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89% of Israel’s ecosystems have declined in biodiversity, state comptroller says

Report, which says state has no strategic action plan for dealing with decline, coincides with battle between green organizations, environment minister over biodiversity bill

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

An invasive ring-necked parakeet in Israel. (Doron Hoffman, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)
An invasive ring-necked parakeet in Israel. (Doron Hoffman, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

Nearly all of Israel’s ecosystems are losing biological diversity, the State Comptroller said in a report released Tuesday on preventing damage from invasive species and protecting biodiversity.

“Around 89% of ecosystems in Israel have declined in terms of biodiversity,” the report said.

It also stated that the state has no strategic action plan for dealing with the decline; has no blacklist of species that are potentially harmful to biodiversity and should not be allowed into the country; carries out only partial border checks of incoming cargo and goods which might harbor potentially destructive insects; and has made “insufficient progress” on reaching 14 out of 19 targets it pledged to meet within the framework of the international Convention on Biological Diversity.

The publication of the report coincided with a battle being waged between the environmental community and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg over a private member’s bill that seeks to commit the ministry not only to implement the convention in full, but to take statutory responsibility for monitoring the state of nature and to regularly report to the Knesset on species in decline.

Biodiversity refers to the biological variety of life on Earth. This variety exists within different communities, or ecosystems, in habitats such as forests, grasslands, deserts and oceans.

Healthy ecosystems provide “services” such as the pollination of crops (by insects, birds and mammals), clean air and drinking water, a balanced climate, and protection against flooding and erosion. (Vegetation binds the soil, and everything from mangroves to wetlands help to prevent flooding).

The value of biodiversity to the health and welfare of Israel’s population has been estimated at NIS 122 billion ($35.2 billion) per year, the report said.

The country’s ecosystems are not only threatened by population growth and increasing urban development, but also by foreign wildlife that enter Israel, adapt to local conditions and threaten native species.

The common myna, a foreign species which has become invasive in Israel. (Richard Taylor, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

These range from birds that were imported as pets and have since entered the wild, bred rapidly and supplanted local species, to fish that have escaped from aquariums and insects that devour wood, such as the highly destructive Formosan termite.

“For many years, hundreds and even more invasive species have become established in Israel, causing damage to humans and the environment, including economic damage,” the report said.

It noted that 452 invasive marine species have been identified near the Israeli coast and that 114 plant nurseries were infected with the fire ant, as of August 2021.

The fire ant, listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of the 100 invasive alien species that most threatens the environment and biodiversity, was first discovered in Israel in 2005 and has since spread all over the country.

Fire ants. (Cabezonication, at iStock by Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Ministry learned in May 2019 that the Formosan termite was present in the country, the report goes on, but only started dealing with the problem in September 2020, with the result that the insect is now well established in 10 locations.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said in response to the report that it had been “warning for a decade about the lack of a budgeted national program to protect biodiversity.” It noted having warned the ministry in 2016 about the potential for a Formosan termite invasion.

In 2016, it and the government’s Israel Nature and Parks Authority submitted a detailed proposal for dealing with invasive species and biodiversity protection.

In 2017, veteran environment activist Prof Alon Tal, now a Knesset member, and Prof Uri Shanas, a Haifa University zoologist, co-wrote a State of Nature and Biodiversity bill.

Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg attends a finance committee meeting, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In March, a string of environmental organizations sent a letter to Zandberg imploring her to implement the bill, which has already passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset.

But the bill is being held up over the issue of responsibility for monitoring the state of nature and reporting on it.

Zandberg wants the bill to guarantee funding and the continued right of Maarag — Israel’s National Ecosystem Assessment Program — to produce annual reports, as it has done since 2006, for at least another three years.

Maarag is based at Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and has no legal standing.

Tal, Shanas, the environmental organizations and even the legal adviser to the Knesset Interior Affairs and Environment Committee counter that an open tender must be held regularly if monitoring and reporting are to be conducted by an outside body so that other academic institutions can bid too. They say that guaranteeing the job to one organization in law is neither appropriate nor legal.

They want the ministry to take overall responsibility for the monitoring to compel it to take action on the results.

Blue and White MK Alon Tal at the Knesset on June 30, 2021. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

According to Shanas, the fact that Maarag is jointly funded by the bodies charged with protecting biodiversity limits their freedom to criticize. The funders are the Environmental Protection Ministry, Israel Nature and Parks Authority, KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund and Steinhardt Museum.

Tal, a lawmaker for the Blue and White party, told The Times of Israel that he had altered the bill’s wording three times over the years to gain the support of the scientific and environmental community. Ministry professionals backed the bill, and Zandberg herself had initially promised to push it forward, he said.

“I am bewildered by the turn of events,” he went on. “I’m told by everyone around me that it’s political.”

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