This summer saw the launch of a network of marine control stations along the Catalan coast that is the result of a project by the Fundació Mar, beginning with Cadaqués in Girona and Mar Bella in Barcelona.
What impact has Covid-19 had on the sea?
The pandemic has given the sea a break, a brief return to silence that nature has used to recover. It’s been amazing. Imagine what it’s been like for dolphins and fish, which hear through pressure waves generated by engines, the noise of boats, fishermen, ports... All this has a terrific acoustic impact. Imagine all of this ends all of a sudden and a week goes by and nothing can be heard and then two more go by and the animals start to relocate and start going places they don’t normally go because they’re afraid. In a way the animals understand all of this and protect themselves, so if man disappears, nature recovers, and that’s why we saw dolphins near ports, for example.
What did you find on the seabed at Cadaqués?
Cadaqués is full of people who want to be outside and return to normal. It might not be for the best but of course we’re human and don’t like being shut up. In the Es Caials cove, which is a difficult area to reach, the human impact is perfectly visible. On the one hand there are sunken boats, metal, bottle tops, cement walls, dirt, Coca-Cola cans, but in the area where people don’t reach, you see that nature remains resilient. When we do the assessment, we go underwater to look for indicators to see the impact of human activity and straight away you see things like a lot of fishing lines but the size of the fish was quite acceptable despite it being a coastal area.
So it was noticeable that there had been no fishing.
I saw one space that was polluted but that had a certain ecological vigour. The fish were big, such as large bream, which are targets for fishing, and so when you see that they’re unusually large and confident you know there hasn’t been any fishing here for a while. These are the type of indicators that as an expert you make note of.
And the flora?
Throughout the central Costa Brava, for example, there’s a warming effect of the sea water that causes many gorgonians [a type of soft coral] to die. The white gorgonian is in decline everywhere, but in the Es Caials area it was in excellent shape.
What do you do with all the information you collect?
We analyse it and then put out a report every year that we send to the local authority, so that it knows what the situation is and what it has to do to preserve it. The sea provides environmental quality that attracts tourism, but it also provides quality of life for the people who live in Cadaqués or elsewhere on the coast. If the sea’s in good condition, it generates many positive things for life in general.
How do local authorities react?
Some are very active, for example Platja d’Aro is super proactive, as is Sant Feliu de Guíxols. There are other areas, such as Begur, for example, which despite having a protected area, the Ses Negres reserve, is practically abandoned, as there is no budget.
And in the rest of Catalonia?
We have 22 control stations distributed between Catalonia and the Balearic Islands but only four of them are currently in operation due to the budget. In Cadaqués, Palamós, Platja d’Aro, Barcelona and Sant Feliu de Guíxols we’ve been 3D mapping because when you use innovative tools to get a clear picture of the state of your marine heritage, you know what’s there and whether it’s evolving positively or negatively.
What did you observe at the Barcelona maritime station?
Barcelona is a place that has an enormous impact on the sea. We have a station funded by the Diagonal Mar shopping centre, which as part of its CSR shared social responsibility policy wants to invest in conservation because they know that a shopping centre where 17 million people go every year must have an impact on the environment. Thus, CSR is a gateway to a different economic model, one that is more circular, which is the future, because logically they see that they have a role to play in helping preserve the sea, because the city council does what the law requires of it and no more. At Mar Bella we have a 500 square metre station. Life there survives as best it can, and the sea is able to survive in a very polluted area with a lot of plastic and microplastics, microfibres, pollution from car wheels. With so many millions of cars, braking or turning the steering wheel generates all these synthetic rubber microparticles that when it rains are washed through the sewers and into the sea. This is part of the sum of pollutants that affect the food chain, and that ultimately affect us.
Is plastic the worst pollutant?
Plastic, oil and a great many toxic substances. Although there are many articles that explain the problem, there’s no global awareness, and what makes a very difficult situation worse is that people look the other way. About 9.2 million tonnes of plastic waste reaches our seas and oceans each year, of which 65% remains forever on the seabed. The rest floats in the ocean currents, forming giant slow-moving swirls – and countless smaller ones – where the plastic is concentrated.
So what are the main problems affecting the marine environment?
The usual ones: pollution in general, overfishing, invasive species, human pressure, the disappearance of ecosystems, and so on, which are all accelerated by three factors: the growth of the world’s coastal population, which increases the volume and intensity of human impact, that the sea has largely lost its resilience and is becoming increasingly vulnerable, and global warming, which acts as an accelerator and catalyst.
Are you pessimistic about the future?
I always say that I’m a well-informed optimist. That is, I have a lot of information and this allows me to weigh up the situation. I see that it’s complex, very complex, and that, for example, projects like the one we’re carrying out with the Girona provincial council to create the Costa Brava Biosphere Reserve will be very important for the territory of Girona.
That’s expected next year, isn’t it?
Yes, and in fact the work has already been done. It was started by the Fundació Mar in 2006 in our small office in Palafrugell. We argued that we have many management models and many conservation models that the data say don’t work, but the biosphere reserve model of Unesco is very interesting because it directly involves civil society. This will be a success as long as society is convinced, aware and contributes. All the main actors are involved, from fishermen and dive centres to town halls and companies.
There seems to be a growing collective awareness in relation to climate change.
Yes, and the media helps a lot, but the problem is that the way we live doesn’t help. Changing the social model of consumption and reaching a point of balance with nature is the only way. The world population is growing. We rich countries make up 20% of the world but the rest of the world wants to emulate our model, which is unsustainable. As far as the energy issue goes, it’s very important to switch to renewable energies, which are already here.
Is only 0.26% of the Mediterranean protected?
Yes, one study says that of the more than a thousand reserves that exist only 0.26% are well managed. At a minimum that number has to be 20% to be able to maintain the environmental quality that we need to survive in the future. We have a lot of work to do.
What can the average person do to mitigate the impact?
Changing the world is an impossible goal but changing yourself and your environment is easier. That means taking responsibility for yourself, for your family, for your company is fundamental. You can also help foundations like ours, which have all been hit by Covid. Instead of buying a new TV or a new car, you can put money into a foundation so that they can keep on working, because the authorities help very little.
And if you add the politics...
Then we run into vested interests. The situation is very complex but politically, whatever the colour, we have to find a way to move forward for the common good and in a way that is consistent with an open, transparent and effective democracy.