The new center located in Bern, Switzerland, will study the Red Sea corals’ resistance to both global and local threats
Zafrir Rinat | Jun. 6, 2019 | 9:42 AM

Israeli researchers have joined a cooperative regional venture aimed at saving the corals in the Red Sea.

The venture will be led by a research center that recently opened in the Swiss city of Bern. It will be staffed by researchers from all the countries bordering the Red Sea, including Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

Since some of the countries involved have no diplomatic relations with Israel, the cooperative research will be conducted via a neutral mediator, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, known by its French initials EPFL.

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The Israeli team will be led by Prof. Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat. Other cooperating institutes include the University of Jordan’s faculty of marine sciences in Aqaba and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

The new center will study the Red Sea corals’ resistance to both global and local threats. It will have specialists in a variety of fields, including oceanography, biology, genetics, ecology and geology.

Corals worldwide have been endangered by global warming, pollution, illegal fishing and changes in the sea. The center will therefore study the effects of variables such as agriculture, urbanization, illegal fishing and industrial waste on Red Sea corals.

So far, corals in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba have proven resistant to climate change, even as corals elsewhere in the world are disappearing.

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A paper published recently in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that these corals and their offspring have been able to withstand rising sea temperatures. The study was conducted by Fine’s laboratory at Bar-Ilan in conjunction with researchers from EPFL.

What this means is that the world might have a reserve of healthy corals that could serve to replenish dying coral stocks in other places that haven’t proved resistant to climate change.

The new center was established because despite the high resistance shown by Red Sea corals, they still face many threats due to human activity. One is Saudi Arabia’s plan to build a huge new city on the Red Sea coast opposite the Sinai Peninsula.

That plan calls for an urban area sprawling over 450 kilometers, which would create an enormous amount of waste and require infrastructure such as desalination plants. All this could pose a much more serious threat to the corals than they have faced hitherto.

“The new center is supposed to assist in research activity and monitoring of the corals’ situation,” Fine said. “The Swiss will help collect data from the different countries and assess its quality. In addition, the center will publish invitations to do research. We hope this coordination and cooperation will help deal with the threats.”

Dr. Anders Meibom of EPFL also highlighted the project’s political dimension. “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 also other countries worldwide,” he said. “And all this is happening despite the complex political situation on shore.”

Israel forms rare partnership with Arab nations to protect Red Sea corals JERUSALEM POST
Israel will partner with neighboring Red Sea countries, including Saudi Arabia and Sudan, to establish a research center for the study, monitoring and protection of coral reef ecosystems.
Under the mediation of a neutral third-party, Israel will partner with neighboring Red Sea countries – including Saudi Arabia and Sudan – to establish a research center for the study, monitoring and protection of coral reef ecosystems.

The Red Sea Transnational Research Center in the Swiss city of Bern – initiated by Prof. Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University’s Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences – will include partners from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti. Facilitating partnerships between stakeholders without diplomatic relations, the center will be led by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

Coral reefs, a critically important home to millions of marine species, are threatened and dying as a result of global climate change and more local factors, including pollution, over-fishing and physical destruction. Recent studies have shown that coral reefs in the Red Sea are extremely resistant to stress induced by global warming and rising seawater temperatures.

Researchers have demonstrated that Red Sea corals, including in the Gulf of Aqaba, are the most likely to survive due to their evolution in geological and environmental settings that are unique to the region since the last Ice Age. The corals are still threatened, however, by fish-farming, agricultural run-off, industrial and urban waste discharge and future seawater desalination activities.

According to these researchers, however, these threats can be best overcome through knowledge-sharing and regional coordination through the establishment of the Red Sea Transnational Research Center. The center was inaugurated in March by Ignazio Cassis, head of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

“The relatively narrow sea is surrounded by countries and people who are directly dependent on the well-being of the coral reefs,” said Prof. Fine.

“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. Our lab at Bar-Ilan University and the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat is focused on understanding resilience and how local disturbances adversely affect this unique resilience to global change.”

The center will bring together scientists from each country and from a wide range of disciplines, including oceanography, biology, genetics, ecology, geology, nature conservancy and civil and environmental engineering.

It aims to monitor and protect Red Sea coral reefs by studying their health and biodiversity, and researching the impact of human activity along the shores of the Red Sea, such as agriculture, urbanization, coastal infrastructure, fishing and industrialization. The findings will supply policy-makers with scientific analyses for decision-making regarding societal development and environmental protection.

New monitoring stations will be established under the initiative, in addition to making use of existing research infrastructures, including the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, Jordan’s Marine Science Station in the Gulf of Aqaba and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.