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Withstanding climate change, Jordan’s coral reefs struggle against human impact

By Mohammad Ghazal - Aug 29,2022 - Last updated at Aug 29,2022

Jordan’s stretch of coastline along the Red Sea is home to around 157 distinct types of coral in an uninterrupted stretch. Right: Scuba divers Seif Al Madanat and Beisan Al Sharif, founders of ProjectSea, pose for a photo beside a pile of trash collected from the sea (Photos courtesy of Abdullah Almomany and ProjectSea)

  • Aqaba reefs face substantial dangers of man-made variety, mainly overfishing, littering
  • Around 44% of coral species recorded in Red Sea only found along Jordanian coastline
  • Awareness, law enforcement key to discourage harmful practices, say experts
  • Work ongoing to put Aqaba marine reserve on UNESCO World Heritage list, says ASEZA
  • Aqaba's coral reefs give hope for other bleaching corals elsewhere

AMMAN — Like every morning of the last 30+ years, Abdullah Almomany dons his scuba gear and dives into Aqaba's crystal-clear, turquoise waters.  He is instantly encircled by a shoal of colourful, mesmerising fish and other aquatic species, all cast against a backdrop of vivacious, vibrant coral reefs.

As he approaches the fish, they rush to hide between the kaleidoscopic layers of Aqaba’s coral reefs. Though the shoal soon finds refuge amongst the coral, Aqaba’s reef as a whole is among the most threatened in the Red Sea.

The 42-year-old diving instructor witnessed Jordan’s Aqaba transform from a small fishing town with a population of 60,000 to a thriving tourist destination with over 203,000 residents. Almomany said that Aqaba’s reefs remain uniquely unaffected by the common culprits behind coral bleaching worldwide: Thermal stress and rising sea levels. However, Aqaba’s reefs are facing substantial dangers of the man-made variety, which have depleted the diversity of marine life and have harmed the coral in varying locations, according to experts.

“When I dive, there are plenty of lionfish, gold fish, parrot fish, butterfly fish and sea cucumbers… I used to see the Arabian angelfish, Picasso trigger fish, Napoleon wrasse fish, Pip fish, and Seahorse angelfish almost every day, but in the last 10 years, you are lucky if you spot them once or twice a year. These fish rely on coral reefs, which are the perfect habitat for them. When these are polluted by plastic cups or metal, they can die. More effective conservation is required to protect the corals, which are Jordan’s hidden treasures,” he said.

Coral reefs in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden cover 13,605 sq.km., or about 5.3 per cent of the total coral reef area in the world, according to data by Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. Reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba, located approximately 330km south of Amman, cover almost half of the city’s coastline, offering some 30 diving locations for exploration of the prismatic coral. Of Aqaba’s 27km coastline, 13km features coral reefs, according to the Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (JREDS).

On the coast of the Red Sea, there are 354 types of hard coral reefs. In spite of its relatively small size, Jordan’s stretch of coastline along the Red Sea is home to around 157 distinct types of coral in an uninterrupted stretch, including the stony-reef-building species known as scleractinians. 120 species of soft coral have been found there as well, some of which, such as the red and the black corals, are globally endangered,  said Mohammad Al Tawaha, acting executive director at the Royal Marine Conservation Society of Jordan (JREDS). Tawaha’s explanation to The Jordan Times cited the society’s first field guide on Aqaba’s hard corals, a study conducted along the coastline of the Gulf of Aqaba at depths of up to 30 metres below sea level.

There are around 506 species of fish in Aqaba, half of which are only able to survive in this particular 13km stretch of coral reefs, Tawaha continued, adding that 11 endemic species have been recorded in the Gulf of Aqaba alone, representing 65 per cent of the 23 known endemic coral species in the whole of the Red Sea. Around 44 per cent of the coral species recorded in the Red Sea are only found along the Jordanian coastline, but the percentage of endemic coral types is likely higher, according to JREDS.

