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The first Israeli fishpond to undergo rewilding by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and to be tested as a basis for carbon credits by Terrra, Kfar Ruppin, March 27, 2022. (Shai Ben Aharon)
The first Israeli fishpond to undergo rewilding by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and to be tested as a basis for carbon credits by Terrra, Kfar Ruppin, March 27, 2022. (Shai Ben Aharon)

Drain the swamp? Israeli startup sees green bonanza in rewilding wetlands instead

‘Israel’s first nature-based carbon trading project’ sees Terrra working with ecology group to rehab fishponds, sell pollution credits and create vital stops for migrating birds

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

The first Israeli fishpond to undergo rewilding by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and to be tested as a basis for carbon credits by Terrra, Kfar Ruppin, March 27, 2022. (Shai Ben Aharon)

Drive up the northern Mediterranean coast, or the northern Jordan Valley, or in and around the valleys in between, and you will be struck by the patchwork of shimmering blue geometric shapes formed by the commercial fishponds of the kibbutzim.

On closer inspection, you’ll see all manner of birds flying overhead, or perching on fishpond infrastructure, hoping to nab a fish or one of the other myriad creatures that live in or close to the water.

Some 60,000 acres (250,000 dunams) of wetlands once covered the floodplains of northern Israel. However, decades of development for agriculture and other purposes have reduced that to just 2,000 acres (8,000 dunams), transforming the fishponds into critical stopping points for birds.

Now, farmers no longer able to cope with rising water costs or competition from fish importers have begun drying up the ponds or covering them with solar panels.

That spells potential disaster, not only for Israel’s resident fowl but for the hundreds of millions of migratory birds that pass through Israel twice a year. These water bodies are particularly critical during the fall, as they offer the last refueling stations before the desert for birds flying south to Africa.

To ensure that habitats for waterfowl and other aquatic creatures continue to exist, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel now plans to lease as many fishponds as it can and “rewild” them — i.e., return them to a more natural wetland state.

Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael’s fishponds, on the northern Mediterranean coast, June 16, 2012. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The project is slated to be funded partly via a partnership with Terrra, a company made up of young sustainability entrepreneurs who see wetland rehabilitation as an attractive business and environmental opportunity as well as a source of remuneration for the kibbutzim.

Wetlands remove and store large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This makes them an ideal source of carbon credits, which can be sold to companies that need to offset emissions to meet certain green standards.

“We believe that we will be able to create the first nature-based, carbon removal credit project in Israel that meets international standards,” said Nachi Brodt, one of Terrra’s co-founders.

The former fishpond at Kfar Ruppin in northern Israel that is undergoing rewilding. (Omri Salner, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

The plan is being tested by SPNI and Terrra at a pond in Kfar Ruppin, a kibbutz in the northern Jordan Valley.

SPNI is investing the equivalent of just over $155,000 to lease the pond for three years and to prepare the infrastructure, which includes pumping and diverting water from a nearby spring.

Infrastructure development is currently ongoing at another fishpond, at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, on the coast south of Haifa. That pond is due to be ready for rewilding at the end of the year.

Terrra hopes to eventually acquire the rights to 5,000 dunams (more than 1,200 acres) of former fish ponds countrywide and to use them as a laboratory for rewilding, testing and collecting data.

Bog businesses

Climate change is being spurred by the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases that are released into the atmosphere every time we burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas.

The race is on not only to reduce the use of fossil fuels, which also pollute the air, but to remove that CO₂ excess from the atmosphere and store it somewhere, for a long time.

Last month, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear that removal is essential if the world is to meet the Paris Agreement’s climate goals and if governments and companies are to meet their net-zero pledges.

Climeworks’ direct air capture facility in Iceland. (YouTube screenshot)

Engineering solutions are already being tried. Last year, for example, the Swiss company Climeworks launched Orca, the world’s largest direct air capture facility which, it is claimed, can capture 4,000 tons of CO₂ per year. The facility, located in Iceland, sucks in ambient air, separates the CO₂, mixes it with water, and pumps the liquid deep into the earth where it mineralizes and eventually becomes rock.

But solutions such as these require massive amounts of energy (Orca has access to renewable geothermal energy) and are difficult to scale up.

Nature, by contrast, stores carbon free of charge and is in plentiful supply.

In this June 7, 2018, file photo, a puddle blocks a path that leads into the Panther Island Mitigation Bank (Panther Island) near Naples, Florida (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Because plants absorb carbon dioxide (through photosynthesis) to build their own biomass — their wood, for example — they have been tapped as a so-called nature-based solution for carbon absorption and storage, known in the profession as sequestration.

