serious challenge. Menorcans are working to solve the problem by digging deep into the values that have made the island the oasis it is today: respect, balance, and well-informed care for the island as a whole.

“High quality tourism is tourism that understands and values what and who we are,” says Isaac Olives Vidal, director of sustainable projects for the Consell Insular, a local government body. “This is the most important thing: that the people who come to your house, or to Menorca, or to any other place, value what you are, what you have, and that they respect it.”

An ecologically minded island

Posidonia is found all around coastlines of the Balearic Islands, an archipelago off the Spanish coast that includes popular tourist destinations Ibiza and Mallorca, as well as the smaller and more pristine Menorca. Posidonia meadows soak up five times more carbon dioxide each year than a similarly sized segment of the Amazon rainforest and are a major producer of the region’s oxygen.

The seagrass also acts as a powerful water filtration system, provides a habitat for 20% of the Mediterranean’s species, protects coastlines from erosion, and is responsible for around 85% of the island’s sand formation. Without Posidonia, locals are quick to note, there would be no crystalline waters or white sand beaches for tourists to visit.


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Some scientists estimate that nearly 30% of the Mediterranean’s Posidonia has already disappeared, due to damage from boat anchors, eutrophication (excessive accumulation of nutrients), and construction projects. Because the plant grows back at the slow rate of less than half an inch each year, and replanting Posidonia is difficult and costly, protection is key.

Saving what is left of the Posidonia won’t be easy for Menorca, an island whose economy depends fundamentally on tourism.

But tourism came relatively late to Menorca as compared with Mallorca and Ibiza, which islanders say is thanks to dictator Francisco Franco’s decision not to invest in the small island following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

They say he wanted to punish Menorca for being a stronghold of the opposition. Yet that gave islanders time to observe the dangers of intense coastal development and mass tourism on the other Balearic Islands.

“In general, the people of Menorca are much more conservationist,” says Victor Carretero, a marine technician at the Balearic Ornithological Group (GOB) Menorca, an environmental organization that grew out of demonstrations against plans for urban development in the 1970s. “They want to protect the island because they know that what makes the island attractive is that conscientiousness.”

“I give them another vision”

For Nubia’s mother, Rocio Manzanares, protecting the Posidonia is a matter of respect.

When her two daughters were younger, they sometimes complained about the seagrass – even the most ardent Posidonia devotees admit that the plant stinks when washed up on the beach. So Ms. Manzanares modeled the reverence she knows the plant deserves.

“Well, I love the Posidonia,” she would respond excitedly to her children, telling stories about the many ways the plant protects the island – things she learned from GOB Menorca. “When kids say it’s gross, I give them another vision,” she says.

But in the past two decades, she’s noticed that the tourists who come to the island don’t treat the beaches or the ocean with the same respect her daughters now do.

Legislation has led to some progress. In 2018, the regional government of the Balearic Islands passed the Posidonia Decree, which prohibits anchoring ships above the Posidonia and regulates the removal of washed-up Posidonia from the shores of beaches. Tourists don’t like the smell, but the Posidonia remains are essential for sand formation.

Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor.

Pep Escrivà stands knee-deep in a pile of washed-up Posidonia remains, which is responsible for the vast majority of Menorca’s sand formation, in Cales Coves, Spain, July 10, 2021.

Local environmentalists and the city government of Mahón, the Menorcan capital, are pushing the Balearic government to add a tertiary treatment on wastewater before it is released into the ocean to prevent eutrophication-induced algae blooms, which block oxygen from reaching the Posidonia.

Some Menorcans are concerned that the government isn’t doing enough – evidenced by the fact that boaters who anchor in the Posidonia are often not fined due to a lack of monitoring.

“The real political interest is nautical tourism,” says Pep Escrivà, a firefighter who wrote a proposal to formally protect specific regions of the island from motorized boats. The proposal, which he thinks can reduce pressure on the Posidonia, is just beginning to gain traction. “[Politicians are] scared that if they pressure the boat renters, they won’t have as much business. But that’s the wrong way of seeing things. Because if you protect the natural world, you create space for another type of tourist.”

Finding ways to do more

Menorcans say that the key to protecting the Posidonia is simple, but not easy: education.

“It’s important to give resources,” says Marina de la Mora, a tourist from the north of Spain who has visited Menorca in the past but only learned about the Posidonia this year. She believes most tourists are actually interested in doing the right thing. “Based on the information I have, I do what I can. But I could definitely do more, if things were more clear from above and they told me what is needed.’”

The island has had some success with booklets about Posidonia that hotels can distribute to tourists. Information pamphlets can be found at boat rental agencies and tourist information centers, and a mobile app lets boaters know if they are safe to anchor.

As a way to deepen that understanding of local values, and to remove some of the pressure on the island’s waters, the government of Mahón is working to foster cultural tourism by highlighting opportunities for birdwatching, gastronomy, horse trails, prehistoric megalithic monuments, and local museums.

“For us in city government, the most fundamental thing [for a balanced tourism sector] is that the visitor who spends time here is the type of person who strives to get to know Menorca’s values, who wants to understand the culture as well as the environment,” says Conxa Juanola, the deputy mayor for culture and environment.

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There is still work to be done. In the meantime, Menorcans like Nubia will keep doing what they can to educate locals and tourists alike about the treasured seagrass.

In fact, Nubia and her uncle need only paddle a few yards into the bay when the yacht begins to pull up its anchor and move away from the Posidonia. Another neighbor, paddling from the other side of the bay, had gotten to the boat first.

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Mark Sappenfield
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