ROSH HANIKRA SEA RESERVE, Israel (AP) – Among the cliffs and cliffs of Israel’s submerged prehistoric coast, a Mediterranean ecosystem is coming to life.
Giant groupers thrive among the rocks, a psychedelic purple nudibranch snail clings to a spur, and a pair of stingrays skate along the undisturbed sandy bottom.
Israel is pursuing a plan to protect sections of its 118-mile coastline, a measure experts say is critical to maintaining biodiversity and protecting ecosystems from humanity. Rosh Hanikra, just south of the Lebanese border, is the centerpiece of this effort, providing what scientists believe may be a project 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 affected ecosystems of the eastern Mediterranean. Scientists warn it unprotectedthe 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 reappeared even after a few years of protection.
“If we don’t maintain the resilience and functionality of the ocean, it will collapse,” said Ruth Yahel, a marine ecologist at the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority. Conservationists say the best way to do this is to create zones where human impact is reduced.
Last month, an Associated Press team joined park rangers who dived under the waves off Rosh Hanikra, which Yahel calls the “crown jewel” of Israel’s marine protected areas, where commercial fishing, drilling and outflow of wastewater is prohibited. An underwater canyon and sloping hills – vestiges of the Mediterranean coast submerged by sea rise at the end of the last ice age – provide oases for underwater life to take hold.
Since 2019, Israel has increased these protected areas from about 0.3% of its coastal waters to about 4%. Another about 4.5% is earmarked for protection.
While such measures fall short of the international target of 10% by 2020, and broader global efforts to protect marine life have falteredit shows that Israel has begun to take the matter more seriously.
Last year, Israel signed 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 a nature reserve, along with just over 2% of its total maritime territory, including its Exclusive Economic Zone which extends some 200 kilometers beyond its territorial waters. This summer, the government declared a 450-square-kilometer fishing hook-shaped protected area that hosts a deep-sea ecosystem several tens of miles off the coast of Tel Aviv outside its territorial waters.
These protected areas aren’t just lines on a map. Marine rangers patrol them along Israel’s Mediterranean coast and “protect an ecosystem that should be less disturbed by humanity,” said Eyal Miller, one of the rangers.
But that ambitious goal faces major obstacles due to Israel’s rapidly growing population, limited land availability, offshore gas exploitation.fishing and commercial shipping and military use.
Tamar Zandberg, the country’s outgoing environmental protection minister, said one of the main challenges is Israel’s lack of a comprehensive government strategy regarding the Mediterranean.
“This is a very sensitive ecosystem that can change very easily from a solution to a problem if we don’t keep it,” he said, expressing concern that environmental issues have become politicized and that the incoming government of Israel may abandon them.
The Israeli government has faced criticism for its climate inaction. Dov Khenin, head of the Israel Climate Forum, recently summarized a 2021 state watchdog report on Israel’s climate policies as “setting low goals and not achieving them.” Only 8.2% of Israel’s energy was produced from renewable resources in 2021, with the majority of production coming from newly exploited natural gas reserves off the Mediterranean coast, the Energy Authority said. electric.
The Middle East as a whole is expected to be severely affected by rising global temperatures, and the Eastern Mediterranean is no exception. It is warming up faster than most other water bodies around the world, putting its already severely mistreated ecosystems at risk.
“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 Oceanographic Research Institute and limnology of Israel.
Israeli coastal waters are home to dozens of invasive species, from poisonous lionfish and algae-predatory rabbitfish to huge swarms of jellyfish, many of which originated in tropical waters and migrated to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal.
“It is a complexity of conditions that the marine reserve mitigates by providing additional protection from human activity,” said Yahel of the parks authority.
Yahel and his colleagues have conducted biomass surveys every two years since 2015 to assess the effectiveness of protected areas. He says the zones have shown their effectiveness.
Algae, sponges and other invertebrates are proliferating in reserves, and commercial fish species such as groupers have three times the biomass of unprotected waters. They’re bigger, there are more of them, and as predators at the top of the food chain it’s a sign of a healthy ecosystem, she said.
Not everyone is happy with Israel’s growing marine protected areas, especially the dwindling number of commercial fishermen. Israel severely tightened regulations on its fishing industry in 2016, including banning fishing during the spring spawning season and the use of trawlers that destroy seabed habitats.
Nir Froyman, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the Ministry of Agriculture, said the measures aim to ensure long-term sustainability.
But many fishermen see it as another step by the government to reduce their livelihoods.
“It is forbidden to fish, but it is allowed to build infrastructure for gas drilling platforms and for the entry of oil and pollutant ships into marine reserves,” said Sami Ali, spokesman for Israel Fisherman’s Union. “There is an inherent contradiction here.”
His organization represents Israel’s 900 commercial fishermen, including those in the village of Jisr al-Zarka, 20 miles (33 kilometers) south of Haifa, where a dozen small boats floated offshore as a giant gas rig loomed.
Ali denounced what he called hypocrisy, saying the environmental damage caused by fishermen is a drop in the ocean “compared to those polluting monstrosities”, pointing to the gas platform.
“The truth is, we have overexploited our oceans,” said Yahel, looking over the waves at Rosh Hanikra. “If we don’t allocate large portions of the area to protect it, we will lose the entire wonderful ecosystem of the sea.”
Associated Press writer Sam McNeil contributed.
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