Protecting Israel’s Coastline


aquarium2When Israel comes to mind, it typically evokes thoughts of the country’s rich history or the ongoing conflict in the region today. Few may think in terms of its natural resources, namely its coastline and access to the Mediterranean.

But those resources were front and center on Nov. 17 when EcoOcean partnered with the National Aquarium to bring a small exhibit to Baltimore, “Israel Sea The Future,” as well as a panel discussion detailing the various environmental issues affecting the region and the necessary steps to protect both the sea and the many ancient artifacts hidden beneath its waters.

“EcoOcean is an NGO that supports research, educates and does community involvement to protect the marine environment in Israel,” according to Arik Rosenblum, CEO of the organization. The group has been operating in the Mediterranean waters off Israel’s coast for 14 years, having assessed the importance of the area years before the discovery of natural gas and oil.

Israel is just coming to terms with the fact that it actually has a sea, according to Rosenblum. It has international borders that are recognized by all, and there are important resources there, “one being the gas and oil and the second being water.”

The entire Middle East region has had a crisis with water, he said. With recent technological advances in Israel such as desalination plants, however, Israel has been able to render the Mediterranean’s water drinkable. Israel has so much water now that it is exporting it to countries such as Jordan.

“The exhibit is basically trying to show what we are beginning to learn, what we need to know, what is missing and what has to be done about that square,” said Rosenblum. “This exhibition shows examples of what is there and what we need to do to make sure it is protected.”

It is common knowledge that Israel is full of archaeological finds that shed light on the history of three major religions, but it does not stop at the coastline. The exhibit is rife with pictures of recent finds, one such discovery being that of a sunken ship carrying more than 3,000 gold coins inscribed with the name of a historical leader.

A particularly fascinating shipwreck is of Byzantine origin. Byzantium had come and taken all pagan objects to melt down, but a ship full of pagan idols sunk off the coast. A statuette of a Greek goddess pictured in the exhibit was found a half-mile from EcoOcean’s offices, Rosenblum said.

“Really, we have four coasts: the Dead Sea, Red Sea, Galilee and Mediterranean,” said Dr. Beverly Goodman, a Haifa University assistant professor and National Geographic explorer who sits on EcoOcean’s board. “We have to be really careful with all of the pressure on our coastline and take the time to understand what we need to protect. Because of the erosion on the Mediterranean coast, we have had a lot of exposure of antiquities. We have to be gentle and aware so that we do not lose these resources before we find them.”

Dr. Assaf Ariel, a scientific adviser to EcoOcean, outlined further issues with Israel’s Mediterranean coast. “There are a lot of people and countries that put high pressure on the land and sea and create a lot of garbage and sewage. When the Suez Canal was opened 150 years ago, the problem was that it opened the gate to massive marine invasion from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. On top of that, in the 1960s they build the Aswan Dam to regulate the water level, which caused the flow of sand and nutrients into the Mediterranean to reach a dramatic low.”

Approximately 1 percent of Israel’s marine environment is protected under current law and that protected environment is in the north of Israel rather than in the important square block in which EcoOcean has focused its efforts.

“What we are doing now, with the support and help of the Israeli government, is our research vessel is now mapping all of the waters of that square and trying to identify where could be the potential places for marine protected areas,” said Rosenblum. “It has been proven worldwide that protecting marine environments by law is a major step toward preventing the area from being harmed, even if gas or oil is found. That is why we’re pushing it so hard.”

Recently, the European Commission requested that EcoOcean create a standard for how to collect artifacts and specimens without harming nature during research. A similar exhibit to the one at the National Aquarium is going around Israel in Arabic and Hebrew.

According to Rosenblum, the goal is “to get the average Israeli citizen to know that Israel doesn’t end at the beach line.”

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