Israel-UK researchers to map whales, dolphins in area set for oil, gas exploration

Species in little-explored section of deep sea will be documented by scientists from Greenpeace and University of Haifa using visual, acoustic equipment

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

Greenpeace International's newest sailing boat, Witness, arrives at the Ashkelon marina in southern Israel on March 31, 2022. (Dor Nevo)
Greenpeace International's newest sailing boat, Witness, arrives at the Ashkelon marina in southern Israel on March 31, 2022. (Dor Nevo)

A joint research project kicked off Sunday to map the marine mammal population in a little-explored area of Israel’s stretch of the Mediterranean Sea that is set to open for gas and oil exploration.

Collaborating on the research, described as the most comprehensive to date, are scientists from the Morris Kahn Marine Research Station at the Charney School of Marine Sciences at the University of Haifa, the Greenpeace International Research Unit, and Greenpeace Israel.

Some 15,000 square kilometers (5,790 square miles) of waters within Israel’s exclusive economic zone face threats from drilling, according to Greenpeace Israel’s calculations.

Last month, the organization appealed to Energy Minister Karine Elharar and other senior government figures to scrap the granting of new licenses and the renewal of existing licenses for the extraction of natural gas for export.

Most existing research on the distribution, behavior, and ecology of marine mammals in Israel’s economic waters focuses on areas close to the coast.

But the Mediterranean Sea is also home to vast, deep plains, with canals bounded by slopes, which provide an important habitat for marine mammals, of which 12 species have been spotted in the Eastern Mediterranean in the past.

In this Monday, January 21, 2019 photo, a 6 foot (1.8 meters) sandbar shark is caught by researchers from the predator project at the Morris Kahn Marine Research Station established by the University of Haifa in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the northern Israeli city of Hadera. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

These include sperm whales and Cuvier’s beaked whale — defined as “endangered” and “vulnerable” respectively — as well as fin whales and several species of dolphin.

Visiting species include false killer whales, orcas, and minke whales.

The marine research, which will combine observation with the use of hydrophones to acoustically identify the mammals, will be led by Dr. Aviad Sheinin on behalf of the University of Haifa in northern Israel and Dr. Kirsten Thompson of Greenpeace’s Scientific Unit at the UK’s Exeter University.

Screen capture from video of a killer whale spotted off the coast of Israel, February 28, 2020. (Twitter)

They will sail aboard Greenpeace’s newest research sailboat, “The Witness.”

“The marine survey is designed to document the presence of whales, dolphins, and other deep-sea marine mammals, some of which are endangered as a result of plastic pollution, damage from high-speed sailing vessels, and marine drilling by the fuel industry that includes marine life-endangering seismic explosions,” a Greenpeace statement said.

Sheinin, who heads research into super-predators at the Morris Kahn Marine Research Station, was recently elected as an Emerging Explorer by the global National Geographic organization for his contribution to the field of research and his unique discoveries in the Mediterranean Basin.

“Since 2006, no systematic acoustic marine mammal survey has been conducted in the deep sea of Israel,” he said. “The knowledge gaps on the deep sea in the eastern Mediterranean are enormous.

Two dead dolphins found on Israel’s Mediterranean coast await autopsy at the Morris Kahn Center for Marine Research, April 6, 2021. (Dr. Aviad Sheinin)

“The lack of information impairs our ability to map and protect areas of importance to marine mammals in particular, and to the deep-sea ecosystem in general. Marine mammals, as super-predators in the system, are an important bio-indicator of the state of the entire marine system.”

In March, Greenpeace Israel submitted to the Energy Ministry an independently researched economic assessment of plans to drill for gas.

Knesset member Karine Elharrar speaks during a culture event in Kfar Yona on March 9, 2019. (Flash90)

This found that the Energy Ministry’s cost-benefit calculations were mistaken and had failed to take into account the roughly NIS 30 billion ($9.3 million) that the public will have invested in the country’s fossil fuel gas industry by 2030.

Elharrar announced in December that she would not adopt the conclusions of a natural gas policy review headed by the former ministry director-general, Ehud Adiri, and would not embark on the fourth stage of granting licenses for natural gas exploration during 2022.

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