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Photo: Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor.
Yachts are not supposed to be anchored above Posidonia seagrass per a 2018 decree that the Mediterranean island of Menorca hopes will allow tourism to coexist with ecology.

Tourism can wreak havoc on a community’s determination to protect its environment, but educating tourists can make it work. At the Christian Science Monitor, Erika Page reports that on one Mediterranean island, even children know how to take action.

“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.)

“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.

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.’

“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.

“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. …

“ ‘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. …

“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. …

“ ‘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. … ‘[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.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here. The beautiful pictures of the island will make you want to go there, but if you do, please be respectful of the seagrass!

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