"There's nothing left," says Javier Franch after a savage summer heatwave decimated this year's mussel crop in northeastern Spain

Heat kills Spanish mussel crop

“Nothing left,” says Javier Franch after a ferocious summer heat wave wiped out this year’s mussel crop in northeastern Spain – Copyright AFP Yuichi YAMAZAKI

Rosa SULLEIRO

“There’s nothing left here,” sighs Javier Franch, shaking a heavy rope of mussels he’s just hauled to the surface in northeastern Spain. They are all dead.

The country has been hit by a prolonged and brutal heat wave this summer, with water temperatures in the Ebro Delta, the main mussel-growing area in the Spanish Mediterranean, reaching 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

And any gardener who does not remove his clams in time will lose everything.

But that’s not the worst: Much of next year’s crop was also lost during one of the worst offshore heatwaves in the Spanish Mediterranean.

By the end of July, experts said the western Mediterranean was experiencing an “exceptional” marine heat wave, with consistently higher than normal temperatures threatening the entire marine ecosystem.

“High temperatures have interrupted the season,” says Franch, 46, who has worked for nearly three decades at the firm his father founded, which has cut production by a quarter this year.

The relentless sun heats a mixture of fresh and salt water along the gentle coastal wetlands of Catalonia, where the Ebro River flows into the Mediterranean Sea.

On a hot summer morning in Deltebre, one of Delta’s municipalities, mussel rafts – long wooden structures with attached ropes that can each grow up to 20kg of mussels – must be crowded with workers scurrying around during the busy season.

But there is almost no movement.

“We lost the remaining crop, which was not much, because we worked to move forward so as not to go through this,” explains Carles Fernandez, who advises the Ebro Delta Shellfish Producers Federation (Fepromodel).

“But the problem is that we lost the young next year and we will have a pretty big cost overrun.”

– Millions of losses –

According to initial estimates, the heat has destroyed 150 tons of commercial mussels and 1,000 tons of young stock in the Delta.

And producers are counting their losses at more than one million euros ($1,000,000), given that they now have to buy young clams from Italy or Greece for next year.

“When you have a week where the temperature is above 28°C, there may be some mortality, but this summer it lasted almost a month and a half,” with peak temperatures of almost 31°C, says Fepromodel head Gerardo Bonet.

Typically, the two bays of the Ebro Delta produce about 3,500 tons of mussels and 800 tons of oysters, making Catalonia the second largest producer in Spain, although it remains far behind Galicia, a northwestern region on the colder Atlantic coast, in terms of production.

For many years, the Delta harvest has been pushed forward, shortening the season that once ran from April to August.

– “Tropical” Mediterranean –

Due to coastal erosion and lack of sediment, the rich ecosystem of the Ebro Delta, a biosphere reserve and one of the most important wetlands in the western Mediterranean, is particularly vulnerable to climate change.

And this extreme summer, when Spain endured 42 days of extreme heat – a record three times the average for the past decade, says AEMET’s national forecaster – has also left its mark below the surface of the water.

“Some marine populations that cannot withstand such high temperatures for an extended period of time will suffer what we call mass mortality,” says marine biologist Emma Sebrian of the Spanish National Research Council (CISC).

“Imagine a forest: 60 to 80 percent of the trees die, which as a result affects the biodiversity associated with it,” she says.

A succession of heatwaves on land has generated another wave offshore, which – pending analysis of all November data – could be the “strongest” in this area of ​​the Mediterranean since records began in the 1980s.

Although marine heatwaves are not a new phenomenon, they are becoming more extreme with increasingly severe consequences.

“If we compare this to a wildfire, it could have an impact, but if they continue, it will likely mean that the affected population will not be able to recover,” Sebrian said.

Experts say the Mediterranean is turning ‘tropical’ and shellfish grower Franch is amazed at the growing evidence as his boat glides between empty mussel rafts in a windless bay.

He is considering increasing the production of oysters, which are more resistant to high temperatures, but which currently make up only 10 percent of his production.

But he hopes it will help secure his future in a sector that directly or indirectly employs 800 people in the Ebro Delta.

“(This sector) is under threat because climate change is a reality and what we are seeing now will happen again,” he says anxiously.

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