Red Sea corals close to extinction
Story by Megan Goldin
5th July 2004
In their heyday, the corals along the shores of the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat were a mecca for divers drawn by one of the most spectacular and biologically diverse reefs in the world.
Today Eilat's corals are facing extinction and the colourful translucent fish are disappearing because of what environmentalists say is a lucrative fish-farm industry in the region's waters.
"It was one of the most beautiful reefs in the world and believe me I've seen them all. It was a pearl and it's really very painful to see it dying," said Professor Yossi Loya, an internationally renowned coral ecologist.
He and other experts say Eilat's reefs will soon be wiped out unless the government swiftly closes companies that breed some five million fish a year in cages and are operating without permits.
"We are in the 11th hour, the very last moment to save them," said Loya, who has studied Eilat's reefs for decades.
The fish firms deny any direct link with the coral decline.
The reefs had sustained damage for years as Eilat and the neighbouring Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba grew from isolated desert outposts into tourist boom towns.
Loya and other experts say the most severe damage began in 1993 after fish companies started mass production.
At the time, the reefs should have regenerated as a sewage plant began to treat Eilat's waste. Instead, coral degradation accelerated and new coral growth dropped to near zero.
"What happened between 1993 and 2000 is there was an exponential increase in the yield of fish cages from 300 tonnes per year to something like 2,000 tonnes per year," Loya said.
These fish excrete nitrates that develop plankton, the enemy of corals as they make the sea water murky and block sunlight, which is an essential ingredient for coral survival.
"The key point is that the Gulf of Eilat is an oligotrophic sea, a sea that does not have nitrogen at all," Loya explained.
"Coral reefs thrive in seas that are poor in nitrogen. If you increase nitrogen you are changing the environment and in such a sensitive environment like coral reefs it is mainly affecting the reproductive system of corals".
"ECOLOGICAL TIME BOMB"
Experts say the nitrates excreted by the fish numbers amounts to 250 tonnes annually. A governmental report done by international scientists found the fish cages contribute around 90 percent of nitrates entering the sea around Eilat.
"If you calculate how many nitrates are going into the water it is equivalent to a town of 30,000 people," said oceanographer Dr Amatzia Genin. "It is an ecological time bomb".
The fish companies and their supporters say the industry should not be shut down unless there is incontrovertible proof that it is killing the corals.
"There is no research that shows any direct correlation between the fish cages and the Eilat reefs' deterioration," said Dr Baruch Rinkevich from the state-owned Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, whose mariculture wing developed the fish cage industry and earns royalties from it.
Loya and other marine biologists say it will take years to complete studies that prove definitively that the fish cages are responsible for the destruction of Eilat's corals. By the time they have it, the corals will have long disappeared, they say.
The connection between a high concentration of nitrates and the decline of corals is widely accepted by marine scientists, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, the biologists say.
The reefs in Aqaba or along Egypt's adjacent Sinai Peninsula are in far better shape than those off Eilat despite thriving tourist industries, a major port in Aqaba and the Jordanian city's release of sewage into the sea after basic treatment.
Several reefs in Eilat kept off-limits to scuba divers are also in deep decline, so the problem is not tourism, said David Zakai, a ranger at Eilat's underwater reserve.
Environment Ministry officials say spillage of phosphates, crude oil and other materials at the Eilat port almost never happens and sewage leaks are rare and minor.
The only factor in Eilat missing in Aqaba and Egypt's Sinai is the large-scale fish cage industry in Eilat, experts say.
Conflict of interest?
A court has already ordered the fish companies to shut down because they lack permits, but the matter is such a political hot potato that it has been sent for government approval.
So far the government has procrastinated under pressure from the powerful agriculture lobby protecting the fish cage industry that brings in some $20 million annually, environmentalists say.
"We can't afford to wait any longer for politics and private interests of people to dictate the fate of a national treasure," Loya said. "We are in such a fragile situation."
Environmentalists fear the government will buckle to pressure from the fish-cage lobby which they accuse of muddying the waters by promoting the views of what they say is a minority of experts who deny the cages harm corals.
They accuse many of those experts of having a conflict of interest because they work for institutes with a financial interest in the fish-cage industry or are hired consultants.
Rinkevich said it was too late to save Eilat's corals as development had already taken a toll. He suggested that "coral nurseries" be planted in Eilat's waters to maintain the tourist industry and divert divers away from the damaged natural reefs.
"There is no similar case that I know of where a reef is located near a city the size of Eilat and survives," he said. "The impact of Eilat is devastating."
Loya and other experts believe the reefs can be saved but only if the government acts immediately by demanding the fish companies leave the waters of Eilat to ply their trade in ponds, a move the firms dismiss as uneconomical.
For those who remember diving amid the kaleidoscope of coloured corals and marine life that once characterised Eilat's reefs, profit margins cannot compare to the tragic consequences of the looming environmental disaster.
"In my mind time has run out," Loya said. "We must act now."