Deep Waters Off Israel Coast, Once Thought Desolate, Are Teeming With Life

Israeli authorities previously classified the understudied area close to Tel Aviv as of low environmental sensitivity

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Illustration showing a representation of the rare sea life found on the seabed in an area off the coast of Bat Yam, Israel, June 2020.
Illustration showing a representation of the rare sea life found on the seabed in an area off the coast of Bat Yam, Israel, June 2020.Credit: Alberto Gennari

Some 200 meters below the surface of the sea, between 10 and 16 kilometers off the Israeli coast, a sloped seabed hides a wealth of life that never seemed to interest too many people. A recently published study, however, reveals that this gradient is home to various species that had never before been seen in that part of the Mediterranean Sea. The researchers argue that given these findings, the area should be declared a protected area to prevent potentially harmful development.

The study was done over eight days in 2017, when the scientists sampled the undersea life on the slope of the upper seabed from a fishing boat. The boat dragged a fishing net along the seabed to collect whatever was growing in that habitat, from a depth of 200 to 570 meters off the coast of Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv. The living things collected were identified by Dr. Menachem Goren, Dr. Shevi Rothman, Dr. Hank Manis and Dr. Bella Galil from the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University. Another partner to the study was Dr. Roberto Danovaro of the Zoological Station in Naples.

Of the samples collected, the researchers identified 119 different species from various groups; 18 of them had either never been seen in this part of the sea before, or had been spotted only a handful of times. The researchers were also surprised to find that the soft seabed was rich with fields of soft corals and sea pens – animals that looks like quills stuck in the ground that feed on minute species.

Illustration showing a representation of the rare sea life found on the seabed in an area off the coast of Bat Yam, Israel, June 2020. Credit: Alberto Gennari

These fields are of high ecological value because they provide food and shelter to many species. One of the sea pen varieties discovered is at high risk of extinction.

Several rare species of fish, including one that along its body has rows of cells that radiate light, were found. Also identified were cuttlefish and a species of crab of exceptional size.

“This is an area where there is no trawler fishing, so what we found there is a situation as close to natural as possible,” said Galil.

The species changed the deeper the researchers went. They identified four separate societies of fauna with different characteristics. Each society is a collection of species at a certain site that interact with each other. Unfortunately, researchers also found large quantities of garbage, most of which apparently came from Gaza and Egypt, based on the writing.

In their article on their findings in the journal Life and Environment, the scientists noted that in recent years the area of the gradient had been surveyed by Israel's Energy and Environmental Protection Ministries. The surveys led to a policy paper, adopted in December 2019, which defines most of the area as being of low environmental sensitivity. These conclusions were ratified by the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration .

But the researchers argue that the results of their study refute the assumptions on which the ministries based their conclusions. “The societies of fauna on the soft seabed in the seabed sloped are varied and rich in species at risk of extinction,” said Galil. “Moreover, comparing it to the date from studies in other regions of the Mediterranean indicate that the societies on the Israeli seabed slope are unique. The scientific insights regarding the life in the sloped seabed on which the planning, management and planning documents are based are mistaken and deficient.”

A fishing trawler off Israel's coast in 2014. The use of trawlers will be prohibited from June to August near the shore and at depths of less than 30 meters.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Dr. Dror Tzuriel, the scientific coordinator for sea monitoring and research in the Environment Ministry, says that the area at issue isn’t a target for development, and that the biggest threat to such habitats continues to be trawler fishing, which drags nets across the seabed and which is still permitted in around half of Israel’s territorial waters.

He added that most of the area in question is designated in the policy documents as a shipping lane, making the options for development very limited. Part of it is already part of a sea reserve being proposed by the Nature and Parks Authority. The area is not threatened by efforts to drill for gas, since gas fields are generally located at depths of 1,000 meters or more, nor are there any more gas pipelines planned beyond the four current ones, he said.

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