In September researchers aided by university students and Israeli schoolchildren glued the tubes across the surfaces of the irregularly shaped modular building blocks.
About 250 of the coral-filled tubes have already been planted on the reef, and more are in the works.
Inner areas of the new human-made reef are barred to prevent the entry of divers and encourage new coral growth and colonization by fish and other marine life.
"Usually when something bad happens to a protected marine area, you can only say, Okay, we lost a part of it," said Nadav Shashar, BGU's marine biologist and project supervisor.
"But here we are actually able to reclaim an area. This used to be a coral reef and it died. But now we can go back and build a new one."
Just two months after initial construction, more than 20 species of fish—along with invertebrates including corals, fan worms, and tunicates—have settled naturally on the reef.
Shashar anticipates the artificial structure will need between five and ten years to evolve into a viable reef ecosystem.
But fish populations will likely fully colonize the project within a year. (See related news: "Noisy Reefs Preferred by Young Fish, Study Says" [April 7, 2005].)
When completed, the project will include three reefs in Jordanian waters and two in Israel. But it is not intended to replace natural ecosystems.
Instead, the new reefs provide alternate dive areas and help in the reclamation of specific reefs.
Artificial vs. Natural
There are biological differences between natural and artificial reefs.
Natural reefs contain tiny ecosystems that are dependent on light and nutrients as well as sea current strengths and speeds, Al Horani of Jordan's MSS said.
Artificial reefs do not necessarily provide the physical infrastructures for these micro-ecosystems.
"We are trying to create different types of micro-ecosystems within the structures we are developing," Al Horani said. For instance, some surfaces are exposed to full sunlight, and others are more shaded.
Shashar of Israel's BGU intentionally designed the new reef in a way that does not mimic a natural reef, but rather provides an alternate habitat for rare species.
Natural reefs in the U.S.—including the Florida Keys and Hawaii—and the Bahamas are also facing dangerous pressures similar to those of the Gulf of Aqaba reefs.
Bob Leeworthy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was not involved in the Gulf of Aqaba project.
He has worked on a Florida Keys artificial reef study that involved the intentional sinking of a decommissioned U.S. naval vessel. (See related news: "Artificial Reefs Made With Sunken Subway Cars, Navy Ships" [August 18, 2006].)
Such projects can help save natural reefs by taking stress off them, he said.
"It was a win-win situation in the sense that total use—including scuba diving, snorkeling, glass-bottom boat rides, and fishing—increased while the use of the surrounding natural reefs declined," Leeworthy said.
Advertising the artificial reef site led to a direct increase in business traffic at local scuba outfitters, he added. Anecdotal information suggests that visitor interest in the artificial site remains steady today.
Both MSS's Al Horani and BGU's Shashar said relations between the Israeli and Jordanian team members are positive.
"We have common goals," Al Horani said.
"Without this kind of collaboration we can't really control the environmental factors that might negatively influence the Gulf of Aqaba."
(This project is partially funded by the United States USAID-MERC program and the British Whitley Fund for Nature.)
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