Israel's Marine Environment Faces Serious Threats by Development, Pioneering Report Shows

Report describes significant damage to environment caused by human activity, paints grim picture of the state of conservation of Mediterranean seacoast.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Wide expanses of Israel’s Mediterranean waters are being seriously harmed by development activities, pollution and fishing, according to Israel’s first comprehensive report on the state of the marine environment.

Despite the severity of these threats, the report states, less than 1 percent of Israel’s marine environment is currently protected from human activity.

The report, which will be presented on Thursday at a launch event for the 2013 Eco Cinema Festival, was prepared within the wider framework of the National Program for Ecosystem Assessment, sponsored by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

It was written by Aviad Scheinin, a researcher for the National Program for Ecosystem Assessment − a cooperative project by the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Jewish National Fund ‏(Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael‏) and other bodies.

Scheinin gathered data from various research bodies and scientists to analyze the state of the marine environment, which has become an urgent necessity following the sizable growth of sea-based infrastructure programs, including natural gas and oil drilling, desalinization plants, port expansions and plans to establish artificial islands.

The data shows signs of significant damage caused by human activity, including abrasion layers on coastal cliffs − rock surfaces that help protect the coast and which are inhabited by many animal species.

In recent years there was a significant drop in the number of snails depositing calcareous material that accumulates in these rocky surfaces. In some areas, the snails have entirely disappeared and the rock faces are eroding.

Efforts to prevent the collapse of these coastal cliffs are expected to cause further damage to the sandy beaches along the coast, according to the report. Under a government plan, breakwaters will be installed to protect the cliffs; however these structures will obstruct the natural flow of sand and block the paths of animals such as endangered sea turtles.

Fishermen are also harming sea animal habitats, according to a special chapter written by University of Haifa researcher Dor Edelist. The main threat is from trawling nets that drag across the seabed, sweeping up everything in their paths, he wrote.

An estimated 3,000 square kilometers of Israel’s waters are subject to trawling. Fishermen who use this method typically throw half their large catches back into the sea because of their lack of commercial value.

Sport fishing and diving has seriously harmed fish stocks of species found around rocky areas of the coast, primarily grouper fish, the report states.

The marine environment is also expected to be damaged by natural gas and oil drilling that will likely lead to spills, causing pollution, it warned.

Another expected source of environmental damage is the desalinization facilities which today treat 300 million cubic meters of seawater annually. These facilities discharge brine that contains various chemicals. These chemicals have caused certain species to disappear and have endangered others, according to the report. The impact of desalinization facilities is expected to worsen in the future.

“In light of forecasts that 750 million cubic meters of seawater will be desalinized by the end of the decade, and given the relative crowding of facilities, it would be fair to assume that it will become impossible to avoid the environmental ramifications of this activity,” the report states.

Despite these threats, just 0.25 percent of Israel’s territorial waters are protected nature reserves. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has proposed declaring additional sea nature reserves that would encompass one-fifth of the country’s territorial waters.

The report does note improvement, however, in efforts to halt raw sewage runoff into the sea.

The rocky areas near the fishing village Jisr al-Zarqa.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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