Reporter's notebookA mollusk's pulse was monitored by research facility host

At first marine climate confab, scientists paint worrying picture with few solutions

Academics cite rising water temps that weaken coral reefs and affect plankton, while invasive urchins strip rocks of food for fish; nature authorities push for awareness

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

The National Institute of Oceanography in Haifa, northern Israel. (courtesy)
The National Institute of Oceanography in Haifa, northern Israel. (courtesy)

Drive north to the city of Haifa, and if you glance toward the gleaming sea to the west, you might see a curious building resembling a huge concrete ship.

Designed by the controversial late architect David Yanai and inaugurated in 1976, it comprises three concrete blocks connected by exposed metal stairs and pipes, and what looks like a ship’s bridge on top.

It is home to the National Institute of Oceanography, which forms part of the state’s Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute. The latter also includes the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory at the Sea of Galilee in the north and the National Center for Mariculture in Eilat on the Red Sea in the far south.

Most research on the Mediterranean Sea is conducted here and at the University of Haifa’s Charney School of Marine Sciences.

Much of the institute’s painstaking work revolves around experiments in tanks outside, under the sun or shade, or in enclosed conditions with air conditioning.

In the tanks, species ranging from algae to fish to slugs and snails can be isolated or combined, observed, and subjected to environmental stresses such as heat, pollution, or high levels of carbon dioxide as scientists try to understand processes taking place out at sea.

Prof. Gil Rilov of the National Institute of Oceanography in Haifa, northern Israel, explains how the pulse of a mollusk is monitored to test its reaction to a specific environmental condition, July 4, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

During this reporter’s visit, one tank contained a mollusk whose pulse was being monitored.

In another was a species of Red Sea urchin that, in its home environment, performs the positive role of eating algae that would otherwise deprive corals of sun. As a species that has invaded the Mediterranean, however, it is ravaging the algae on rocky surfaces, leaving little food behind for the herbivorous fish on which the commercially important grouper feeds.

Doctoral student Iris Preiss said the urchin was spreading in the port areas of Haifa in northern Israel and Tel Aviv, suggesting it could have arrived in the ballast water of commercial ships.

Sea urchins in a research tank at the National Institute of Oceanography in Haifa, northern Israel, July 4, 2024. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

On Thursday, Prof. Gil Rilov, a scientist at the institute, convened the first conference on climate change’s effects on Israel’s seas, bringing the country’s top marine researchers to hear about some of each other’s findings.

He told the confab that he was worried marine scientists were not sharing their climate-related findings and wanted to find a way to make these findings more available to decision-makers and the public.

One researcher after the next presented snippets of his or her research, much of it deeply concerning.

Prof. Maoz Fine of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University told colleagues that over the last 30 years, the world had lost around half of its coral reefs and was on course to reach 2050 with only 10% of them left.

Bleached coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. (Acropora, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

He said the past year had been the most devastating for coral reefs globally, with the entire reef of the Florida Keys and 80% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef undergoing bleaching. Stressed corals turn white after expelling the algae that live symbiotically in their tissues.

Remarkably, the reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba off the coast of Eilat were stable, he said, apparently thanks to a form of “thermal selection” in their post-Ice Age journey from the much warmer southern Red Sea thousands of years ago.

More than global warming threatens

But in addition to global warming, they were at risk from “multiple stressors,” from oil pollution, sewage discharge, desalination brine, chemicals, and dissolved sunscreen to plastic waste, overfishing, invasive species, hormone pollution, microbial and viral infections, and flash floods.

In Eilat, the Europe Asia Pipeline Company’s oil port is located just 650 meters (just over 700 yards) from a major coral reef.

An oil tanker (circled in red) docked at the Europe Asia Pipeline Company’s port, close to the coral reef nature reserve of Eilat (seen in the foreground) in southern Israel. (Society for the Protection of Nature)

Maoz said the best way to protect the northern Red Sea’s reefs was for UNESCO to declare the area a World Heritage site, but this was unlikely until Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia could jointly apply.

Jack Silverman, a senior researcher at the institute, linked increased carbon dioxide levels in seawater with water acidification, which weakens the corals’ ability to build the reefs.

Live shipments of animals for fattening and slaughter in Red Sea countries were an additional source of worry, he went on, because of the huge amounts of sewage they released into the seawater. Such effluent contained nutrients that encourage the growth of algae, he warned — algae that can smother corals and deprive them of sunlight.

A live shipment of animals bound for fattening and slaughter in Israel arrives at the port of Eilat on the Red Sea coast on June 19, 2023. (Omri Omessi)

Prof. Amatzia Genin, also from Eilat’s Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences and Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, revealed that Eilat’s surface water temperatures had warmed much more than the global average over the past decade (0.4 degrees Celsius, or 0.72 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with 0.28 degrees Celsius, equivalent to 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit).

He also explained how high surface water temperatures were limiting the ability of surface water to mix with deep water in the water column. This mixing is critical for the release of nutrients for phytoplankton, the foundation of food webs for much of aquatic life.

High temperatures were one problem, he said, but a sudden temperature change could be fatal. The latter caused a mass die-off of over 40 fish species in the Gulf of Eilat in 2017.

A lionfish, a species that has become invasive in the Eastern Mediterranean, seen at Shaab Angosh reef in the Red Sea. (Alexander Vasenin/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Invasion of some 500 species

Rilov, an expert on rocky reefs in the Mediterranean Sea, addressed the problem of invasive species, some 500 of which have made the eastern Mediterranean their home.

Noting that one species of invasive algae had been found to absorb more atmospheric carbon dioxide than native ones, he said it was important to understand which invasives might contribute positively to ecosystems or commerce.

Prof. Jonathan (Yoni) Belmaker, from Tel Aviv University and the university’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, revealed a correlation between rising water temperatures and smaller fish, which could have implications for commercial fishing.

A fisherman holds a large fish at Jaffa Port in central Israel, November 25, 2006. (Jorge Novominsky/FLASH90)

A panel discussion about how marine scientists could make their climate-related research more useful ended with more questions than answers.

Ruti Yahel, a marine ecologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, said that while scientists were good at asking questions, policymakers wanted solutions.

Alon Rothschild, who manages biodiversity policy at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, added that while science was important, “People don’t make decisions for rational reasons.”

He said massive work had to be invested in opening people’s eyes to the importance of biodiversity before scientific work could be effective.

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