According to the Sixth Status of Corals of the World: 2020 Report, compiled by experts from the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network and funded by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the Red Sea contains the most biologically diverse coral reef communities outside of Southeast Asia’s Coral Triangle. Though the Red Sea system shares many species with other reefs in the Indo-Pacific,  approximately 10 per cent of existing species are endemic to the Red Sea, making it one of the most valuable repositories of marine biodiversity in the world. 

 

‘Reefs of hope’ for other bleaching corals

Reports from the scientific community, including many by UN agencies, paint a gloomy picture of the state of coral reefs across the globe. However, scientists and researchers indicate that the reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba are currently healthy, and according to biodiversity conservation and protected areas specialist Ehab Eid, can serve as a rich genetic reserve to help other reefs across the world. Thanks to the unique nature of Aqaba’s location and specific characteristics of its coral, the direct impact of climate change ramifications has so far been deterred.  

“Aqaba’s coral reefs are continuous, and only a few metres from the beach, you start to see the reefs. The location of Aqaba and its ecosystem gives the coral reefs these unique characteristics. If we have the proper equipment, we will be able to find more reefs, reaching a depth of 80 metres,” Eid said.

Due to its complex biodiversity, the Red Sea has been designated as a World Wildlife Fund global 200 ecoregion, Eid said, adding that the reefs have the potential to be mostly isolated from the effects of climate change as a result of their seclusion within the Gulf.

Since 1950, half of the world’s coral reef systems have been destroyed at the hands of climate change and overfishing. Recovery may be possible, but it will require a concerted effort to protect reefs from overfishing and to ease the brunt of climate change effects, according to a University of British Columbia-led research paper published in the journal One Earth. 

UNDP’s Ecosystems and Biodiversity programme predicts a bleaker future for the world’s reefs, estimating that by the year 2050, more than 90 per cent of the world’s coral reefs will perish.  The Global Fund for Coral Reefs (GFCR), backed by UN agencies, said that coral reefs are in “grave peril”. Given that coral reefs support more than a quarter of all marine life, the consequences of their extinction could be catastrophic, according to GFCR.

By the end of the century, every coral reef in the world could bleach unless there are drastic reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) warned in its report, Projections of Future Coral Bleaching Conditions.

One of the most recent studies on the subject, published by UNESCO in April of this year, indicated that the world’s most beloved coral reefs could go extinct by the end of the century “unless we do more to make them resilient to our warming oceans”.

The Sixth Status of Corals of the World: 2020 Report collected data from more than 300 scientists from 73 countries over a span of 40 years, resulting in two million individual observations. It revealed that almost invariably, sharp declines in coral cover correspond with rapid increases in sea surface temperatures, suggesting an acute vulnerability to temperature spikes. The study found that this phenomenon will likely escalate as the planet continues to warm.

In 1997, when the first of the report’s data was collected, the estimated cover of hard coral in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region was 36.1 per cent on average. From 1997 to 2002, coral cover declined to 32.3 per cent as a consequence of a 1998 mass bleaching event that damaged one-third of reefs in the region. Over the next six years, coral cover had almost recovered to pre-1998 levels, reaching 35.3 per cent in 2008. Cover progressively declined over the following eight years, and was recorded at 30.9 per cent in 2016. As of 2019, average coral cover has begun its rebound from its 2016 level, reaching 34.3 per cent. “This increase in cover in the Red Sea area is much better than other places in the world,” Tawaha said.

The coral reefs of Aqaba are mainly in danger of anthropogenic damage, including overfishing, negligence of amateur fishermen, improper urban planning and solid waste littering.

“So far, there is no direct impact of climate change on the coral reefs, although over the past few years, there have been some minor flash floods. No bleaching in coral reefs was recorded in Aqaba due to rise in water temperatures for example. One of the major threats is human-related activities, including the removal of some big rocks in nearby valleys, as these rocks function as natural filters for flash floods in valleys,” Tawaha said.

 

Protected by Mother Nature 

Fuad Al Horani, professor of coral biology at the University of Jordan, said that Aqaba’s coral reefs are naturally protected due to their location and several unique characteristics.

