Scientists call for ‘urgent’ regional effort to save Red Sea coral
'We must act now'

Scientists call for ‘urgent’ regional effort to save Red Sea coral

Reefs near Eilat may be world’s most resilient, but they need management as climate change threatens marine ecosystems, international team of researchers says

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Coral reefs near the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 13, 2008. (AP/Hassan Ammar)
Coral reefs near the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 13, 2008. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

An international team of scientists called for a regional effort to save Red Sea coral, saying the reefs could be some of the last to survive climate change by the end of the century.

The researchers said the corals, especially those in the Gulf of Aqaba near Israel’s southern border, appear to be uniquely resilient to temperature changes that have decimated reefs elsewhere.

Climate change is expected to destroy 70 to 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs by 2050, even if countries abide by the Paris Climate Agreement, said the researchers from Israel, the US, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Australia.

The Gulf of Aqaba could therefore become one of the world’s largest marine refuges from global climate change if measures are taken to preserve the ecosystem. Climate change threatens reefs by raising temperatures and increasing ocean acidification.

The Red Sea reef system is one of the world’s longest, stretching down some 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) of coastline.

A coral beach in the Red sea, Eilat, May 29, 2009. (Anna Kaplan/Flash90)

Water temperatures in the Red Sea get progressively warmer moving toward the south’s Gulf of Aden, so even if those corals cross a temperature threshold and begin bleaching, the Gulf of Aqaba corals to the north may still be in good shape.

The Gulf of Aqaba could withstand an average summer temperature increase of around 6°C (10.8°F). Extreme heatwaves, which are expected to happen more often in the future, could sometimes push temperatures well above the average, further threatening the corals, however.

There is no coordinated effort to research or manage the reef system as a whole, the researchers said. They called on UNESCO to recognize the Red Sea’s entire reef as a Marine World Heritage Site as part of an initiative between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The researchers recommended full regional cooperation, directed from high levels of government; informing countries about the economic value and medicinal potential of the reefs; long-term monitoring of the threats to the ecosystem posed by development and population expansion; and sustainable development of the coastline.

They released a paper on the reefs in the peer-reviewed science journal “Frontiers in Marine Science” last month. It was co-authored by researchers from Bar-Ilan University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, Switzerland’s ambassador to Israel, Jean-Daniel Ruch, and Palestinian-American philanthropist Lola N. Grace.

Coral in the Gulf of Aqaba. (Courtesy/Ove Hoegh-Guldberg)

They recommended an international research, monitoring and conservation effort, backed by the UN and headed by the neutral Switzerland-based Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, which could navigate the complex political situation in the region. Eight countries border the Red Sea, some of which have no official ties, while others are in conflict.

Israel and Jordan are the only countries on the Red Sea that have continuous, government-mandated monitoring programs along their entire coastlines, but they account for less than 1% of the sea’s total border. Israel is the only country to make its monitoring data publicly available.

Collaboration between Israel and Jordan on the sea has declined in recent years and is now at a minimal level, the researchers said.

Collecting and sharing data on the Red Sea would allow scientists to track changes, including threats, and conduct other research. The Mediterranean Sea has a UN-run international monitoring program involving all 21 countries on its coasts.

The southern Israeli city of Eilat and Jordanian city of Aqaba, December 18, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“It’s crucial that countries coordinate on Gulf-wide research and conservation efforts despite regional political tensions,” said lead researcher Dr. Karine Kleinhaus of New York’s Stony Brook University.

The study notes that the reefs near Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba are likely the healthiest in the Red Sea, but the area’s development presents a growing threat to the ecosystem. The city’s population grew by 65% between 1995 and 2018, and the newly opened Ramon International Airport is expected to bring more tourists.

A planned mariculture center, or open ocean fish farming, could introduce antibiotics, bacteria, viruses and turbidity to the waters around Eilat.

Aqaba, across the border from Israel in Jordan, is twice as big as Eilat and growing quickly.

The Red Sea reefs provide food and income to some 28 million people, and could potentially be a source of groundbreaking new medicines. The reefs generate some $12 billion in tourism annually, and $230 million in fishing.

An Egyptian Bedouin fishes coral reefs in the Red Sea near Dahab, Egypt, March 9, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The reefs are a hotspot for biodiversity, with many endemic species adapted to the sea’s high salinity and warm temperatures. The biodiversity has created molecules and metabolites not known to exist on other reefs.

“The biodiversity that is found only on healthy reefs is considered by scientists to be key to finding new medicines for the 21st century. Many therapeutics are now being developed from coral reef animals and plants as possible cures for cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, viruses and other diseases,” the researchers wrote.

In addition to bleaching caused by global climate change, rapidly growing populations on the sea’s coasts threaten the reefs. Some have already seen heavy damage from tourism, overfishing, coastal development and pollution.

Much of the coastline is sparsely inhabited, but growing urban centers are damaging water quality with sewage and runoff from agriculture and pesticides.

Scuba diving in the Gulf of Eilat in the Red Sea, May 19, 2018. (Maor Kinsburksy/Flash90)

A particular concern is the planned megacity Neom, which Saudi Arabia aims to build near the sea’s coast. It is expected to cover some 10,230 square miles.

Saudi Arabia is also developing a Red Sea Tourism Project which envisions some 10,000 hotel rooms on dozens of islands and over 100 miles of coastline. The project will rely heavily on ecotourism, making the reefs a valuable economic asset to Saudi Arabia, but construction, desalination plants, sewage and tourism are likely to threaten corals.

The Saudi resort area of Jeddah Corniche already produces large amounts of wastewater, which is likely to damage local marine ecosystems.

Globally, some 500 million people depend on reefs for food and income, and 25% of all marine species depend on corals.

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