- In Jordan, researchers, activists and fishers are hopeful that their coral reefs — and the life they support — can survive climate change.
- Corals in this northern part of the Red Sea have been shown to be far more resilient to warming ocean temperatures than corals elsewhere.
- Even though they cover only 0.2% of the ocean floor, coral reefs support about 25% of all marine life.
AQABA, Jordan – Dozens of tiny, dazzlingly colorful fish swim around a maze of layer upon layer of corals. When divers approach, they hide near a dome-shaped colony.
In the clear, warm waters of Aqaba, clownfish, butterflyfish and angelfish swim next to a military tank deliberately sunk in the 1990s, now one of several wrecks that have become popular diving sites. Over the years, the tank turned into a habitat for various marine species as corals started growing on it.
With the pressures of climate change, coral reefs are bleaching and dying globally at an unprecedented rate. In the last 50 years, more than half of the world’s coral reef cover has been lost. Marine heat waves are devastating corals in the Mediterranean Sea. Experts predict that global warming and acidifying oceans could wipe out up to 90% of corals in the coming decades.
But in Jordan, researchers are more hopeful as corals show no signs of mass bleaching.
“Corals in the Gulf of Aqaba can withstand higher temperatures,” says Jordanian conservationist Ehab Eid. “When most of the world’s corals are gone because of rising water temperatures, the corals in Aqaba might be the last remaining reefs.”
While mass bleaching and death occur when corals are exposed to temperatures that are 1-2° Celsius (1.8-3.6° Fahrenheit) above their normal summer maximum, scientists found that the reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, can survive a rise of 5-6°C (9-10.8°F).
This resilience is believed to be a product of how the corals migrated from warmer waters. During the last ice age, some 20,000 years ago, sea levels fell, and the Red Sea was cut off from the Indian Ocean. When the ice caps melted, the region was flooded again, the Red Sea became reconnected and new life forms made their way up to the northern part of the Red Sea, where water temperatures drop significantly. Only the species adapted to the south’s warm waters were able to send their larvae north to populate the Gulf of Aqaba.
Researchers found the corals in the north of the Red Sea are still adapted to waters much warmer than their normal temperatures. In contrast to most corals elsewhere that live close to their thermal maximum, coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba have a much wider gap between bleaching threshold and maximum temperature.
But according to Eid, even though the corals are resilient to high temperatures, they’re still vulnerable to local stress from human activity along the coastline.
Shared between Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf of Aqaba is under a lot of pressure from population growth, urban development and pollution that could compromise the corals’ resilience.
Saudi Arabia is planning a futuristic mega city bordering the Red Sea. Further south, experts have warned a decaying oil supertanker anchored off Yemen could cause catastrophic pollution, while Israel and the UAE signed an agreement to allow oil to be moved from tankers in the Red Sea. The deal was recently blocked by the Israeli minister for environmental protection, but the threats from urban development and population growth along the coast are expected to surge.
Protection concerns in Jordan
The Jordanian city of Aqaba is the gulf’s largest and most populous urban center. Since corals are close to a major population and industrial center, Jordan’s fringing reefs are among the most threatened in the Red Sea.
“Aqaba is Jordan’s only seaport, so there is a lot of pressure from tourism, urban development and industry,” says Abdullah Al-Momany, a marine biologist who manages the Red Sea Dive Center, Aqaba’s oldest diving center.
In his 30 years as a diver, Al-Momany saw Aqaba grow from a fishing town to a major tourism destination. “A lot of what I used to see is gone, so we need to do our best to preserve what is left of marine life,” he tells Mongabay.
“Aqaba is unique, it has one of the world’s highest diversity of species per square meter,” says Eid, who has spent years advocating for the protection of marine ecosystems in Jordan, where 157 species of hard corals and more than 500 species of fish have been identified.
In recent decades, several mega projects in Aqaba have aimed at turning the region into a hub for tourism, trade and industry. Last December, Jordanian authorities signed an agreement to develop a new cruise ship terminal to serve passengers visiting the Red Sea. Plans to build luxury marinas, high-rises, private resorts and commercial centers have stepped up in recent years, but so have efforts to preserve Jordan’s underwater treasures.
First established in the late 1990s to manage and preserve Jordan’s marine biodiversity, Aqaba’s Marine Park turned into a protected area in 2020.
But pressure on Jordan’s limited shoreline, which spans some 27 kilometers (17 miles), has been intense. In 2006, Aqaba’s main port was moved to the south to an area full of thousand-year-old corals. In cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Jordanian government translocated a portion of the corals to save them from destruction.