“There is no evident impact of climate change on the coral reefs in Aqaba. For example, there is stability in salinity, water temperature, efficient mixing of the sea waters and many other factors, such as high visibility,” he told The Jordan Times.

Water temperature in Aqaba ranges from a minimum of 21°C to a maximum of 28°C, creating the perfect conditions for coral reefs to flourish, according to researchers and experts. These steady temperatures also make Aqaba a suitable diving location all year.

“The Red Sea is a semi-closed sea with a limited exchange of water. For the hot water that comes from tropical areas to increase the temperatures of Aqaba’s waters, it is mission impossible. The hot water coming from such areas has to go through the Bab Al Mandeb Strait and then Tiran Strait and then it has to go all the way up to Aqaba without decreasing in temperature to be able to have an impact on the coral reefs in Aqaba. This is impossible, as the Red Sea is very deep, in some areas reaching 2,000 metres, and water will lose its heat along this long journey. So, the reefs are naturally protected in this regard,” he said.

Efficient mixing of waters in Aqaba is another key factor that helps stabilise water temperatures.

“Mixing of water is very efficient in Aqaba. We have upwellings and downwellings that are very efficient and thus the horizontal and vertical mixing of water keeps water temperatures almost fixed and within range. This is rare, as it only happens in a few places in the world,” Horani added.

The water’s salinity and pH value [a measure of acidity] are also stable in Aqaba.

The Red Sea has no river tributaries pouring into it; no fresh water enters the sea. This means that the sea’s salinity remains unaffected and free of pollutants, nutrients, or sedimentation from rivers. There are also no major agricultural projects along the coastlines of the Red Sea that could pose harm in the case that flash floods washed fertilisers into the sea. This phenomenon can cause eutrophication, which is an excessive growth of algae that kills coral reefs. Luckily, there is no danger of that in the Red Sea, he said.

There is also no turbidity in the Red Sea. The water in Aqaba is crystal clear, providing the light necessary for coral reef photosynthesis, he said.

 

Reef conservation saves livelihood

Coral reefs exist in more than 100 countries and territories. While they cover only 0.2 per cent of the seafloor, they support at least 25 per cent of marine species, as well as support the safety, coastal protection, wellbeing and food and economic security of hundreds of millions of people, according to The Sixth Status of Corals of the World: 2020 Report. The report added that the value of goods and services provided by coral reefs is estimated at $2.7 trillion per year, including some $36 billion in coral reef tourism.

Coral reefs serve as important carbon sinks, as well as habitats for the many fish of Aqaba. Their importance in terms of tourism, the economy and the general livelihoods of many is immeasurable, the report said.

Aqaba’s coral reefs are of paramount importance in boosting tourism, attracting both tourists and diving enthusiasts from around the world, according to representatives from several sectors. Preserving and sustaining the reefs means sustaining the livelihood of many, said the experts.

In Aqaba, there are around 35 diving centres, each employing between five and eight persons on average. There are also around 130 licensed fishermen in the city, including fisherman Abdelhadi Al Sayyad.  The 47-year-old father of four told The Jordan Times that fishing is the only thing he knows, and is his only source of income.

“I learned fishing from my father and I have been doing this for more than 30 years. During the years, I have witnessed a huge decline in the size and type of fish that I catch,” Sayyad said.

The fisherman said he was fully aware of the importance of coral reefs, and he takes care to never throw his net near the reefs.

“For me, the coral reefs are my life, and it makes me very sad when I find large quantities of plastic cups and metal cans when I pull my net out of the sea…the careless and selfish behavior of trash throwers is killing the reefs and causing a decline in the number and size of fish,” he added.

“I used to catch 25 tuna fish per day almost 10 years ago. Now, I am lucky if I catch four a day. I catch more plastic cups, hooks and broken fishing rods that are thrown into the sea by visitors than fish sometimes,” he added.

Khamash Yasin, Aqaba Diving Association (ADA) president, said that the coral reefs are Jordan’s “hidden treasures” under the water that attract tourists from around the world, noting that some groups come to Aqaba solely to enjoy the reefs.

