New threats on the Gulf of Eilat and Aqaba

The Gulf of Eilat is northern offshoot of the Red sea, which separates the Sinai Peninsula from the Arabian Peninsula. The bay inhabits hundreds of fish species and other marine creatures as well as a rare beauty coral reef, considered the most northern worldwide.

The wealth of species in the Gulf is due to the fact of it being closed in and relatively weak waves, and since very few pollutants come from dry land. These factors contribute to the transparency of the water and the penetration of sun rays that allow the growth of fish and colored spectacular coral. Coral reefs in the Gulf of Eilat are almost the only ones in the world that have managed to survive the phenomenon of bleaching that has characterized coral reefs around the world in recent years. According to the researchers, the reason for this is genetic durability the corals have developed to high temperatures. In addition, the Gulf of Eilat, unlike many other seas in the world, is not characterized by a rise in temperature, a fact that helps coral survival.

The uniqueness of the Gulf of Eilat has turned it into a resource that the Israeli public, headed by Zalul, wants to protect and refuses to lend a hand to the ever-emerging 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). In 2016, the Ministry of Agriculture began to promote a project to establish fish ponds on land, which to Zalul strongly opposes. 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 Institute for the Study of the Seas and Lakes to grow fish in cages in the open sea. 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 time after time.

With the increase in the number of cages at sea, Zalul claimed that they are 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 immediate collapse. Scientists estimate that the food and drugs given to the fish and their secretions cause water turbidity that prevents the penetration of sunlight, which is the most significant factor for the rich species in the Gulf. But not only that, the secretion of the fish sinks into the seafloor and creates bacterial carpets that damage the marine creatures under the cages. The overcrowding in cages encourages outbreaks of disease and the development of parasites transmitted to wild fish. Since Sea Brim fish originate in the Mediterranean Sea, "escaping" fish from the cages violates the delicate ecological balance of the Red Sea. Zalul's unequivocal demand was to shut down the fish cages and transfer the fish to 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 pollute the sea and damage the reef. After lengthy procedures in the various planning institutions and the report of the team of scientists, the National Council for Planning and Construction decided to approve the outline 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 Institute for the Study of the Seas and Lakes are 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 pump back polluted effluents with drugs and fish excretions, which would seriously harm the quality of the water of the Gulf and its rare coral reef.

According to Zalul, the project means returning the pollution to 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 economic, 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 plan of the Ministry of Agriculture 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 propellers pushing for the project are the Ministry of Agriculture, whose fishing department has failed all along, and the Institute for the Study of the Seas and Lakes, which will financially benefit from the project (the institute is expected to sell technology and small fish to 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 already too many pollutants are discharged into the Gulf (22 tons of nitrogen per year), therefore there’s no place for additional polutants. 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, who sent a joint letter to the Minister of Environmental Protection, demanding not to consent to the Ministry of Agriculture’s demands, adopt the report of the scientists and not interfere in the deliberations of the committee to grant permits to 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 Institute for the Study of the Seas and Lake’s project for the cultivation of 100 tons of fish, while pumping the discharge back to the Red Sea, although this plan is known to be the basis for the large plan to grow 5,000 tons of edible fish.

What are the environmental hazards of the project?

The fish ponds will pump water from the sea and discharge polluted output of nutrients and fish excretions. Although the Ministry of Agriculture undertakes that the discharged water will undergo pre-treatment, experience shows that it is not possible to reach adequate treatment values. This means a steady flow of hazardous substances into the sea. In the event of a malfunction (malfunctions occur all the time), 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 pollution. The Gulf houses the most northern coral reef in the world, which 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 in expensive and energy-intensive maintenance. Zalul believes that once they find out that the project is not economic, they will try to economize on energy and means, while seeking concessions from the permit committee (as new factories do). The price will, of course, be payed by the environment and the residents of the State of Israel who will have to deal with another loosing and pollutant project.

Does the project have economic potential?

An economic paper written by environmental economist Gadi Rosenthal, fish production in the Gulf of Eilat, determines that the profitability of the project is negative and that growers are expected to lose 2NIS 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, not before they cause 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, since even the production of 1,500 tons a year will generate only 50 jobs, half of them foreign workers. Even if an entrepreneur is found for the project, he probably will 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, which means a waste of public funds.

Is there a technology that enables fish to grow without environmental pollution?

In the wake of the decline of marine fish all over the world, scientists are trying to grow sea fish in intensive growing farms. For now, the 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 being uneconomical and having operational difficulties. "Zalul" is opposed to turning the Gulf of Eilat into a testing ground for technology whose efficiency has not yet been 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 Institute for the Study of the Seas and Lakes, whose sole ambition is to justify their jobs.