Winds of peace fuel Israeli-led expedition to Sudan to save Red Sea coral reefs

July 21, 2021

By Sue Surkes

A multinational team of marine scientists set sail from Eilat to Sudan Tuesday on board a ship originally built by the Nazis, kicking off a groundbreaking project to assess the health of corals throughout the Red Sea.

The six coral experts, from Israel, Switzerland, France and the UK, will join four crew members for a five-day journey to Port Sudan. There, six Sudanese researchers will join the team for studies due to last until September.

The project, which will stretch over four summers, is aiming to establish a baseline for coral health against which future changes, particularly in climate, can be measured.

The scientists will dive daily to collect coral specimens and subject them to different water temperatures and conditions. The results will then be used to map the area.

With the Swiss flag flying as a symbol of political neutrality, funding from an anonymous European foundation — and a diplomatic thaw in parts of the region that has seen Israel and Sudan agree to establish relations — the scientists hope to cover the roughly 4,500 kilometer (2,800 mile) coastline of the eight Red Sea countries: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Djibouti.

Israel, which already has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, signed a normalization deal with Sudan last year, part of the Abraham Accords that also saw it ink deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

The expedition is about “bridging science and diplomacy for the future of corals,” said Prof. Maoz Fine, of Bar Ilan University and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI) in Eilat, who is co-directing the project.

Half the world’s reefs have died over the past 39 years, and only 10 percent are expected to survive past 2050, with climate change posing the greatest risk, said  Fine, who is the only Israeli researcher on board.

In a worst-case scenario, the Gulf of Eilat’s reefs — the northernmost on the planet — could be “the last ones standing,” he said.

Research at the IUI’s coral simulator — where corals in rows of tanks are subjected to different temperature and water acidity conditions and monitored by a robot — has shown that these reefs are able to sustain conditions up to six degrees hotter than maximum average summer temperatures, with no reports of bleaching — which occurs when corals lose their algae partners and turn white before eventually dying off. In other parts of the world, reefs are collapsing when temperatures rise by just one to two degrees higher than the average summer maximum.

Theorizing that the Eilat corals evolved further south, near Yemen and Djibouti, before moving north, with an inbuilt resilience, he hopes that they can serve as “an insurance policy for coral reefs to survive the coming decades,” providing coral material that can help revive reefs elsewhere that have been decimated by global warming.

But the Gulf of Eilat’s reefs face their own plethora of threats, Fine warned, from oil pollution, sewage discharge, and agricultural chemicals, to plastic waste, overfishing, construction and invasive species.

It remains to be seen what effects a planned desalination plant in neighboring Aqaba in Jordan will have on the reefs.

The project is an outgrowth of the Red Sea Transnational Research Center, managed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, which was created to help overcome diplomatic hurdles to collaboration between Red Sea nations, many of which are Muslim-majority and do not have ties with Israel.

Warning that “no country can do this alone,” the center’s Prof. Anders Maibom, who is co-leading the expedition with Fine, warned that the collapse of coral reefs in tourism-dependent Egypt could have a serious effect on the country’s already frail economy.

Anders said that while the current expedition had a specific time limit, the research center had a “timeline of decades,” during which it aimed to train young scientists in the region. Up-to-date scientific data would be crucial to help environmental impact assessments for major construction projects, for example, he added.

In addition to establishing a coral health baseline, the research center plans to install real-time monitoring stations with sensors and cameras at different points in the Red Sea to gauge coral health and alert researchers to any bleaching events right away.

Fine will install the first sensors off the Eilat coast on his return from Africa. The second batch will be deployed off Aqaba in the fall, and hopes are that a third group will be set up off the coast of Sudan.

Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli co-director of EcoPeace Middle East, highlighted several key policy changes that needed to occur to save the reefs.

The first was the cancellation of a highly controversial agreement between the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company and the United Arab Emirates to bring crude oil from the Gulf to Eilat and channel it through overland pipes to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean coast. The former and current environmental protection Ministers, along with a wide coalition of scientists, environmentalists and local authorities, including that of Eilat, warn that even a small leak could cripple coral reefs as well as desalination plants close to Ashkelon.

The second was to fight for Israel to join the Regional Convention for the Conservation of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, which was set up in 1982 in Saudi Arabia but has remained closed to the Jewish state for political reasons.

It was time to implement plans for a Red Sea Marine Peace Park developed within the framework of the peace accord signed between Jordan and Israel in 1994, Bromberg went on.

Jordan has declared its wish to have its Red Sea beaches declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, presenting an opportunity to create a series of such sites all around the Red Sea, the locations of which could be determined with the help of the expeditions’ research.

And education for environmental protection, based on scientific research, needed to be massively increased, Bromberg said.

Finally, NEOM, a new sustainable futuristic Saudi city planned along the Red Sea coast, had to be closely monitored to ensure it made a positive contribution and did not increase pollution.

Jordanian experts were invited to join the first voyage but were unable to, Fine told The Times of Israel, adding that he was sure they would take part in the future. Egyptian scientists had also not responded to an invitation, he added.

The Fleur de Passion, capable of sleeping up to 14, will sail the 652 nautical miles (around 1,200 kilometers, or 750 miles) to Port Sudan in five days. The scientists will be expected to provide hands on board, especially when it comes to raising the sails.

The ship was one of 600 such boats built by the Nazis to lay mines but to look like fishing vessels. Of these, 300 were sunk during the war and the rest were taken by the Allies. This particular boat was used by the French army until 1970, then bought privately, and finally acquired by the Geneva-based nonprofit Fondation Pacifique, which adapted it to serve as a logistics platform for marine research.

It initially sailed from Spain’s Seville, arriving in Aqaba, Jordan, around a month ago for trip preparations and joint coral research in which Jordanian experts also took part.

“The only way to eradicate threats is through collaboration with neighbors and cross-border science,” Fine said. “We need to act now if we are to bring all the countries around one table to secure these precious reefs.”


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