“There are many families who make a living because of these spectacular reefs. More efficient conservation is needed for them,” Yasin, who is also a member of the environment and beach committee at the Aqaba’s Governorate Council, said.

Almomany, the diving instructor, agreed.

“My whole business hinges on the existence of corals. It is a source of livelihood, and not just a scenic place to explore. Hundreds of households live directly or indirectly off of the existence of these reefs,” said Almomany, who also manages Aqaba’s oldest diving centre: The Red Sea Dive Centre. 

The journey to UNESCO World Heritage Site status 

Jordan is moving steadily forward towards submitting an application for nomination that would put the Aqaba marine reserve on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Kingdom is also working on obtaining other international listings for the reserve, which will help attract further attention to the coral reefs.

“One can dive all year in Aqaba; the reefs are resilient due to their unique location, and they are of great importance to the local communities and the tourism sector. They represent a perfect hub for marine-related sciences and we are taking all measures to preserve the reefs,” said Nidal Al Majali, Commissioner for Tourism and Environment at the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA).

ASEZA is spearheading the process of building the necessary operational and technical structures for the reserve, and is collecting all of the required data to submit the reserve’s file for UNESCO consideration. ASEZA is currently working alongside UNDP to help fulfil the UNESCO application requirements. 

In addition, ASEZA is also taking steps to list the reserve on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for protected areas list. The IUCN’s 6th category, “protected area with sustainable use of natural resources”, will allow for the site’s preservation, as well as introducing eco-tourism and other activities and projects that would benefit the local communities while also protecting the reefs, he said.

“We are working on several requirements to help with the listing on UNESCO and IUCN green listing. The draft bylaw of the Aqaba marine reserve project is in the Legislation Bureau to go through the process. We started working on a coastal management plan, administrative plan for the reserve and other technical requirements,” Majali said.

Jordan will submit the official nomination for the UNESCO World Heritage list within two to three years. The application for the IUCN green list for protected areas will be submitted in one year, Majali said.

Nedal Al Ouran, Head of Environment, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction at UNDP, said that the agency, which has staged several interventions to help conserve Aqaba’s coral reefs, is working with ASEZA and stakeholders to prepare the operation system of the Aqaba marine reserve, as well as other requirements of the UNESCO World Heritage list.

UNDP’s conservation efforts in Aqaba include working on the modality of the preservation of ecosystems, ensuring a participatory approach with stakeholders, and taking care to build local capacities and involve the Aqaba community in the process, Ouran said.

As part of the process, work is underway on the requirements of  selecting a public beach in Aqaba to obtain the Blue Flag tag, which is one of the world’s most recognised eco-labels.

“Being on the UNESCO World Heritage list and other international recognitions will help place the coral reefs of Aqaba more prominently on the global map, boosting tourism and attracting further attention,” he added.

 

Is there sufficient awareness, law enforcement?

“There is certainly a need for a rapid action plan in the case of incidents that could harm the coral reefs…Recently, there were two incidents including a chlorine gas leak from a storage tank at Jordan’s Aqaba port and the  recent oil spill from a ship in the port. It is such incidents that could harm the reefs, so we need to be fully prepared to handle such crises and have safety measures in place,” Omar Shoshan, president of Jordan Environment Union, told The Jordan Times.

Calling for more awareness for the public to stop littering, he said: “We lack marine life culture in Jordan. In addition to awareness efforts, we need fines to be imposed and the law to be enforced. There is no attachment to the sea among the public. They come to enjoy it for a short time and leave unaware that any littering or damage they leave behind will harm the sea, Jordan’s only coastline, that they have travelled across the country to see,” Shoshan said.

Almomany, the diving instructor who dives twice a day, said: “It makes me sad to see plastic cups or wet wipes on coral reefs, as these kill the reefs which are our source of income. We certainly need more enforcement of environmental laws. If people are fined, then they will stop such practices.”

“We conduct regular campaigns to remove any waste. Each time, we remove thousands of metres of fishing lines. This should stop, and we also need to prevent any possible harm from projects in Aqaba,” he added.

