The solution to dying coral reefs may be lurking just under the surface of Red Sea waters.
Rabat – New studies reveal that Gulf of Aqaba coral reefs show resistance to climate change. The hard coral species may provide scientific insight to build reef resilience across the world’s oceans. The opportunity brings scientists from Israel and the Arab world together to address an environmental issue that transcends politics.
The Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (JREDS) released its first field guide to the Gulf of Aqaba’s hard corals in May. The guide reports detailed conditions of the world’s northernmost coral reefs, located in the narrow waters north of the Red Sea. The gulf, which is approximately 170 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide, is a marine biodiversity hotspot. It attracts divers from around the world and provides valuable ecosystem services.
The field guide reports 11 endemic species in the waters of Aqaba. Sixty-five percent of the 23 known endemic Red Sea coral species dwell in the Gulf of Aqaba. “Some of the reported species represent their first record in the northern Red Sea, which is a high value for Jordan indeed,” said Mohammad Tawaha, JREDS’ marine conservation programme manager.
Coral reefs survived the dinosaurs’ extinction and multiple ice ages. In recent decades, about half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost. The remainder face vital threats such as overfishing, pollution, climate change, and predatory species.
Preserving reefs, the world’s most complex ecosystems, protects the valuable services they provide. Research shows that about 500 million people worldwide depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods, directly or indirectly. Global reefs’ economic benefits are approximately $30 billion annually. This includes fisheries, coastal protection, and tourism.
Reefs also regulate local climate, protect against extreme weather events, and absorb high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ocean.
Aqaba’s corals provide hope for reefs. The species show a unique resilience to climate change threats like rising ocean temperatures and acidification. Scientists recently studied these species under stressful conditions mimicking future climate change conditions, and the corals proved hardy. This gives hope that reseeding Aqaba’s corals can protect dying reefs in the Red Sea and potentially across the world.
“There are techniques—we can propagate corals,” Dr. Fuad Al-Horani, University of Jordan professor of coral biology and ecology, explained. “We can climatise them to conditions available to them in the other seas. So, once we grow them, we can send them abroad where they can grow them into deteriorated areas or damaged reef areas.”
Corals inspire unlikely cooperation
The discoveries spurred a landmark alliance. Scientists from contentious countries are coming together to protect reefs. Researchers from Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen will join forces on an environmental issue that transcends politics. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) will serve as a mediator to ensure scientific cooperation.
Their work is critical to the interests of all involved parties: “The relatively narrow sea is surrounded by countries and people who are directly dependent on the well-being of the coral reefs. At the same time, the proximity of urban areas and tourism to the reef may inflict damage to it if we aren’t wise enough to coordinate our actions when using this asset,” Maox Fine of Bar-Ilan University recently commented.
Anders Meibom of EPFL explained the project’s political nature: “Try to imagine a ship flying a Swiss flag sailing on the Red Sea, with scientific workers and visitors from all the countries of the region … And all this is happening despite the complex political situation on shore.”
The Red Sea Transnational Research Center opened in March. Its researchers will study Red Sea corals, especially from the Gulf of Aqaba. They will examine why these corals are so resistant to climate change and how the species can help combat reef degradation in the Red Sea and across the world’s oceans. Most importantly, they will study how to protect them.
These corals may be climate change resistant, but they face myriad other threats. Human-caused threats include fish-farming, agricultural runoff, pollution, desalination, coral harvesting, and urbanization.
“Here in Aqaba, our biggest problem is us affecting the marine environment as humans,” eco-diver Abdullah Al Momany said. “I think the government needs to enforce the law, do more awareness programmes, and do more effort in protecting the marine life.”
Environmental threats also exist, including natural predators, disease, and extreme low tides.
Well-deserved focus for SDG 14
The scientific discoveries and regional alliance come at a time when development actors deprioritize ocean health. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Agenda 2030, are a global roadmap to a prosperous future for all.
Goal #14 focuses on ocean life: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”
Oceans are critical to livelihoods and prosperity, especially in many emerging economies. Despite their importance, leaders across sectors in the developing world consistently ranked SDG 14 as a least important development priority, according to a study by AidData Research Center at the College of William and Mary. Only 5.4% of respondents ranked SDG 14 within their top six prioritized SDGs.
Oceans may not hold the development spotlight, but the new discoveries show great potential to improve prosperity via the marine world. JREDS Executive Director Ehab Eid hopes that Jordan’s reef studies will bring the issue into the public spotlight.
The fact that Israel and several Arab states agreed to cooperate on the problem shows its vital importance. The unlikely alliance amidst remarkable tensions could bring a greater public focus to the challenges facing life below water.
In the meantime, problems underwater remain largely underappreciated within the development community.