Israel rushes to protect marine life as Mediterranean heats up

By ILAN BENZION
Associated press

ROSH HANIKRA MARINE RESERVE, Israel (AP) — Between the cliffs and rocks of Israel’s submerged prehistoric coast, a Mediterranean ecosystem comes to life.

Giant groupers bloom among the rocks, a psychedelic purple nudibranch sea slug clings to an outcrop and a pair of stingrays skate along the untouched sandy bottom.

Israel is moving forward with a plan to protect sections of its 118-mile coastline, a move that experts say is crucial to maintaining biodiversity and protecting humanity’s ecosystems. Rosh Hanikra, just south of the Lebanese border, is the centerpiece of this effort, providing what scientists believe is a plan to save seas ravaged by pollution, overfishing and climate change.

Climate change, invasive species and explosive human activity are threatening what remains of the severely impacted ecosystems of the eastern Mediterranean. Scientists warn that without protection, the remaining marine ecosystems will be devastated.

But there is a glimmer of hope. In recent years, Israel has taken steps to better protect critical habitats along its Mediterranean coast, such as the Rosh Hanikra Marine Reserve, and researchers say key species have rebounded even after just a few years of protection.

“If we don’t maintain the resilience and functionality of the ocean, it will collapse,” said Ruth Yahel, marine ecologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Conservationists say the best way to do this is to create areas where human impact is reduced.

Last month, an Associated Press team joined park rangers diving beneath the waves off Rosh Hanikra, which Yahel calls “the crown jewel” of Israel’s marine protected areas, where commercial fishing, drilling and sewage runoff are prohibited. An underwater canyon and sloping hills – remnants of the Mediterranean coastline submerged by rising seas at the end of the last Ice Age – provide oases for underwater life to gain a foothold.

Since 2019, Israel has increased these protected areas from around 0.3% of its coastal waters to around 4%. About another 4.5% is for protection.

Although these measures fall short of the international goal of 10% by 2020 and broader global efforts to protect marine life have failed, it shows that Israel has begun to take the issue more seriously.

Last year, Israel joined US President Joe Biden’s 30 by 30 initiative to “conserve 30% of our land and water by 2030”. About 24% of Israel’s land area is now designated as nature reserves, along with just over 2% of its total maritime territory, including its exclusive economic zone which stretches some 200 kilometers beyond its territorial waters. This summer, the government declared a 175-square-mile (450-square-kilometer) fishhook-shaped protected area that harbors a deep-sea ecosystem tens of kilometers off the coast of Tel Aviv outside its waters. territorial.

These protected areas are not just lines on a map. Marine rangers patrol them along Israel’s Mediterranean coast and “protect an ecosystem that is supposed to be less disturbed by humanity”, said Eyal Miller, one of the rangers.

But this ambitious goal faces major obstacles due to Israel’s rapid population growth, limited available land, offshore gas development, commercial fishing and shipping, and military use. .

Tamar Zandberg, the country’s outgoing environmental protection minister, said a major challenge is Israel’s lack of a comprehensive government strategy regarding the Mediterranean.

“It’s a very sensitive ecosystem that can very easily turn from a solution to a problem if we don’t conserve it,” she said, expressing concern that environmental issues have become politicized and the new Israeli government abandons them.

The Israeli government has been criticized for its climate inaction. Dov Khenin, head of the Israel Climate Forum, recently summed up a 2021 state monitoring report on Israel’s climate policies as “setting low targets and failing to meet them”. Just 8.2% of Israel’s energy was produced from renewable resources in 2021, with the bulk of production coming from newly tapped natural gas reserves off its Mediterranean coastline, the Authority said. electricity.

The Middle East as a whole is expected to be heavily affected by rising global temperatures, and the Eastern Mediterranean is no exception. It is warming faster than most other water bodies in the world, endangering its already badly damaged ecosystems.

“We are like the canary in the coal mine for what could happen in the West and North as the climate continues to change and the water continues to warm,” said Gil Rilov, marine biologist at the Israel Institute for Oceanographic and Limnological Research.

Israel’s coastal waters are home to dozens of invasive species, from poisonous lionfish and algae-marauding rabbitfish to huge swarms of jellyfish, many of which originated in tropical waters and have migrated to the Mediterranean through the channel from Suez.

“It’s a complexity of conditions that the marine reserve alleviates by providing additional protection from human activity,” said Yahel of the parks authority.

Yahel and her colleagues have conducted biomass surveys every two years since 2015 to assess the effectiveness of protected areas. She says the zones have shown their effectiveness.

Algae, sponges and other invertebrates all thrive in the reserves, and commercial fish species like groupers have three times the biomass of those in unprotected waters. They’re bigger, there are more of them, and as predators at the top of the food chain, that’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem, she said.

Not everyone is happy with the growth of Israel’s maritime protected areas, especially the dwindling number of commercial fishermen. Israel severely tightened regulations on its fishing industry in 2016, including a ban on fishing during the spring spawning season and the use of bottom trawlers that destroy seabed habitats.

Nir Froyman, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the agriculture ministry, said the measures were aimed at ensuring long-term sustainability.

But many fishermen see it as another measure taken by the government to reduce their livelihoods.

“It is forbidden to fish, but it is allowed to lay infrastructure for gas platforms and for tankers and polluters to enter marine reserves,” said Sami Ali, spokesman for the Fishermen’s Union. of Israel. “There is an inherent contradiction here.”

His organization represents Israel’s 900 commercial fishermen, including those in the village of Jisr al-Zarka, 33 kilometers south of Haifa, where a dozen small boats raced offshore as a giant gas rig profiled.

Ali denounced what he called hypocrisy, saying the environmental damage caused by fishermen is a drop in the ocean “compared to these polluting monstrosities”, pointing the finger at the gas rig.

“The truth is that we have overexploited our oceans,” Yahel said, looking at the waves at Rosh Hanikra. “If we don’t allocate large parts of the area to protect it, we will lose all the wonderful ecosystem of the sea.”

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Associated Press writer Sam McNeil contributed.

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