Eilat coral reef defies expectations and regenerates after fish farming damage

The resilience of Red Sea coral fascinates scientists, who try to understand why the marine life fares well in heat and seems immune to the bleaching which plagues other reefs

A scuba diver checks coral reefs in the Red Sea off the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat, June 12, 2017.  (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)
A scuba diver checks coral reefs in the Red Sea off the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat, June 12, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

While coral reefs around the world are getting sicker as a result of global warming, the reef in the southern Israeli port city of Eilat is thriving despite years of damage caused by intensive fish farming in the waters and global warming.

According to a Hadashot TV news report on Friday, the healthy coral marks a victory against the damage caused by humans to underwater marine life.

From 1995-2008, waste from multiple “cages” for fish farming caused massive damage to the Red Sea coral, but after environmental and diving groups petitioned the government and appropriate authorities, the cages were removed and the coral has now bounced back.

“The government thinks that we and the other ecological groups are against progress and development, but it’s not true — we just want it to be done with supervision for the sustainability of the environment,” Maya Yakbis of the Zalul environmental NGO told Hadashot.

The fish farming cages in the Red Sea. (Screenshot from Hadashot via Zalul)

But fighting back after the pollution from the fish farming is not the only remarkable victory for the coral. Global warming has in recent years caused colorful coral reefs to bleach and die around the world — but not in the Gulf of Eilat, or Aqaba, part of the northern Red Sea.

At the forefront of research into why the Red Sea coral seems to be so resilient, is Maoz Fine of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences, whose laboratory of water tanks and robots simulate the effects of climate change on temperature and oxygen levels in the water.

Fine’s team also grows coral on tables some eight meters (26 feet) underwater in the Red Sea, in an area closed to public and dubbed “the nursery.”

Researchers from the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat monitor coral growth while scuba diving on June 12, 2017 in the Red Sea off Eilat. (AFP PHOTO / MENAHEM KAHANA)

According to Fine, the Gulf of Eilat corals fare well in heat thanks to their slow journey from the Indian Ocean through the Bab al-Mandab strait, between Djibouti and Yemen, where water temperatures are much higher.

Oceans also absorb about one-third of the carbon dioxide released by human activities, resulting in increasing acidification that is harmful to corals.

The Gulf of Eilat, in the Red Sea, on May 19, 2018 (Maor Kinsburksy/Flash90)

Coral reefs, most famously Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, are experiencing in recent years unabated mass bleaching and die-offs.

Losing coral reefs is not only bad news for tourists diving to see their beauty and marine life swimming among them.

A view of a the Red sea, in Eilat on May 29, 2009.
(photo credit: Anna Kaplan/ Flash 90)

Corals are important to “the whole balance of the ecosystem,” offering structure, food, and protection to a variety of marine animals, Jessica Bellworthy, a PhD student under Fine’s supervision taking part in the Eilat research said last year.

Their rich chemical interactions have provided components for medications, including those for cancer and HIV patients.

But while the coral reefs off Eilat and Aqaba may be able to survive global warming for now, they also face other risks.

Fertilizers, pesticides, and oil pollution “harm the corals and lower their resilience to high temperatures,” Fine told the AFP last year.

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