Red Sea may become Dead Sea, environmental activists caution

Without better protection and planning, some environmentalists and political leaders fear the Red Sea may soon become the Dead Sea.

Knesset member Nehama Ronen warns that "if we don't act now, it will be too late. The Gulf of Eilat is at risk of an ecological catastrophe and this is not 'just' an environmental issue. If the situation in the Red Sea worsens, it could threaten the entire tourism industry in Eilat."

A chief threat, according to Ronen and environmentalists, comes from an intensive fish-breeding industry in which thousands of fish are contained in huge net cages in the sea, producing tons of excrement, rotting food and other nutrients. Another culprit, they say, is a phosphate port that is a source of clouds of chemical dust, much of which settles on the coral reefs and seabed, as well as posing a human health hazard.

Ronen, a former chairwoman of Zalul, a nonprofit organization aimed at saving the Red Sea, hopes to use her Knesset position to help promote legislation on environmental issues.

Action must be taken swiftly, says Micky Lipschitz, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "The ecosystem in the Gulf of Eilat is very delicate," he warns. "If we are not careful, within less than five years we will find that instead of the Red Sea, we are left with the Dead Sea II."

Ronen says that environmental damage is coming from several additional sources related to tourism. She cited construction of tourist facilities, pollution-emitting boats moored at the marina, and swimmers and divers who break off coral as souvenirs or by accident.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority head Aharon Vardi describes the coral reef in Eilat as "one of a kind. It is the northernmost coral reef in the world with many unique species, but over the past three decades it has deteriorated at an alarming rate.

"The situation is now extremely serious."

According to Vardi, in 1996, roughly 30 percent of the coral in the Eilat area was dead. By 2000, the situation was exactly the opposite, with 70 percent of the coral now dead. He also notes a "significant increase" in fish mortality among native Red Sea species, another sign of the serious damage to the local ecosystem.

Like Ronen and others, Vardi blames the commercial fish-farming enterprises as a major factor behind the deteriorating underwater environment.

"The fish cages cause, among other things, the continual enrichment of the water with nutrients which worsen the water quality and harm the coral reefs," he says. Vardi warns that the coral reefs are in danger of dying completely within a few years.

Together with Lipschitz, Vardi issued a plea for immediate steps to help save the marine life off Eilat.

"An ecological state of emergency should be declared in the Gulf of Eilat and the government must act to save it," he said. Among others who object to the continued fish farming at sea is Eilat Mayor Gabi Kadosh.

The fish-farming project began with the backing of the Agriculture Ministry on an experimental basis 13 years ago. The advantage to having the huge cages at sea, instead of in land-based artificial ponds, is that it saves having to constantly change the water and filter out waste. From an economic point of view, it made sense to the fish breeders.

The main impact of the fish cages, which produce 2,000 tons of fish a year, is refuse combined with waste generated by the fish. "The leftover rotting food and the fish excrement pollute the waters in quantities which can be compared to the constant flow of sewage from a town of 30,000 residents," says Lipschitz.

Ronen estimates that some 25 tons of waste products are emitted from the cages every month. Water around the cages "is filthy, sunlight can't reach the sea bed and this kills the corals and everything else dependent on photosynthesis," she explained. Polluting particles also sink and form a "carpet" of bacteria. This promotes algae growth.

In a vicious circle, the algae, in turn, also block out the sunlight and dirty the water, destroying the remaining coral and encouraging the growth of more algae.

Environmentalists also worry because the fish being bred in the cages are mainly bream and some sea bass — Mediterranean species not naturally found in the Red Sea. It is feared that fish that manage to escape could harm the local food chain and ecosystem.

Removing the fish-farming industry from the sea altogether is Ronen's first choice, but she says there are alternatives that could be considered, such as reducing the quantities of food given to the fish and relocating the cages further out to sea.

The issues — and possible solutions — are not new. Over the last decade, a chain of committees has investigated the fish-farming question.

An interminsterial committee was set up last year to investigate the subject. It decided to appoint an international team of experts to review the issue.

Ronni Dellal, director general of Ardag, one of the two Red Sea fish-farming companies, is convinced that a true study of the issues will show that it is tourism rather than fish farming that is damaging the reef. He notes that, before the company even began operating, a committee studied the subject and decided that the fish farms could be permitted.

"We always had the environment in mind," he says. "And from the start, in 1985, we were talking about quantities that were clearly not experimental. The site was carefully chosen at a distance from the coral reefs."

Today, Ardag and Dag Suf, the other Eilat-based, marine fish farming company, produce some 2,000 tons of fish a year, generating about $14 million to $16 million annually and employing some 200 people.

Dellal says his company is among the most advanced in this field in the world. "We imported the technology from Norway, considered a 'green' country. And sea-based fish farming of this type is accepted in many countries like Scotland, Chile and Mediterranean countries. We compete with them."

He insists that part of the reason for the campaign against the fisheries stems from the fact that his company occupies increasingly valuable real estate which is becoming ever more desirable for additional hotels. " When the truth is uncovered, it will be clear that it is not the fish farmers who are killing the reefs," he said.

The undeniable fact that there are many elements behind the current condition of the reefs is one of the reasons the pollution continues, according to Ronen.

"Since it is difficult to point an accusing finger at just one factor as the cause of the deteriorating situation, the result is that all the polluters pass responsibility on to each other. By the time someone accepts responsibility, it will be too late. There will be nothing left to save."