Wildcats, birds and frogs. Hyenas. Maybe (shh) even otters are staging a comeback as floundering fish farms are given back to nature

Ruth Schuster. Oct 25, 2022

“Draining the swamp” has been a vast source of pride for Zionists. The effort began in the 19th century by planting eucalyptus trees – though the main thrust began in the early 1950s with the draining of Lake Hula. The purpose was to create farmland. 

With hindsight, it was ill-considered. Over 170 square kilometers (66 square miles) of wetland were eliminated and today only about 10 square kilometers remain. Now a long-envisioned project is coming to life, complete with a new soubriquet: Don’t say “reflooding the swamp,” a government project that went nowhere; say “rewilding.” 

The rewilding project spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, dubbed “Startup Nature,” is starting by reconverting failing fish farms floundering in Israel’s lowlands back to wetlands to restore lost habitats. A pilot in Kfar Ruppin that began in March 2021 has already been attracting animals that once thrived in the area, including hyenas, the Israeli “jungle cat,” the Levant water frog and more, and lots of birds, says Jay Shofet, director of development at the SPNI and a keen advocate for the rewilding effort. 

jungle cat
The jungle cat, aka swamp cat.Credit: Liron Shapira/SPNI

Startup Nature aspires to restore 20 percent of all Israel’s lost marshland (30 percent, in their dreams). The holy grail of Israeli rewilding for Shofet is to revive the otter. Perhaps about 50 of them hang on, though none are foolish enough to be seen. The usual evidence of their survival is scats in their communal terrestrial toilets. No otter has been observed squatting at Ruppin so far, but one can always hope.

The jungle cat – known in Hebrew as the swamp cat (khatool bitzot) – also seems to be picking up in Ruppin, going by spoor, not observations, says SPNI ornithologist Nadav Israeli. 

It’s a win-win: The plants, the animals, the biodiversity and all humankind all win, except for fish farmers who have so far weathered the industry’s downturn in Israel and wish to continue surviving it without losing their scaly “crops” to the billions of birds migrating yearly over Israel.

Farmers who join the project get compensated for their land, it bears noting. “They will also get to live adjacent to a beautiful nature reserve,” Shofet points out. 

Jay Shofet

Israel is a migration corridor for birds, and a key aspiration of the rewilders is to give these fliers between Africa and Eurasia a place to rest and have a meal. In fact, some fish farmers have made strides to coexist with transient avians by feeding them, creating restaurants for pelicans and the like, hoping they leave the ponds be. Fortunately, it turns out, cranes like peanuts while pelicans – a bane of the fish farmers – learn about feeding points far from the pools, Israeli says.

He stresses that Startup Nature is a long-term project, not a drama where the masses happily watch ultra-rare animals regain a footing over some rewilding app. Patience will be a virtue. 

Kfar Ruppin in central Israel. The first place to turn its fish farms into wetland.Credit: Omri Salner/SPNI
Bee eater
The bee-eater bird.Credit: Avner Rinot /SPNI

The road to hell 

It has been argued – for instance, in the new book “An Inconvenient Apocalypse” – that the road to anthropogenically induced planetary perdition began with the Neolithic Revolution some 10,000 years ago, aka the invention of agriculture. It enabled us to grow food, then surplus food, leading to storage and then to trade. Presto, modern civilization. The inventions of agriculture, and more recently fertilizer, were key drivers of the overpopulation suffocating our planetary habitat. 

Indeed, the original purpose of draining Israel’s marshlands was to create more farmland. It is said the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The upshot: “Ninety to 95 percent of Israel’s wetlands have been destroyed, diverted, dried up and dammed,” Shofet says.

It was an ecological tragedy for the indigenous wildlife and plants, and the ex-swampland was sub-ideal for farming anyway because under the marsh lies peat, which is acidic, SPNI ecologist Yoav Perlman says. 

Israeli Hyena
A hyena in Jerusalem.Credit: Johnathan Merav / SPNI

In defense of fish farming, Perlman qualifies that some pools established in the former wetlands did enable some sort of coexistence with birds and animals; not compensation for their lost homes, but what he calls “a reasonable substitution.” However, his colleague Israeli notes that the fish pools were managed to be good for farming fish, not for nature. 

So far, the SPNI has exactly two fish farmers on board: at Kfar Ruppin, where the pilot has begun, and at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, where works ahead of reflooding have started. But restoring 20 percent of Israel’s vanished wetlands means many more must join the effort. In any case, the aspiration isn’t just to convert collapsing fish ponds back to marsh but to take rewilding to the next level.

Various government authorities, including the Nature and Parks Authority (which was behind that aborted state effort a decade ago), are on board, the SPNI says. To date, the government has provided $4 million in funding. The SPNI is also pushing for a state restoration policy, following the lead of the European Union and United States. 

Wetland dream: A duck in the wild.Credit: Avner Rinot/SPNI

Startup Nature joins a global rewilding trend – a facet of the hope that, given an inch, nature will fix itself by a mile. “This is the decade of ecological restoration at the United Nations,” Shofet points out, though the UN itself has pointed out that climate change is forecast to worsen aridification and desertification in North Africa and the Middle East, which bodes ill for the local wetlands. 

But giving up and doing nothing won’t achieve much and, meanwhile, the SPNI aspires to restore wetlands for the sake of the greater good and that of the half-billion birds migrating over Israel each year.

“We are a bottleneck of bird migration and are responsible for keeping these birds healthy and happy,” Shofet says. They need more than applause from balconies: they need water and food, and a place to rest their weary wings. 

