Eilat’s Coral Reef on the Mend but Not in the Clear

End to fish farming has helped recovery, but oil spills continue to take a toll.

Rob Atherton

The general condition of the coral reef in the Gulf of Eilat has been improving steadily for the past 10 years, according to the 2013 annual report of Environmental Protection Ministry’s Marine Monitoring Program for Eilat.

With that, the reef is still exposed to threats from oil spills, and a plan to farm fish on the Jordanian side of the gulf also poses a pollution risk.

The report was prepared for the ministry by Yonatan Shaked and Prof. Amatzia Genin of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science in Eilat. It examined water quality, coral coverage and fish populations in the gulf.

The reef showed improvement, indicated by the increase in the corals covering it.

Coverage was heaviest in the area of the marine nature reserve, but there was also an uptrend of coral growth in areas adjacent to the Interuniversity Institute, where in the past the corals had receded considerably.

There was also a sharp increase in coral coverage and in the density of the coral colonies in the area known as the reef table, which has different characteristics from the other parts of the reef.

Photo documentation of the rock corals (which constitute a substantial percentage of the corals on the reef) show that they now cover an area almost double that measured a decade ago.

It should be noted that 10 years ago the Gulf of Eilat had serious pollution from fish farming in cages (which were removed six years ago), sewage leaks and the spread of phosphate dust. Since then the pollution has decreased significantly.

The monitoring over the past few years has shown a gradual recovery of the flora and fauna on the ocean floor below the area of the fish cages.

One finding that concerned the researchers was the fluctuation in the size of the fish and sea urchin populations. Both play a key role in maintaining the coral reef because they prevent the overgrowth of algae that compete with the corals.

The researchers recommended introducing a general prohibition against fishing algae-eating fish in the northern part of the bay.

The Gulf of Eilat still faces pollution problems, the researchers noted. Every year there is at least one oil spill, and last year there were two such events that reduced the water quality and put marine animals and bathers at risk.

Another threat is the plan to establish a fish farm in Aqaba.

“Given the evidence of slow recovery sights on the sea floor on the north shore after the fish cages were removed, and considering a variety of potential harm associated with the cages that led to their removal, we urge the Environment Ministry to act in any way possible to stop the program,” the researchers wrote.