Should the number of ships entering Mallorca be limited? What do you think? | Peter Smiatek

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Here’s a thing from the past you may not know about - a thing from the start of November fifty years ago and at a time when Mallorca was riding the wave of the new tourism economy. The old regime was watching with contentment as the economy grew but was also looking for further avenues to explore.

Mallorca was a flagship of this wave - the flagship it could be argued. It was an island where waves from the bay of Palma lapped gently on the beaches of the resorts that were the banks of this deepening reservoir of economic well-being - Magalluf, Arenal, Palma itself.

On the first of November 1971 came a report about a company that had sought and obtained permission from the national directorate for energy and fuel. This permission was one of six to have been given for Spain’s coasts. The company’s permission was to explore the seabed of the bay of Palma. Explore for oil.

I mention this as a way of highlighting how things have moved on. Yes there have been efforts to explore the seabed over the decades, but these have coincided with ever-growing environmental awareness. Could you imagine exploration in the bay now, the same bay that is the subject of the lengthy legal investigation into wastewater spills and allegations that figures at Palma town hall and the regional environment ministry committed crimes against the environment?

Heightened sensibility exists for a variety of reasons, just one being an appreciation of marine habitats and ecosystems. Scientists would have been very familiar with these in 1971. Members of the government might have been familiar, but not that this would have stopped potential damage in the pursuit of diversified economic riches.

It’s all hypothetical of course - that exploration might, for example, have led to a disaster to affect the natural world. But with nature, as our awareness now informs us far better than it did half a century, it is about mitigating risk as much as possible, and risk is the stuff of hypothesis. What if?

The subject is very different, but fifty years on from that report came one at the weekend. This concerned the Balearic Environment Commission, a government body that offers its views on or intervenes in all manner of environmental matters. The sea and the marine environment thus come onto the commission’s radar and into its thinking.

The report referred to Balearic government requests to the national ministry for ecological transition. For government requests, read the commission’s requests, for it was the commission that drew them up. They concerned cruise ships. The government (the commission) wants the ministry to limit the number of cruise ships arriving at ports in the Balearics.

There is nothing new about the proposal for limits, but what is something of a novelty is that the ministry for ecological transition is being involved, as issues to do with ships are principally ones for directorates within the transport ministry, notably that for the State Ports. The proposal, moreover, goes further than just cruise ships, as it includes other types of shipping, and the commission’s arguments include “natural disaster provoked by a possible spill in the bay of Palma”.

Note the “possible”, as the commission is dealing with the hypothetical (what if?), just as there might have been a “possible” spill fifty years ago from a different source but when few seemed to give this possibility much consideration - not at the directorate for energy and fuel anyway, an ancestor of current-day directorates within the ministry for ecological transition. The reasoning is that if you limit the number of ships, then you limit the risk; you mitigate the risk. But you don’t eliminate it.

To the risk of a spill is added the “elevated contamination”. Hence the commission argues that measures are adopted not just to limit the number of cruise ships but also their size. And this brings us to the mega-cruise ships, arguments about - for and against - have been stated many times.

The ministry for ecological transition’s involvement lies in the fact that it is drafting a a plan for the management of “maritime space”. The commission has therefore offered submissions from the Balearics related to this plan. While it addresses cruise ships, and the massive ones in particular, it does - as I’ve noted - refer to other shipping.

So what are we saying here? Or rather, what is the commission saying? Fewer ferries? Fewer goods ships? As to the former, there has been a recent expansion of services, which the Balearic government considers to be positive because of increased competition. With goods ships, it hardly needs saying that the islands are hugely reliant on them.

We can all appreciate the risks, or I hope we can. We appreciate them far more acutely than we would have fifty years ago. As we therefore defend the sea, a case can be made against certain shipping. But certainly not all. We are islands. We have to assume risk.