Black-crowned night heron
Tne black-crowned night heron.Credit: Avner Rinot/SPNI

The problem with fish

Why target fish farms for rewilding? Why would any of the farmers, even ones plagued by pelicans, abandon long-term plans in favor of the project? It isn’t just because they miss the song of the nightingale, which will nest here if it can. 

We shall ignore aspects of fish suffering and rights, the ecology and parasites in the captive fish. The main issue is that Israel’s mainstream fish-farming industry is turning unprofitable, Shofet explains. 

One problem is competition from foreign fish farms, where costs are lower: import reforms mean many fish are imported ($25 million worth in 2020). 

Secondly, many of these ponds were naturally placed where freshwater is available – natural former wetlands – but Mother Nature’s water filling the ponds isn’t free. All water in Israel, even rainwater, belongs to the government, Shofet notes, and its price is rising. 

Thirdly, as climate change warms Israel, the types of fish we can “grow” may diminish. And fourthly, and crucially, wetlands converted to fish farms are zoned for agriculture, so the kibbutzim can’t hawk the land for housing or industrial construction. In any case, Shofet says, Israel has a terrific density problem and suburban sprawl just makes things worse. Even if one loves the croak of frog, song of jackal or shriek of prey, the last place we need to put homes is wetlands. 

Yoav Perlman
Yoav Perlman.Credit: James Lowen

So the landowners are stuck with land that isn’t producing. And that, Perlman explains, is where the project attracts them: leasing the land from them. 

Some kibbutzim are covering their flopping fish pools with floating solar panels, including at Ma’agan Michael, which is therefore aspiring both to rewild and produce renewable energy too. But then, it has a lot of fish pools. 

The SPNI by and large thinks Israel should start with building solar systems on roofs before covering over wetlands where otters could frisk. Perlman points out that solar panels are very nice, but wetlands are carbon sinks, actually absorbing carbon from the air. They can have a local cooling effect, somewhat mitigating the global creep in heating, and can help prevent catastrophic flooding – all key in this era of destabilized climate. 

A butterfly in Israel.Credit: Avner Rinot/SPNI

The problem with Israel is what?

How would aridifying and periodically drought-wracked Israel even have the water resources to restore any wetlands, let alone 20 percent? 

“We have a surplus of water,” claims Shofet, based on the massive desalination industry and also because Israel massively recycles wastewater for agriculture. “Israel has no water problem. It has an energy problem,” he sums up. Desalination is hugely energy expensive. Anyway, the bottom line is that desalination-heavy Israel can “afford” to let its water go rather than continue to dam, divert it and exploit it. 

Could restoring the marshland also restore malaria? Shofet snorts. The narrative that the swamps were drained and malaria was vanquished was branding, not reality, he says. In any case, water flows in healthy swamps, it doesn’t just sit there stagnating and incubating mosquito larvae. 

Indeed, the fish ponds have not been outed as mosquito incubators. Au contraire: earlier this year, when Kfar Ruppin was suffering from mosquito infestation, experts found the culprit to be not fish farms or nascent wetland but leaking pipes creating standing water in date groves. 

yellow breasted chat
A yellow-breasted chat.Credit: Avner Rinot.SPNI

It bears adding that with climate change, some insects have been spreading to areas previously too chilly for them, but the weather isn’t why anopheles left Israel

How much investment is there in returning a fish farm to nature? Oy. It’s not just catching all the fish and waiting for rain. These pools are in wetland but are not natural: The project has to remove industrial machinery and hazards – from aeration devices to pumps, cables, nets and fences, and so on. Around it, native plants are reintroduced, and water has to be diverted back. “We didn’t restock with fish: they came with the stream,” Shofet says. 

The result is wetland that fluctuates seasonally, as wetlands naturally do in Israel: full in winter and low in summer. Though in this case, their fluctuation involves imitating nature’s vagaries by opening and closing a dam. 

“Startup Nature rewilding efforts are dependent on partnerships with land owners, local communities, relevant government agencies, other NGOs, etc.,” Perlman says. “Importantly, the benefits of Statup Nature rewilding actions to local communities must be amplified and displayed. This will establish the win-win scenario and secure long-term commitments of all partners,” he adds. 

Startup Nature is also creating havens for humans: birding hides, trails, and so on; bringing school groups to show the kiddies animals not on the plate. A joint project is taking shape with Jordan, which also has marshland converted to farmland. A joint rewilding project could include Israel (or third-party nations) paying to lease the rewilded land in Jordan in perpetuity, Shofet explains.

maagan michael
The fish farm at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael in northern Israel. Returning to nature this December.Credit: Yuval Dax/SPNI

One snag is climate change, which is hitting the Middle East (and poles) really hard. Asked how Startup Nature relates to climate change, Shofet says their model advocates for nature-based solutions, emphasizing the link between climate change and the global biodiversity crisis, realizing that climate change mitigation is dependent on healthy, biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Before inventing gadgets to economize on electricity, one should simply use less electricity, he suggests. Organic, innit. Before sequestering carbon, stop using it. Keep it in the ground

This is a project in its infancy, with one pilot, plans to launch the Ma’agan Michael coastal wetland in December, and fond hopes that fish farmers will stop carping and come on board. 

Realistically, the emissions of the 9 million Israelis out of the 8 billion people on the planet aren’t significant; our contribution to global warming isn’t huge from that perspective, but our biodiversity importance is. Israeli innovation can help resolve the issues, Shofet says. So can spearheading a regional rewilding drive. There don’t appear to be many fans of bringing back the crocodile, but hello, swamphens.