sea pollution home
Off the coast of Barcelona and neighbouring Badalona, things are not pretty beneath the blue surface of the sea. “The situation is bad, there’s no other word for it,” said Ramón Costa, a commercial fisherman from Badalona who has spent 45 years at sea. Although he has witnessed the sea’s progressive degradation over the past four and a half decades, he told Metropolitan that matters have dramatically worsened in recent years.
“The main problem is the pollution. There’s a layer of black, toxic mud, sometimes up to 30 centimetres thick on the seabed off the coast. You drop the nets into this stuff and they come up black and empty, and stinking horribly. Nothing is living down there.”
While this dead zone may be void of fish, the fishing nets cast there don’t always come up empty. “Sometimes, we haul up plastic, lots and lots of plastic,” said Costa, describing massive deposits of plastic debris that have accumulated on the sea floor, and banks of garbage constantly swept here and there by changing currents.
Sometimes the banks of plastic can stretch for kilometres and be three or four hundred metres wide. “The plastic ruins the nets. It gets caught in the knots of the net and you basically end up with a wall, not a net,” said Costa. “It’s impossible to clean or repair the nets when this happens. You have to throw them out.”
A new net costs around €3,000. During 2008, each boat of Badalona’s fishing fleet was forced to replace two or three nets because of plastic. In January 2009, all nets had to be replaced again after a particularly nasty encounter with a submerged bank of trash. Most of the plastic junk either enters the sea as rubbish left behind on beaches, is dumped deliberately into the sea or is spewed there by sewage overflow after a heavy rain.
“Years ago, we used to welcome a storm,” explained Ramón Costa. “The overflow from rivers, streams and sewage brought nutrients into the sea, which the fish would come and eat. But now, forget about it. At this point, we don’t even bother going out after a storm. It’s not worth it. There’s too much plastic, tampon after tampon, and no fish.”
Among other things, Costa blames the new water-treatment plant at the mouth of the Besòs River for aggravating the sea’s ills. The plant chemically treats the water entering the sea, killing any living organisms that might serve as food for the fish. Historically, the plant is also responsible for the toxic sludge that currently blankets the seabed off the coast of Barcelona and Badalona.
“Up until the Nineties, the Besòs plant pumped huge quantities of untreated, or barely treated sewage out to sea,” explained Albert Palanques, a marine geologist at the Institut de Ciències de Mar in Barcelona. “They installed a pipe to pump solid waste out some four kilometres from the shore, where it accumulated on the sea floor and there’s still massive amounts of it out there now. Because of its high density, it lacks oxygen and so doesn’t decompose.”
Palanques explained that little could be done with the sludge apart from letting it gradually be buried by other sediments. He also suggested that powerful storms this past winter may have shifted, or uncovered, the banks of sludge, aggravating problems for local fishermen. Furthermore, even with new water treatment plants at the mouths of the Besòs and Llobregat rivers, significant amounts of pollution still enter the sea. “Things have gotten better, but industries lining the rivers are still polluting, and the treatment plants don’t catch everything.”
Apart from the organic sludge, the sea floor off the coast of Barcelona and Badalona also contains industrial-sized deposits of heavy metals, primarily copper, cobalt, chrome and lead. These metals were dumped into the sea over the course of the last century, when numerous factories lined the shoreline.
For anyone wondering if these toxic wastes pose a health threat to swimmers, Palanques pointed out that the waste mostly sits on the sea floor, far from beaches, and that Barcelona and Badalona’s beaches have received the European Union’s blue flag stamp of approval. No studies, however, have been carried out on how this waste might affect long-term health.
For the fishermen of Badalona, meanwhile, the degradation of the sea has clearly taken a heavy toll. “Fifteen years ago, there were 80 fishing boats in the Badalona fleet,” said Ramón Costa. “Five years ago, there were 40. Last year there were 15. Now, the fleet is down to only eight boats. Simply put, there aren’t enough fish left.”
Costa considers himself an ‘artisan’ fisherman, meaning he doesn’t use an overly powerful boat or sophisticated satellite-guided sonar equipment to find banks of fish. Instead, he goes out on the 11-metre trawler he inherited from his father and typically fishes for lenguado (sole), rodaballo (turbot), langostino (prawn) and cangrejo (crab), among other species. In his recent interview with Metropolitan, he stated that traditional fishing zones within three kilometres of land have all but collapsed. “There’s nothing out there, nothing! You have to go much further from shore before you catch anything, and even then it’s not a lot.”
Apart from the pollution, Costa blames big commercial fishing boats for the drop in catches. “Electronics spell the end of the sea. Ships equipped with satellite-guided sonar can track down the precise location of banks of fish. They can see the exact size of the bank with their sonar and they don’t stop trawling until they’ve caught them all.”
In contrast, ‘artisan’ fishermen ply the waves in smaller, less sophisticated boats and trust to their instincts, their knowledge of the sea and weather, and the age-old sight of a flock of feeding sea gulls to locate banks of fish. When these smaller boats find fish, they generally drop their nets in a way that divides the school, allowing half the fish to get away.
“A big, commercial boat is like the director of an orchestra,” said Costa. “Everything is under control. They say ‘Inside!’ and all the fish enter the net and that’s that. We artisan fishermen, on the other hand, are lucky if we catch even half the fish in a bank. The other fish get away and that’s good for the sea.”
Unfortunately, European Union fishing regulations are not helping artisan fishermen. The EU has pushed vigorously to reduce Spain’s fishing fleet, which is second in size only to Japan’s. Inevitably, the smaller boats are the first to get squeezed out of the market.
Ramón Costa claims that regulators turn a blind eye to the practice of bigger boats illegally ‘hot-rodding’ their engines. “The legal limit for motors on fishing boats is 500 horsepower, but there are boats out there with 2,000 or 2,500 horsepower. Any inspector can see the motor has been played with, but they pretend not to. They want just a few big boats out there, and to get rid of the smaller ones.”
When asked what solutions he had to the woes of the sea, Costa was adamant. “The use of computerised sonar equipment to catch fish should be banned. They should deal somehow with the toxic mud on the seabed, there should be a huge advertising campaign against people throwing plastic into the sea and women should stop throwing tampons into the toilet. That would be a start.”