This is why governments and businesses — including Israel-based ones, such as Kornit Digital, HP Indigo, and the Dizengoff Center shopping mall in Tel Aviv — are trying to partially offset their emissions by planting trees via local, Israeli green initiatives (that are not internationally approved for carbon credits, but valuable nevertheless), such as the Climate Forest Project of the Good Energy Initiative. (The link is in Hebrew only).

Wetlands hold particular potential for carbon sequestration.

In addition to harboring rich vegetation, they store carbon in peats, soils, and sediments. The soils provide an oxygen-free environment in which submerged plant material decomposes more slowly than it does on dry land — locking the carbon up for longer.

Coal, which is infamously rich in carbon that is released when burned, is the result of millions of years of vegetal decomposition in wetlands.

And wetlands can be rehabilitated quickly, while a forest takes decades to grow and is more susceptible to destruction by fire.

“Every wetland behaves differently, but when we go to a fishpond, rewilding happens very quickly,” said Nachi Brodt. “At Kfar Ruppin, the vegetation grew back in about six months.”

“Our preliminary measurements show that roughly 1,600 tons of carbon were sequestered during the first year of rewilding (from early 2021).”

More than 2,000 trees would need to be grown for 30 to 40 years to remove and store the same amount of carbon, he said.

Carbon markets, in which people, companies or governments can purchase credits to offset emissions, are being set up around the world. Some countries, though not Israel, have made it mandatory for polluting firms to purchase credits. In other places, companies are purchasing credits voluntarily by investing in sequestration projects, such as the one that Terrra is proposing.

Taking a soil test on the banks of the rewilding fishpond at Kfar Ruppin, November 23, 2021. (Marina Suffern)

According to S&P Global, voluntary carbon markets reached more than $1 billion in value in 2021.

The private sector-led Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, set up by former Bank of Israel governor Mark Carney, estimated last year that demand for carbon credits could increase fifteenfold or more by 2030.

Terrra says it is tweaking the tech needed to measure carbon levels in its rewilded wetlands. It is working with Verra, one of a handful of a global verification firms, to ensure its methods meet international standards for carbon sequestration projects.

It will file all the necessary details of the project with Verra in the next week or two, after which the initiative will appear on Verra’s website for a month for public comment.

After that, a third-party verifier approved by Verra (there are no Israeli verifiers yet) will visit the project and ask any outstanding questions.

Brodt believes that within the next few months, Verra will approve the number of carbon credits that can be sold from the Kfar Ruppin fishpond in a year. Each credit will be worth a ton of carbon.

Tiny Israel barely registers when it comes to global emissions levels, but it can amplify its impact on bringing climate change under control by developing scalable technologies, noted Brodt.

In addition, its position along a key bird migration corridor means actions taken in Israel can play a key role in bolstering bird migration numbers from Africa to Europe and Asia.

Migratory bee-eaters, Agur Dunes Nature Reserve, Negev Desert, southern Israel, April 22, 2022. (Yoav Perlman)

According to Noam Weiss, director of the International Birding and Research Center in Eilat, in southern Israel, the number of birds passing through Israel on their way from wintering grounds in Africa to breeding grounds in Europe and Asia is in “drastic decline,” partly because so many wetlands have been lost along the flyway.

Rewild ‘n out

Rewilding, a relatively new approach in conservation, aims to bring an ecosystem (all the living organisms and the physical environment with which they interact) to a level at which it can sustain itself without further human intervention.

Nadav Israeli, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel’s Kfar Ruppin Birdwatching Center. (Courtesy)

The SPNI’s interest in rewilding fishponds lies in increasing biodiversity — species richness — and ensuring that birds, as well as other creatures, such as otters and swamp cats, have a viable place to live and breed.

As Nadav Israeli, who directs the SPNI’s Kfar Ruppin Birdwatching Center, explained, biodiversity can be restored far more quickly by snapping up abandoned fish ponds than by waiting 15 to 20 years for a nature reserve to be declared.

“Nature comes back almost immediately, with toads and mosquitos, and birds following them within days,” he said.

Spur-winged lapwings gather at the former fishpond being rewilded at Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in northern Israel, April 2021. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

Reflooding of the Kfar Ruppin fishpond — which was dried out four years ago and unsuccessfully trialed for wheat — only began in February 2021.

Already, more than 120 bird species have been spotted, among them a pair of purple gallinules, rare in Israel; ferruginous ducks, whose population in the country is fighting back from near-extinction, thanks to a breeding project at Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo; purple herons, egrets, little grebes, Dead Sea sparrows, colorful bee-eaters, and at least one osprey.

“Apparently, all life on land finds benefits in the mud,” said Brodt.

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