The ASEZA commissioner said he refers no less than 15 cases per week to Aqaba’s attorney general for violating the 2001 Environmental Protection Bylaw 21. Violations include parking on beach sand, starting fires on the beach, littering, illegal fishing and taking pieces of coral.

“The problem is the lack of awareness. We have regular cleanup campaigns. The intensity of the number of visitors and the size of the areas and coral reefs make the trash concentration higher, he said.

“We need people to abide by the law, or they will throw something in the sea for sure. It is not easy to police everyone. This is behaviour that needs to be changed. Even if we have the best laws, if people’s mindset and behaviour do not change, it will still be a challenge,” he added.

The commissioner said ASEZA follows strict environmental laws when it comes to granting licences to projects in any sector to ensure no damaging impact on the coastline and surrounding ecosystems.

“No licence or approval is given without a detailed environmental assessment study, a process which goes through many phases. It is a very thorough process and we meet with all stakeholders and discuss all observations before issuing approvals. Sometimes we cancel projects,” Majali said.

There is a need also for better diving regulations that focuses on the carrying capacity of each dive location to reduce stress on the coral reefs. There is a need for effective location management, Ouran said.

 

Scientific diplomacy transcending political tensions

Professor Anders Meibom, director of the Transnational Red Sea Centre, a scientific research centre created in 2019 at the Ecole Polytechnique fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL) with the official support of the Swiss Foreign Ministry, said the resilience to climate change enjoyed by the northern corals in the Gulf of Aqaba was revealed by a pioneering study published in 2013 by Israeli researcher Prof. Maoz Fine of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences (IUI). The study, he said, indicated that despite the warming climate, the corals in Aqaba had never bleached.

Meibom referred to another study conducted in 2017 in which researchers from the EPFL confirmed the findings of Fine’s study, and quantified the coral reefs resistance to thermal stress. This study was instrumental in raising awareness that the world was witness to a quite exceptional phenomenon.

“These studies have since been confirmed by numerous other scientific investigations by researchers from the region, including scientists from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as other nationalities,” he said.

“The Red Sea corals represent our best hope for the preservation of a major coral reef ecosystem for future generations. It is particularly necessary and urgent to preserve these environments from possible destruction, especially from contamination linked to local sources of pollution for example,” Meibom said.

As a direct result of the early studies, a centre was created at EPFL in 2019, with the official support of the Swiss government, to contribute to the study and preservation of Red Sea corals on a regional scale by bridging science and diplomacy, he said.

In early August, the centre completed its first scientific mission along the coasts of Jordan and Israel in collaboration with the Marine Science Station in Aqaba, the InterUniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat, as well as the Red Sea University in Port Sudan. This first, Swiss-lead mission in the northern Gulf of Aqaba will be followed by a mission planned to occur in Djibouti in September, then in the other Red Sea countries in the following years, according to a statement by the centre.

From 2022 to 2025, the centre will conduct an initial expedition along the ca. 4,500km coastline of the eight Red Sea countries: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen.

The expedition on a series of selected coral reefs in each of these countries will see the implementation at the scale of the whole Red Sea of a first generation of scientific programmes which will be conducted in close collaboration with the local scientific authorities of each country.

At the same time, high-tech coral health monitoring stations will be deployed in strategic locations and provide continuous information in real time. All data generated will be freely accessible online, according to the principle of open science.

“The coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba can clearly be called “reefs of hope”: Hope that a major coral ecosystem in the Red Sea will remain alive, while almost all coral ecosystems are on a path to destruction due to climate change; hope that what is learned from their exceptional resilience can be used to protect other reefs elsewhere if there is still time, or to develop resilient corals,” Meibom said.

The ultimate goal of the Transnational Red Sea Centre is for the involved countries to implement regional-scale conservation policies for Red Sea corals, he said. Meibom added that the centre works to unite local scientists, their institutions, their governments and many other stakeholders in a broad effort to provide Red Sea countries with the baseline data required to develop and implement these policies.

“This is a long-term process that can only be achieved by combining science and diplomacy, which is why Switzerland, as a neutral country, supports this unique initiative,” he added.

