The Gulf of Eilat is a northern offshoot of the Red Sea, which separates the Sinai Peninsula from the Arabian Peninsula. The bay contains a rare coral reef, home to hundreds of fish species and other vulnerable marine creatures.
The species richness in the Gulf can be attributed to the relatively weak waves, and the low levels of pollution due to limited runoff from the land. These factors contribute to higher water clarity, leading to increased levels of sunlight penetration, which allows for better coral growth. The coral reefs in the Gulf of Eilat are unique because they are more resistant to the bleaching conditions that have heavily affected coral reefs around the world in recent years. According to researchers, these corals are more resilient because they evolved to withstand higher temperatures. Another reason that these corals are not becoming victim to the global bleaching phenomenon is because comparatively, the Gulf of Eilat has not risen in temperature by as much.
The uniqueness of the Gulf of Eilat has turned it into a resource that the Israeli public—represented by Zalul—wants to protect, refusing to lend a hand to the economic initiatives that threaten to contaminate its waters. For example, in 2008, two private companies—Aradag and Dag Suf—began growing fish in cages in the Gulf. The opposition of Zalul and the Eilat municipality to the project led to the closure and removal of the cages from the sea after 10 years of struggle (see below). Also, in 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture began to promote a project to establish fishponds on land, which Zalul strongly opposes. Additionally, in 2018 it became known that a group of entrepreneurs wanted to build an underwater hotel in the bay—Zalul also objects to this project.
The struggle to remove fish cages from the Gulf of Eilat 1998-2008
Fish cages were introduced into the waters of the Gulf as part of an "innocent" experiment by the Israeli Oceanographic and Limnological Research Facility. In 1995, after the success of the experiment, more than 100 cages were introduced into the Red Sea, where about 2,500 tons of fish were raised annually. The cages were brought into the sea without the approval of the planning authorities and without a business license. The buildings on the seashore were built with an exceptional permit, which was extended again and again.
With the sharp increase in the number of fish cages, they were harming the unique coral reef of the Gulf of Eilat and threatening its existence. Divers who dived in the waters of the bay testified that the coral reefs were damaged and that the reef was in danger of imminent collapse. Scientists estimate that the food and drugs given to the fish led to an increase in water turbidity, preventing the deep penetration of sunlight that corals need. This deep sunlight penetration is the most significant factor for the species richness in the Gulf. Additionally, the sinking fish excrement created bacterial carpets under the cages that damaged the marine creatures in the area. The overcrowding in cages encourages outbreaks of disease and the development of parasites transmitted to wild fish. Since Sea Bream fish originate in the Mediterranean Sea, escaping fish from the cages disrupts the delicate ecological balance of the Red Sea. Zalul's unequivocal demand was to shut down the fish cages and to move the operation on land. This demand by Zalul prompted the Eilat municipality, the planning institutions, and the government to deal with this destructive project.
The Municipality of Eilat took legal action against the owners of the cages in court. The government appointed a team of directors, which appointed a team of international scientists that determined that the fish cages were polluting the sea and damaging the reef. After lengthy procedures in the various planning institutions and scientific reports, the National Council for Planning and Construction decided to approve the outlined plan for the Eilat coastline (TAMA 13) without the fish cages, and determined that the fish should be transferred from the sea to land-based pools, as is common worldwide.
In February 2004, the government decided to return the plan to the National Council once again, but the council adhered to its previous decisions and instructed the owners of the cages to remove them from the sea within 14 months. In June 2005, the government decided to approve the plan without the fish cages and ordered their removal from the sea within three years, about a third of the fish each year.
More than 10 years after they were introduced into the sea, the fish cages were finally removed in 2008. The unique coral reef of the Gulf of Eilat is recovering, while the public and decision-makers have received an excellent lesson of citizenship, stating that even in the State of Israel a just public struggle can be won.
2016 – The struggle’s back again- "Zalul" opposes a project to build polluting ponds in the Gulf
In the course of 2016, it was discovered that the Ministry of Agriculture, the Eilat Municipality and the Israeli Oceanographic and Limnological Research Facility were planning to bring back the fish to the Gulf of Eilat by establishing a 1,000-dunam (1,000-acre) land farm project that will produce seaweed, small fish and 5,000 tons of fish. The farms will pump fresh water from the bay, and pump back polluted effluents with drugs and fish excretions, seriously harming the quality of the water of the Gulf and its rare coral reef.
According to Zalul, this project is just another attempt to return the pollution into the Gulf. Therefore, if the State of Israel is interested in raising fish, it is preferable to do so along the Mediterranean Sea, which is far less sensitive to infections. Fish farming along the Mediterranean Sea is also much more economical, since the farms are close to the population centers, thus saving the expensive transportation price and especially preventing the pollution of the Gulf.
Who’s behind this plan?
Behind the Ministry of Agriculture’s plans are two government decisions: Decision No. 2429 of November 14, 2010 (to compensate the Ardag and Dag Suf companies for ceasing their activity in the Red Sea following the removal of fish cages from the sea); and decision 4848 of July 2012 (to develop marine biology in the Gulf of Eilat). The two main proponents pushing for the project are the Ministry of Agriculture, whose fishing department has failed all along; and the Israeli Oceanographic and Limnological Research Facility, who will financially benefit from the project (the Facility is expected to sell technology and small fish for the project).
Where do government ministries stand?
