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Science diplomacy to save the Red Sea corals

Red Sea corals off the coast of Eilat, Israel. (Professor Maoz Fine)

A group of scientists led by the Lausanne-based Transnational Red Sea Center will set sail this summer across the Red Sea to study its heat-resistant corals. The research boat Fleur de Passion, owned by the Geneva-based NGO Fondation Pacifique, will be hosting the project for the next four years.

Fleur de Passion, the 33-metre ketch, left the port of Seville on 23 April, sailing across the Mediterranean Sea and towards the gulf of Aqaba, in the southern coast of Jordan. For the next four years, the boat will be home to the Transnational Red Sea Center (TRSC), a project by the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) that will study the coral reefs along the 4,500 km coastline of the Red Sea and their unique ability to withstand high temperatures.

The group is getting ready to depart from the Jordan coast at the end of June for its first expedition. With the support of the Swiss authorities, it hopes to save these corals by getting the bordering countries of Egypt, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen to collaborate for their protection.

Corals at risk. The images of white-coloured coral skeletons stretching over several kilometres of the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Northeastern Australia are daunting. In the past five years alone, over half of the world’s biggest coral reef has suffered mass “bleaching”, mainly due to heat induced stress.

When ocean water temperatures rise, corals respond by expelling the millions of microscopic algae that live in their tissue. These single-cellular organisms do not only dress the corals in bright colours but also produce most of their food. Without them, they turn white in a process called “bleaching” and eventually starve to death if conditions don’t return to normal. Other environmental factors, such as pollution, overfishing and tourists stepping on them, are also putting pressure on corals, weakening them and making them even more sensitive to warming.

“At a global scale, the real killer of corals is global warming,” Professor Anders Meibom, head of the Biological Geochemistry Laboratory at the EPFL and initiator of the TRSC, told Geneva Solutions.

In the past three decades, coral reefs have declined by half. If conditions continue to worsen, with recurrent heat waves, seal-level rise and acidification of the ocean, which have all been linked to climate change, experts fear that corals will continue to decline sharply and only 10 per cent will be left by 2050. Some studies have shown that it’s not too late to reverse the trend. Reducing emissions and keeping the globe from heating could help prevent their destruction.

“Corals are the basis of these marine ecosystems. When they die, the whole ecosystem collapses, which is not only a catastrophic loss since they represent the vast majority of the biodiversity of the shallow oceans, but you also lose most of the ecosystem services that they provide,” Meibom said.

The livelihoods of millions of people who depend on fisheries for their diet are thus threatened. Countries with economies heavily dependent on coral related tourism are also being hit hard. The Maldives, where tourism makes up a large part of the economy, 60 per cent of the corals have suffered bleaching according to a 2016 survey.

A unique set of corals. For Meibom, hope can be found below the Red Sea. Back in 2017, along with Professor Maoz Fine from the Interuniversity Institute of Marine Science in the Southern Israeli port of Eilat, in the Gulf of Aqaba, they were intrigued by the fact that that while corals all over the world were undergoing mass bleaching, those in the northern Red Sea, where temperatures are usually higher, seemed unbothered.

Fleur de Passion in Sevilla 2021.04.22_Copyright Transnational Red Sea Center-Fabiano D'Amato.jpeg
Fleur de Passion leaving the port of Seville for the Red Sea. (Transnational Red Sea Center/Fabiano D'Amato)

The researchers subjected the corals to higher temperatures and discovered that they could survive several degrees above the summer maximum. “I told Maoz ‘Come on, your thermometre is broken. This is completely absurd!’,” Meibom remembers. “We couldn’t believe it.”

The reason behind this unusual behaviour? According to Meibom, a very special evolution in the corals of the Red Sea system since the last ice age. Some ten to 20,000 years ago, during the last ice age, sea-levels dropped, turning the Red Sea into a huge salty lake in which no organism could survive.

When temperatures went up again, the ice melted and sea levels rose again, organisms repopulated the Red Sea, including corals that had to travel through the southern zone, where temperatures are higher than in other parts of the world. Thanks to that journey, the northern corals are today able to withstand high temperatures.

Other experiments have shown that corals down in the South also share this capacity, though at a lesser level, making the Red Sea a coral refuge, Meibom notes. “Humanity has a real chance of saving a highly biodiverse coral reef ecosystem, alive and well functioning, beyond the end of the century in that region.”

Understanding how corals in other parts of the world react to all these stress factors could also be key to better protecting them against climate change and other risks. Currently, only a handful of such experiments are being carried out.

What’s at stake. Protecting these corals, Meibom stresses, is in everyone’s interest. The tourism industry has been booming in the Red Sea coastline in recent years, particularly in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. With the coral reef as the main attraction, its survival is key for the industry. At the same time, development of the area means more pressure from pollution and tourists.

The Red Sea is also one of the busiest shipping routes on Earth as it leads to the Suez Canal, through which around 10 per cent of global trade flows, including 1.74 million barrels of oil per day. Any leakage accident would threaten marine ecosystems in the region. Plus, Egypt has just started work to extend its second lane.

“Due to the physical constraints of the Red Sea – it is a relatively small body of water – you cannot protect these corals if each Red Sea country has its own approach. These countries have to formulate and implement an environmental protection strategy at the scale of the entire Red sea,” Meibom says.

“You need science to establish the ecosystem baseline, what state it is in and the best way to protect it,” he adds. Meibom hopes that the centre will be able to contribute in this manner by informing the government officials.

Building scientific bridges. Getting all these countries to work together and ensuring that  they’re on the same boat, is also one of the objectives of the project. For that, the scientists, with the help of the Swiss authorities, will have to navigate through complex diplomatic relationships and defuse tensions and mistrust among states.

“This project is about bringing people together and creating dialogue,” Olivier Küttel, head of international affairs at the EPFL, explains.

According to Küttel, Switzerland’s reputation as a neutral country makes it the one right for the job: “Switzerland has no hidden agenda or any economic interest in oil for example.”

For years, Switzerland has been developing a science diplomacy approach, using scientific collaboration as a way to improve diplomatic relations with other nations. This is what motivated the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs to back the Red Sea project as an opportunity to foster engagement between scientists and policymakers in the region. Küttel sees Switzerland as the moderator in this process towards protecting the Red Sea corals.

Involving the local scientific communities, enabling an exchange of knowledge and training is also pivotal, he noted, since in the long-run it will be up to them to continue to study and care for these habitats.

While the centre has managed to take the first steps, many other challenges remain. Covid-related restrictions have slowed down preparations on one hand, discussions to obtain all necessary permits are still underway and all funds have not yet been secured. “We’re still in the process of looking for donors,” Küttel stresses.