Planned programmes include an assessment of the environmental impact of socio-economic development, and the identification of environmental stress “hotspots”, systematic sampling of water and air quality and microplastics pollution, genetic analysis of coral and its environmental DNA (eDNA), among others. Through these processes, the initiative will shed light on the unique evolution and biodiversity of Red Sea coral reefs, particularly when compared with corals from the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Gulf, and Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Projects will also entail modelling predictions of coral adaptation patterns in the entire Red Sea system, 3D-mapping shallow coral reefs combined with machine learning in a scalable manner, and deploying advanced coral health monitoring stations in strategic locations to provide live data and early warning signals to environmental practitioners.

Efforts are underway to strengthen Aqaba’s position as a hub for marine sciences to foster cooperation among researchers, according to Majali.

ASEZA has offered a tender for building a science park and aquarium in Aqaba, he said. “We want to make Aqaba a hub for marine sciences, and for studying coral reefs,” he added.

According to Ouran, the designs for the science park and aquarium will be ready by April of next year, and the implementation will be completed within two-three years after funding is secured.

ProjectSea: A multi-pronged initiative

Shocked by the spread of various types of solid waste and plastic, scuba divers Seif Al Madanat and Beisan Al Sharif launched ProjectSea: A multi-pronged initiative to conduct regular clean-up dives and raise awareness of the importance of preserving marine life in Aqaba.

“We wanted to combine our passion for diving with a positive purpose, and that is why we started the initiative in 2021. We are very passionate about marine life. There is a need to preserve it and we wanted to give back to the sea,” Sharif told The Jordan Times.

According to Madanat, the initiative conducted 14 cleanup dives with the participation of 164 volunteers from 132 nationalities thus far.

“Since the beginning of the campaign to date, around 45,000 trash items have been collected, weighing around four tonnes,” Madanat said.

The two said they are working to draw attention to marine pollution through unconventional methods.

“Some of the trash objects that we collected underwater will be used for art installations; we are currently working with environmental artists to do so. These art installations are made of solid waste, and will be placed in public places in Aqaba to raise awareness while clearly stating they are made of trash thrown in the sea,” Sharif said.

To help fund the initiative, the two cooperated with local entities to sell some products and allocate part of the proceeds to the cleanup dives. The founders said that they cooperated with women in Jabal Al Hussein Camp for Refugees to produce hand-made, environmentally friendly bags, which helps generate income for them as well as fund the cleanup dives.

“Private sectors have shown support and started helping our initiative. More support, however, is needed so that we can continue this effort to save the coral reefs, which have so far been resilient,” Sharif said, adding that more cleanup dives are necessary.

As part of the initiative, a book on the impact of marine pollution will soon be launched in Arabic. The initiative has additional plans to visit schools and speak on  the issue to schoolchildren.

In order to elevate Aqaba’s marine reserve to the level of other marine reserves worldwide, all the while ensuring sustained benefits to the community, the commitment and participation of all is needed.

“It is a collective responsibility to help place the Aqaba marines reserve on the UNESCO World Heritage list and obtain other international recognitions. This process involves divers, fishermen, local communities, authorities and citizens. International recognition is important, but what is more important is to sustain the marine reserve and the diverse ecosystem for the benefit of all, and for generations to come,” UNDP’s Ouran said.

Though there has been no direct climate change-related impact so far, Shoshan called for well-studied action plans and measures to deter any future impact.

Jordan’s Third National Communication on Climate Change submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change indicates that climate change effects in coastal areas in Aqaba are expected to occur through sea level rise, extreme rainfall events or droughts in upstream terrestrial areas which are connected to run off and flooding, sea surface temperature and CO2 concentrations. The geographically restricted coastline of the Gulf of Aqaba is itself vulnerable to climate change impact, the report said.

The report also indicated the need for extensive in-depth research to investigate the projected effects, a process that is currently lacking at the national level. 

“We need to be well prepared with clear plans and interventions to prevent any impact and reduce the risks as much as possible,” Shoshan added.

 

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