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“Worrying” coral degradation in the Red Sea due to construction and climate

The coral reef off the southern Israeli port city of Eilat has not regenerated and may even have deteriorated since a winter storm two years ago, according to a published government study that found these conclusions are “disturbing. »

The March 2020 storm resulted in the loss of 6-22% of coral cover in the bay, and since 2021 the reef has seen an additional 5% loss of marine invertebrates, Israel’s National Gulf Monitoring Program says. ‘Eilat.

The monitoring program has recommended limiting local development and construction to reduce the pressures that climate change is already placing on the reef.

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“There is a risk that construction activities on beaches will cause more damage to nature; this work makes coral reef restoration even more difficult,” the report warns.

“Another worrying trend observed in the study is the continued increase in deep-sea temperature recorded in previous surveys,” the report said, adding that the increase in surface temperatures at a rate of 0.045 – twice and half higher than the increase estimated by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – could also have a negative impact on 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. (Credit: Dror Tzural/Ministry of Environment)

From 1995 to 2008, the waste from the numerous “cages” intended for fish farming had caused significant damage to the coral of the Red Sea. In response to petitions from environmental groups and divers, facilities were removed and coral rebounded, as other reefs around the world disappeared due to rising ocean temperatures.

However, the increase in human activity worries scientists.

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

“Sea urchins have an important job of cleaning the reef of algae that compete with corals for sites on the reef,” the study said.

In addition, no algae would have been observed less than 10 meters deep, which, according to the controller, could have an impact on the feeding of fry and invertebrate fish.

An image of the coral reef in the Gulf of Eilat. (Credit: Dror Tzural/Ministry of Environment)

Dror Tzurel, a member of the monitoring program’s executive committee, said he was concerned about the lack of deep water mixing – a process in which “the upper waters cool in winter and sink, and the deep waters, where nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) have accumulated, rise to the surface. »

According to the report, 2021 is the ninth year that this natural phenomenon has not occurred, leading to nutrient buildup and posing significant challenges to reef recovery. The process is supposed to happen every three or four years.

When the process finally occurred in the winter of 2022, the phenomenon’s long absence “resulted in algal blooms, high turbidity and sticky foam on the water surface from May to July”, complicating thus coral photosynthesis, Tzurel said.

Noga Kronfeld-Schor, senior scientist at the Environment Ministry and chair of the monitoring committee, explained that the report revealed that Israel’s activities were a driver of the challenges facing the Red Sea, in addition to the impact of climate change.

“This is a sensitive and important ecosystem, and we must do everything in our power to prevent further damage to it,” she said.

Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg called the results “worrying” and called for “greater involvement of government departments in protecting the bay from threats, which are often of local origin.”

Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg participating in a discussion on violence in Arab society, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tamar Zandberg added that the development works in Eilat “ignore environmental considerations in a way that cannot be considered reasonable” and called for the works to be carried out in a “more sensitive manner.” »

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