Achieving regional cooperation between countries such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia presents unique challenges, but the scientific community is ready to do its part.

The time to save the Red Sea corals is now, and the opportunity offered is unique: preserving a reef that, contrary to those in other parts of the world, has proven to be incredibly resistant to the rise of ocean temperatures. For this reason, a group of Israeli, Arab and international scientists published a paper in Frontiers in Marine Science last week to launch a call for action to the regional governments and the international community.

Scientists estimate that from 70% to 90% of all coral reefs will disappear by mid-century, primarily as a result of climate change and pollution. As coauthor of the study, Dr. Karine Kleinhaus of Stony Brook University in New York told The Jerusalem Post that over half the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is already damaged, and signs of a new bleaching have emerged in the past few days.

“Although pollution and other factors play a role, the main problem of the Great Barrier Reef is represented by rise of water temperature. In the Gulf of Aqaba we are so lucky to have corals that can survive and even do well in the kind of abnormal temperature changes that are now killing most of the corals around the globe,” Kleinhaus explained.

“What does threaten the reef in the gulf are factors that we can control at a regional level – for example, sewage pollution, what’s left out by desalination plants and other forms of pollution that can disrupt coral reproduction,” she added. “We are really talking of one of the very few areas in the world that has the luxury to still be able to protect their reefs locally, as opposed to what is needed to tackle climate change.”
Achieving regional cooperation between countries such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia presents its unique set of challenges, but the scientific community is ready to do its part.

“The authors of the paper are either originally from, or still working from, or have studied the coral while based in, either Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan or Egypt,” Kleinhaus said. “The coral doesn’t recognize political boundaries. We really need to do a good job to collaborate on scientific research on what’s happening to the coral and to conserve it.”
A Red Sea Transnational Research Center was established in June in the Swiss city of Bern, initiated by Prof. Maoz Fine of Bar-Ilan University, a coauthor of the study. The center includes partners from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti.

Swiss Ambassador to Israel Jean-Daniel Ruch was also a coauthor of the study, demonstrating the interest in the issue from the European country and other international actors, Kleinhaus emphasized.
However, the researchers highlighted in the paper that what is necessary now is for the regional governments to step up and offer the scientists their support.

“Growing formal or informal political support with diplomatic efforts is one of the most pressing issues. Even before devoting resources, governments need to back official collaboration between scientists from the different countries involved. Without this legitimization, working together becomes very difficult,” Kleinhaus told the Post.
“I would say that the most urgent thing is to advance official protection of the Gulf of Aqaba as a World Heritage Site, which would bring diplomatic support, attention and funding,” she added.

The scholar pointed out that contrary to what some people might believe, the matter of saving the corals is not only an issue of interest for scientists and tourists.

“Globally speaking, 25% of all marine species spend part or all their life cycles in reef. If we lose the corals, which is what is already happening, there will be dramatic decrease in fish and other marine population around the world. For the Red Sea specifically, the reef is a source of food and income for 28 million people who live on its shores, with $230 million of revenues from fishery and $12 billion from tourism, a very significant amount considering that a large part of the population in the region is economically challenged,” she said.

Moreover, reefs are currently being rediscovered as a treasure trove of potential sources of new medications.
“The Red Sea reef in particular has a lot of species that are found only there. All these bacteria and organisms living on the reef are in chemical warfare with each other all the time, fighting for space, food and more, and they developed very unique chemicals that we are only now beginning to explore, harvest and test,” Kleinhaus explained, pointing out that new drugs to fight diseases such as cancer and HIV have already been developed from substances originating in the reefs.
“If we don’t preserve the corals, we risk losing this toolbox before we even began to take advantage of it,” she concluded.