By Paul Driessen
The husband-wife team of Ben Gurion University marine biologists Nadav Shashar and Jenny Tynyakov is on a mission. They’re spearheading an unusual program in one of the world’s northernmost coral reef systems, off Eilat, Israel, at the northern tip of the Red Sea.
Magnificent, colorful corals, sponges, giant clams, fish and other marine life make these reefs a national and world treasure. Barely 40 feet offshore and only five miles long, the reefs connect to Egypt’s reefs along the Sinai Desert to the south and lie a short distance from reefs off Aqaba, Jordan to the east.
But they are being loved to death. Pre-COVID, the reefs were hosting over 350,000 scuba dives and many more snorkeling visits annually. Even careful divers take a toll, and some are just clumsy. The future promises many more visitors.
To protect these precious habitats, wildlife authorities could close off more sections of the reef, restrict the total number of divers or reduce the number of dives per location. But this would deny access to people who journey hundreds or thousands of miles to experience, and reduce economic incentives to preserve, nature.
So researchers from Ben Gurion and Tel Aviv Universities, the Technion and the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Institute are studying ways to actively restore reefs and create new artificial reefs (ARs): manmade structures that replace and augment natural reefs.
Oceans teem with larvae, hatchlings and adults looking for homes, hiding places and food. Like natural reefs, ARs rise above the seafloor, offer multiple nooks and crannies and provide hard surfaces for corals, sponges and shellfish to attach and grow. They create new habitats, new ecological niches, new living quarters and new food supplies for diverse species, enabling more to survive, thrive and reproduce.
Shashar deployed his first medium-size artificial reef (Tamar) off Eilat in 2007. Six years later, Tamar was a flourishing habitat for thousands of fish, corals, gorgonians, sponges, shellfish and other marine organisms that draw divers seeking to watch reef colonization in action.
Shashar and his team also partnered with Jordanian colleagues to plan and install an artificial reef off the Aqaba coast, while building relationships with marine biologists in other Red Sea nations. They are also repairing sections of natural reefs damaged by storms.
The team recently received a small grant from the Israeli Diving Federation for a larger project and hopes to secure financial support from conservation foundations, airlines, hotels, tourists and divers that see building artificial reefs as ecologically vital, socially responsible and a rewarding way to “give something back” to communities and nature.
They often employ manmade corals that simulate the structure and some functions of natural living corals. In the laboratory, researchers evaluate various designs and materials, as well as surface composition, structural integrity, water flow and sand movement around coral structures, and even color, then build scale models and test them in a flow tank that mimics currents and sedimentation processes.
They then investigate the preferences of fish, crabs, corals and other animals that might inhabit the new reef. Once full-scale corals are deployed, scuba diving biologists track how the natural and artificial corals are colonized. Some fish not only accept 3D printed corals but actually prefer certain designs and colors over natural corals.
A website and interpretative materials will enable divers, snorkelers and landlubbers to understand nature in action. Over the coming years, each new artificial reef will grow and prosper, providing food and habitats for hundreds of species.
The newest AR involves converting the pilings beneath Eilat’s old oil jetty into a living coral reef. The team attached circular platforms and other components to the pilings, set others on the seafloor and then affixed live corals from fragments grown in the BGU coral nursery, jumpstarting the reef-building process.
Shashar sees it as another aspect of tikkun olam, repairing the world, protecting a small but important part of creation.
The projects also offer opportunities for Red Sea countries, biologists and citizens to work together — protecting and restoring natural reefs, building artificial reefs and supporting more tourists without endangering the region’s amazing underwater habitats. Nations worldwide will learn better ways to address the mixed blessing of tourists bringing money, jobs and better living standards … but also putting more pressure on ecological values.
Israel recently joined several neighboring Arab states in establishing the Red Sea Transnational Research Center in Bern, Switzerland, to protect Red Sea reef ecosystems. It will be staffed by researchers from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Sudan, Yemen and Djibouti.
Initiated by Bar-Ilan University professor Maoz Fine, the program will also include the University of Jordan marine science station in Aqaba and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.
It’s an exciting and promising venture in human, ecological and international relations.
Paul Driessen is a scuba diver and environmentalist who has made multiple trips to Israel and Eilat, and studies natural and artificial reefs. He is a member of the Jewish National Fund’s Water Task Force and Washington, D.C. area board of directors.