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The massive destruction inflicted in recent years on the coral reefs in the resort city of Eilat on the Red Sea should have induced the relevant authorities to take vigorous action in order to put a halt to the process. But instead of taking action, they are continuing to argue about the reasons for the devastation. Not even the intervention of an international commission of experts has been able to get the authorities to move from the stage of debate to that of deeds.

The commission, which consisted of two experts from the United States and Germany, and Prof. Yehuda Brik, from Israel, examined for several weeks the causes of the melancholy state of the coral reefs. The panel also wrote a set of recommendations. The commission's report was published a few weeks ago and last week came up for discussion in government ministries and in the Knesset's Environment Committee. According to the report, the two major reasons for the pollution in the Gulf of Eilat are the sewage of the neighboring Jordanian city of Aqaba and the dust that is emitted during the loading of phosphates in the harbor of Eilat.

However, immediately after the report was issued, it became clear that its findings were far from being solidly based. The fact is that since the 1980s there has been no flow of sewage from Aqaba into the sea, and certainly not any pumping of sewage on a scale a hundred times as great as that of Eilat, as the experts stated. As for the phosphates, it is not clear how much damage they actually cause to the coral reefs.

The Knesset Environment Committee wanted to return the report to the experts so they could reexamine the pollution data. The panel relied for its findings unreservedly on information that came from government sources in Israel, without bothering to check the data with the Jordanians. It is now apparent that the officials who gave them the information either are unfamiliar with the problems of pollution in the Gulf of Eilat or are unable to evaluate it correctly.

Scientists in Eilat warned as far back as six years ago that the pollution in the gulf posed a tangible threat to the existence of the coral reefs. At the time, the sewage from Eilat was the immediate and most worrisome pollution factor. The sewage flowed almost without interruption into the gulf and introduced highly destructive fertilizing materials into the water. The reefs were also severely damaged by the large number of visitors and divers who suffocated and broke them.

However, after the city of Eilat started to deal properly with its sewage problem, including the purification of the wastes, many scientists and environmentalists argued that the major cause of the pollution, on a scale similar to that of the city's sewage, are the fish cages that are operated by two companies that engage in maritime agriculture. The secretions of the fish reach the coral reefs and pollute them, and additional pollution is caused by the phosphate dust, machine oil and fuel.

The representatives of the two companies, and experts in the Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute, which developed the technology for this form of fish breeding, continued to insist that the environmental influence of their activity was purely local. Maritime agriculture, they declared, was not responsible for the destruction of the coral reef.

The government's attitude toward the maritime agriculture in the Gulf of Eilat was extraordinarily flawed. The Agriculture Ministry and the National Infrastructure Ministry encouraged the development of the industry, without promising them permanent status in the various master plans for the region. They also allowed a problematic situation in which the institute that developed the technology is also the body that examined its environmental impact in the past, and three years ago carried out a survey to examine the influence of the fish cages on the maritime environment. The Environment Ministry remained a passive observer for far too long and did not take a clear position in regard to the maritime agriculture - indeed, at one stage the ministry permitted it to expand.

The commission of experts not only failed to clarify the picture with respect to identifying the causes of the pollution, including the fish breeding; the panel actually made things more complicated than they already were because of the activity it attributed to the Jordanians. The danger now is that the parties to the dispute will again entrench themselves in their positions.

It is urgent for Israel to reach a decision that it must deal with the pollution that is being caused in Israeli waters. Only if it becomes clear that significant pollution problems exist also on the Jordanian side, will Israel need to approach the Jordanians and try to obtain their cooperation in preventing the damage to the environment.

Because it is already now apparent that the scale of the pollution on the Jordanian side is not as great as the panel of experts claim, the focus has to be on the pollution caused by the maritime farming. According to the commission, there is no clear proof that the fish breeding is causing a flow of pollutants that reaches the coral reefs. Still, even they decided to adopt the principle of caution according to which preventive measures need to be taken even when the danger to the environment is defined as being only potential. As a result, the commission recommended breeding smaller fish and reducing the amount of food they are fed.

In the long run, it will be essential to move the fish breeding operation to land. This has to be a gradual process, so as not to undermine an important source of livelihood whose developers have chalked up some impressive scientific and technological achievements. The scientists who are engaged in this sphere have already begun to develop methods to breed fish on land, and it is now necessary to ensure their implementation, even if this necessitates governmental assistance.