The Ministry of Environmental Protection set up a team of experts to examine the Gulf's carrying capacity, which determined that there are already too many pollutants being discharged into the Gulf (22 tons of nitrogen per year). Therefore, there’s no place for additional pollutants. When the Ministry of Agriculture became aware of the scientists' position, he sent a letter to the director general of the Ministry of Environmental Protection demanding he would not accept the scientists' position, while undermining their professionalism and integrity. Moreover, the Ministry of Agriculture demanded not to have the committee’s meeting discussing the bay’s discharge permits until the scientists change their position. As a response, Zalul recruited all the environmental organizations, and sent a joint letter to the Minister of Environmental Protection, demanding not to consent to the Ministry of Agriculture’s demands, accept the scientific report, and not interfere in the deliberations of the committee to grant permits allowing discharge to the sea.
The position of the committee for granting permits for discharge to the sea
At the end of March 2016, the Committee for the Granting of Permits to discharge to Sea approved the Israeli Oceanographic and Limnological Research Facility’s project for the cultivation of 100 tons of fish, allowing them to pump the discharge into the Red Sea, although this plan is known to be the basis for the larger plan to grow 5,000 tons of edible fish.
What are the environmental hazards of the project?
The fishponds will pump water from the Red Sea into the facility and will pump out the wastewater back into the Red Sea. Although the Ministry of Agriculture states that the discharged water will undergo pre-treatment, experience shows that it is not possible to reach adequate treatment values. This means there will be a steady flow of hazardous substances into the sea. In the event of a malfunction (malfunctions occur more frequently than one may think), the sea will be contaminated with a large amount of fish secretion, nutrients, and medicine. We must not forget that the Gulf of Eilat is a closed-in and sensitive sea and as such, sensitive to this pollution. The Gulf has only recently begun to recover, and therefore it is forbidden to endanger it through harmful projects. Reports by marine biologists Dr. Esti Winter and Dr. Yehiam Schlesinger confirm with certainty the expected damage to the coral reef if the fish will be reintroduced and the pollutant flow will be renewed. (The Ministry of Environmental Protection monitoring reports.)
In order to comply with flow regulations, the project owners will be required to invest large sums of money in water purification technology and inexpensive and energy-intensive maintenance. Zalul believes that once they find out that the project is not economical, they will try to economize on energy and means while seeking concessions from the permit committee (as new factories tend to do). The price will, of course, be paid by the environment and the residents of the State of Israel who will have to deal with another loosing and polluting project.
Does the project have economic potential?
In an economic paper written by environmental economist Gadi Rosenthal, fish production in the Gulf of Eilat, the determine that the profitability of the project is negative and that the growers are expected to lose 2 NIS per kg of fish marketed. The main concern is that the entrepreneurs’ main aspiration will be to take advantage of the benefits the government intends to grant the project and soon they will abandon it, but not before causing damage to the region and the Red Sea.
Will the project bring employment to the region?
The project’s contribution is expected to be very low, as the production of 1,500 tons a year will generate only 50 jobs. Even if an entrepreneur is found for the project, they will probably not be from the southern Arava settlements, which set up a project to raise fish in the Mediterranean. Hence, the project will not contribute to the economy of the settlements in the southern Arava and Eilat. Therefore, budgetary support on behalf of government ministries will actually serve another business factor. The unequivocal conclusion is that there is no point in the state's involvement in the project, and that it is a waste of public funds.
Is there a technology that enables fish to grow without environmental pollution?
In the wake of the declining of marine world, scientists are trying to grow saltwater fish in intensive growing farms. For now, these projects suffer from low economic efficiency. A number of such projects have also been implemented in Israel, but most of them have been closed due to them being uneconomical and having operational difficulties. Zalul is opposed to turning the Gulf of Aqaba into a testing ground for a technology whose efficiency has yet to be proven.
It is forbidden to endanger the entire region just for the whim of a handful of employees in the fishing department and for a handful of researchers from the Israeli Oceanographic and Limnological Research Facility, whose sole ambition is to justify their jobs.
the coral reefs of the Red Sea among the few that are able to survive global warming
If scientists’ forecasts are substantiated, there is a good chance that the coral reefs of the Red Sea will be among the few that are able to survive global warming, which has already harmed around 50% of the world’s corals. For this reason, Zalul has undertaken action in support of an international campaign calling for this valuable coral reef in the northern Red Sea to be protected against damage and contamination – not only for the importance of the reefs as unique habitats and as tourist sites, but possibly also as the future reproductive nucleus of the world’s coral reefs.
Climate change causes an increase in sea temperature and thus, in practice, gradually cooks the corals and causes bleaching. Coral reefs are the rainforests of the oceans, a source of life and creators of oxygen for planet Earth. Already, some 20% of the world’s reefs have been severely to irreversibly damaged.
Unfortunately, even if the reefs succeeded surviving climate change, they will not succeed in surviving conditions of pollution from different sources – the construction of polluting infrastructures, discharge of wastewater and surface run-off, oil accidents, and also pollution caused by micro-plastics, damage by divers, cosmetics, and so on. It is therefore of supreme importance to keep the area as free as possible of such threats.
The campaign will enlist scientists, public figures, divers, snorkelers, and sea lovers from around the world, in a call to the governments of the region to protect the Red Sea as the refuge and production nucleus for the world's corals.
* Due to the political sensitivity of the bordering countries along the Red Sea, Zalul will work behind the scenes of the campaign, guiding and ensuring its existence and success.