“We moved the corals that were considered more at risk of being impacted by the port,” says Nedal Al-Ouran, head of environment, climate change and disaster risk reduction at the UNDP. “Our team managed to transfer around 7,000 coral colonies. The survival rate is quite high, around 85%.”
According to Al-Ouran, the UNDP is working with local fishers, divers and the local tourism industry on reef conservation and monitoring projects: if the coral reefs are harmed, so are the ecosystems and economies that depend on them.
“We used to be able to [catch] big tuna, very big sardines,” says Ibrahim Riady, who has fished in Aqaba for more than 20 years. For Riady, as the city grew bigger, the fish became smaller. “There used to be much more fish, bigger fish,” he says. He worries that the expansion of tourism and growing pressure on the coastline will affect the reefs and fisheries his family depends on as a source of food and income.
“If the corals are gone, the fish will also be gone,” Riady says. “So, of course, we are worried.”
Even though they cover only 0.2% of the ocean’s floor, coral reefs support about 25% of all marine life. In addition to providing food and habitat for many species, reefs also sustain at least 500 million people around the world, who depend on marine ecosystems for their livelihoods.
See related: Mediterranean corals collapse under relentless heat
Efforts to clean, restore and protect Aqaba’s reefs
Leaning over her microscope, Maysoon Kteifan, a researcher at Aqaba’s Marine Science Station (MSS) specializing in coral restoration, says reefs are among the most diverse and most important ecosystems on the planet. “We need to do whatever we can to preserve them. Here at the station we are trying our best to help our environment restore,” she tells Mongabay.
“We started over 30 years ago with small projects, culturing corals here in the lab,” says Fuad Al-Horani, a researcher at MSS and professor of coral biology at the University of Jordan. “Now we have more than 30 sea nurseries, with thousands of coral colonies.”
In addition to restoring damaged corals and cultivating corals in labs and sea nurseries, researchers are also freezing cells and tissues in a coral bank to preserve them for future use.
With Aqaba’s corals representing the best hope for the preservation of a major reef by the end of the century, the efforts to restore and protect the reefs are not just restricted to scientists and conservationists. Divers are playing a key role in raising awareness of the importance of reef conservation.
“We are doing a lot of cleaning dives, because trash is a big problem here. Plastic bags are killing our corals,” says dive operator Al-Momany, who established Aqaba’s Association of Divers and organizes cleaning dives on a regular basis.
“As divers we have a big role to play in teaching people how to keep a distance from corals and how to protect them,” says Al-Momany, who has also done several projects in schools, giving lectures about the importance of reef ecosystems.
Studies found corals draped in plastic were 20 times more likely to be stressed, as plastics abrade corals and block sunlight.
In the last two years, divers Beisan Alsharif and Seif Al Madanat witnessed an increase in the amount of trash they found underwater.
“We started seeing so much waste, so many masks, plastic cups, containers,” Alsharif says. “It was hideous. So we said we needed to do something about it. We felt like it was our responsibility.” Together with Al Madanat, she established Project Sea to raise awareness of the need to preserve Aqaba’s marine ecosystem.
“We have started a movement to change the habits of littering,” Alsharif says. In addition to organizing cleanup campaigns that have collected more than 15,000 pieces of plastic in just a few months, Alsharif says the project is also creating online campaigns, reaching out to schools and trying to inspire younger generations to get involved in marine conservation.
“If we keep cleaning it up there will always be more trash, so we need to address the core issues,” she says.
Across the border, similar conservation and restoration work is being done in the Israeli port city of Eilat. But for Anders Meibom, a professor at the University of Lausanne and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who co-authored studies on Aqaba’s unique heat tolerance, efforts to protect Aqaba’s corals from local stresses must involve regional collaboration.
“Given how small the Gulf of Aqaba is, pollution will spread very quickly, it will not respect international borders,” he says.
In 2019, with support from the Swiss foreign ministry, Meibom and his colleagues established the Transnational Red Sea Center to promote research and conservation, and encourage regional collaboration.
Meibom and other scientists and diplomats affiliated with the center are calling on UNESCO to declare the Red Sea reef as a marine World Heritage Site. He says the recognition would protect the corals from local threats and make it easier to attract funding for research, toward making better-informed decisions on management, restoration and conservation of the unique reefs.
“It’s a real hope for humanity to preserve a major coral reef ecosystem for future generations,” Meibom says, “so we need to do everything we can to protect it.”
Marta Vidal is an independent journalist writing about human rights and social justice across the Mediterranean. Read her previous story for Mongabay, “Planned copper mine raises fears for biodiversity hotspot in Jordan,” here.
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