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New Artificial Reefs "Grow" From Mideast Peace Deal

Mati Milstein in Tel Aviv, Israel
for National Geographic News
September 25, 2007
 
In a rare example of Middle East cooperation, Israelis and Jordanians have joined together to create a string of artificial coral reefs in the Red Sea.

The international effort is meant to attract divers and snorkelers to artificial reefs to allow the area's damaged natural reefs to heal.

A high diversity of corals thrive in the Gulf of Aqaba, which lies at the northern end of the Red Sea and is bordered by both Israel and Jordan as well as Egypt and Saudia Arabia farther south. (See a map of the gulf.)

These reefs draw tourists from around the world to the neighboring resort cities of Elat, Israel, and Al 'Aqabah, Jordan. (See a fish's-eye view of the Red Sea.)

The tourism dollars are a boon to the region's economy, but an onslaught of snorkelers and divers has taken a damaging toll. Many of the reefs are literally dying, experts say.

Reefs on Jordan's coast, though still at risk, have so far suffered less from human pressures than those on the more heavily visited Israeli and Egyptian coast. (See related news: "Diverting Red Sea to Save Dead Sea Could Create Environmental Crisis" [December 14, 2006].)

"There is increasing construction, industrial development, and tourism around the gulf. Elat and [Al ']Aqabah are fast-growing cities and pressure on the reefs is growing," said Fuad Al Horani of the Marine Science Station (MSS) in Al 'Aqabah.

MSS and a team from the Elat campus of Ben-Gurion University (BGU) are spearheading the reef construction.

A 1994 peace deal between Israel and Jordan mandated that the two countries work together on combating marine pollution, natural resources issues, and coastal reef protection in the gulf.

Researchers are also gathering critical data on these complex ecosystems, including coral survival rates and patterns as well as the effects of human behavior on reefs.

Reviving the Reef

Using cranes and large parachutes, the team has already sunk huge concrete structures, each weighing 4.2 tons, into water 19 to 22 feet (6 to 7 meters) deep. Before installation, corals were nursed in special tubes designed to fit in holes drilled into the artificial reef.

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.

Similar Pressures

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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