‘Worrying’ Red Sea coral decay: Monitor warns of construction, rising water temps

Environmental Protection Ministry says reef has not recovered since storm in 2020, and has been further damaged; blames human activity in the Gulf of Eilat and climate change

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

An image of the coral reef in the Gulf of Eilat. (Dror Tzural/Environmental Protection Ministry)
An image of the coral reef in the Gulf of Eilat. (Dror Tzural/Environmental Protection Ministry)

The coral reef off the southern Israeli port city of Eilat has failed to regenerate and has even degraded since a winter storm two years ago, according to a government report released on Wednesday that said the findings were “worrying.”

The stormy weather in March 2020 led to the loss of 6 to 22 percent of coral cover in the bay, and since then, the reef has experienced a further 5% loss of the marine invertebrates as of 2021, said the Israel National Monitoring Program at the Gulf of Eilat.

The monitor recommended that local development and construction be minimized to reduce the stresses already faced by the reef from climate change.

“There is a fear of further harm to nature as a result of construction activity on the beaches, works that make it even more difficult to restore the coral reef,” the report warned.

“Another worrisome trend observed in the report is the continued increase in the deep water temperature recorded in the previous surveys,” the report said, adding that the rise of surface level temperatures at a rate of 0.045 — two and a half times higher than the increase estimated by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — could also negatively impact the corals.

The resilience of Red Sea corals has long fascinated scientists, as well as divers and snorkelers.

An image of the coral reef in the Bay of Eilat. (Dror Tzural/Environmental Protection Ministry)

In 1995-2008, waste from multiple “cages” for fish farming caused massive damage to the Red Sea coral, but in response to petitions by environmental and diving groups, the facilities were removed and the coral bounced back, despite other reefs around the world dying off due to rising ocean temperatures.

However, increasing human activity has concerned scientists.

The report also observed a serious decline in the area’s ecosystem, noting a 50% decrease in the number of sea urchins since 2019.

“Sea urchins have an important job in cleaning the reef from algae that compete with the corals for settlement sites on the reef,” the report noted.

Furthermore, seaweed was not found below 10 meters in the water, which the monitor said could impact the food supply of young and invertebrate fish.

An image of the coral reef in the Gulf of Eilat. (Dror Tzural/Environmental Protection Ministry)

Dror Tzurel, a member of the executive committee of the monitoring program, said he was concerned by the lack of deep mixing in the sea — a process in which “the upper water cools in the winter and sinks down, and the deep water, where nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) have accumulated, rises to the surface.”

According to the report, 2021 was the ninth year in which the natural phenomenon did not occur, leading to an accumulation of nutrients and posing significant challenges to the recovery of the reef. The process is meant to occur every three to four years.

When the process did finally occur in winter 2022, the long period without the phenomenon “led to algae blooms, high turbidity, and sticky foam on the water surface from May to July,” which causes difficulties for coral to photosynthesize, Tzurel said.

Noga Kronfeld-Schor, the lead scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry and chair of the monitoring committee, explained that the report found that Israel’s activities were a driver of the challenges faced by the Red Sea, in addition to the impact of climate change.

“This is a sensitive and important ecosystem, and we need to do as much as we can in order to prevent the continuation of damage to it,” she said.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg labeled the findings “worrisome” and called for “greater involvement of the government ministries in protecting the bay in the face of threats, the origin of many of which are local.”

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg attends a discussion regarding violence in Arab society on May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zanberg added that development in Eilat “ignores environmental considerations in a way that cannot be considered reasonable” and called for works to be carried out in a “more sensitive way.”

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