Undersea coral reefs are like precious jewels that are very difficult to replace once they have been “stolen” by pollution, climate change and other man-made abuse. It is estimated that 70% to 90% of all such reefs will be severely degraded by mid-century even if the 1.5◦C goal of the Paris Climate Agreement is achieved. Rapid ocean warming caused by changes in temperatures poses a serious risk to the survival of coral reefs.
Over half the Great Barrier Reef on Australia’s northeastern coast has already degraded, and there is a constant watch as signs of fresh bleaching are now appearing there.
But there is one coral reef ecosystem – in the Gulf of Aqaba at the northernmost portion of the Red Sea – that seems more resilient to rising sea temperatures than most others. Corals have an unusually high tolerance for the quickly warming seawater in the region. They withstand water temperature irregularities that cause severe bleaching or mortality in most hard corals elsewhere. This uniquely resilient reef employs biological mechanisms which are likely to be important for coral survival as the planet’s oceans warm.
The Red Sea’s reef runs along 4,000 kilometers of coastline and are an important source of income and food for a rapidly growing population of over 28 million people living along the coast. Fisheries’ income totals about $230 million, while revenues from tourism are over $12 billion per year.
While the Gulf of Aqaba could potentially be one of the planet’s largest marine refuges from climate change, this unique portion of the Red Sea’s reef will survive and flourish only if serious regional environmental challenges are addressed. In a study just published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Sciences, an international group of researchers outlined these challenges and proposed a number of necessary measures they said must be immediately implemented to protect the reef from increasing local threats.
The study was led by Dr. Karine Kleinhaus of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and co-authored by Prof. Maoz Fine of the Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv). Also involved were scientists who have studied the Red Sea’s corals while based in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, the US and Switzerland. The Swiss ambassador to Israel and a Palestinian-American philanthropist also contributed to the article.
The collaboration of these co-authors, despite regional political tensions, underscores the importance of this call for action.
The Red Sea’s coral reefs supply food and a source of livelihood to a rapidly growing population of over 28 million people living along its coastline and are a uniquely rich potential source of new medicines. But as towns and cities continue to expand along the Red Sea, they generate substantial local pressure on its reefs. Some portions of the reef have already been heavily damaged by uncontrolled tourism, human population expansion, overfishing and coastal development that has led to pollution and a decline in the quality of coastal water.
Despite existing environmental stressors and newly emerging threats, there are now no coordinated management efforts or scientific research that encompass the whole Red Sea reef complex.
The researchers insist that the most urgent goal is to advance immediate protection of the Gulf of Aqaba as a World Heritage Site as part of an initiative involving Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Ideally, scientists, conservationists and policy makers should strongly demand that UNESCO recognize the Red Sea’s entire coral reef as a Marine World Heritage Site. Regional scientists and governments should work together to implement transnational research, monitoring and conservation efforts and seek UN support for a long-term scientific monitoring program, the authors wrote. Considering political realities, they declare that regional collaboration can be effectively facilitated by the Transnational Red Sea Center, a neutral organization established in March 2019 and is based at the Swiss Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
The researchers also called for full regional cooperation under the directive of high levels of government; informing governments of the monetary value and vast medicinal potential of the reef to each nation; long-term regional monitoring of the threat to the reefs from new coastal development and the accompanying population expansion; and sustainable development of the Red Sea coastline.
Threats to the Red Sea’s reef – in its entirety and to the uniquely resilient northernmost segment – are escalating “and we will need to work together to preserve them despite the many political and practical challenges. Otherwise, we will have to explain to future generations that we stood by as our generation destroyed one of the last reefs standing,” the authors concluded.