Israel to Declare Its First Maritime Nature Reserve

Precedent-setting decision opens way for more coastal protected areas.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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An underwater cliff near Rosh Hanikra.
An underwater cliff near Rosh Hanikra.Credit: Tal Shohat
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

For the first time, Israel has decided to turn part of its deep-sea territorial waters into a nature reserve. But the reserve will be smaller than originally planned.

Last week, the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee approved creation of a nature reserve off the coast of the northern village Rosh Hanikra – a crucial step toward final approval, though several stages of the process still remain. Yet at the same time, the panel reduced the area’s size, lopping off part of the area deeper in the Mediterranean Sea.

Currently, Israel’s only marine reserves are in the shallow waters immediately off the coast. These reserves comprise a mere 0.25 percent of Israel’s total territorial waters. But in recent years, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority has drafted plans to turn substantial portions of Israel’s deep-sea waters into nature reserves.

The area near Rosh Hanikra was chosen as the first such reserve because it contains an underwater canyon with an especially rich variety of flora and fauna. The water in this area reaches a depth of about 1,000 meters – deeper than any of Israel’s other coastal waters. Moreover, many species usually found in the Mediterranean only at depths of about 500 meters have been spotted near Rosh Hanikra at depths of as little as 50 meters. Finally, the area attracts rare species of marine mammals, like the Mediterranean monk seal, which was spotted there four years ago.

The INPA originally proposed a reserve extending 22 kilometers from the coast. But at last week’s meeting, committee chairwoman Ronit Mazar of the Interior Ministry proposed a reserve extending only 15 kilometers from the coast. She then used her double vote as chairwoman to break a tie in favor of her own proposal.

Photo by Tal Shohat

But despite the reduced area, the INPA’s chief marine ecologist, Dr. Ruth Yahel, termed the decision a breakthrough: It’s the first time a deep-sea area has been declared a reserve, with all the attendant protections, such as being off-limits to fishing.

Moreover, said another nature authority official, Nir Agranat, the committee has not definitively rejected the larger area. “It decided it needs to examine the overall plan of Israel’s territorial waters to see if there aren’t other planned uses for this area that a nature reserve could prevent,” he explained. “The way is still open to expand the reserve’s area in the future.”

The Interior Ministry similarly cited the decision’s precedent-setting nature, noting the reserve would still cover 100,000 dunams. It said the decision to reduce the area was due to “a wider view of the state’s needs in the fields of fishing, shipping, security, infrastructure and nature.”

Nevertheless, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said it was disappointed by the reduction.

Photo by Tal Shohat

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