Evaluation of Fish Cages in the Gulf of Eilat

 

 

 

 

 

Report for the Ministries of Infrastructure, Environment and Agriculture

 

 

 

 

 

Prepared by the International Expert Team

September 20, 2004

 

Professor Marlin J. Atkinson

Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology

University of Hawaii

PO Box 1346

Kanoehe, Hawaii, USA 96744

marlin@soest.hawaii.edu

 

Professor Yehudith Birk

The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities

Albert Einstein Square

P.O.B 4040, Jerusalem 91040

Fax & phone: +972-8-9473654

birk@agri.huji.ac.il

 

Professor Harald Rosenthal

Institute for Marine Science

University of Kiel

Duesternbrooker Weg 20

24105 Kiel, Germany

haro.train@t-online.de

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Table of contents

 

IET Statement to the Government ....3-4

 

Executive Summary ...5-6

 

Introduction ...7

 

Recommendations .8-13

 

Findings ...14-21

 

Appendix A: Is the Reef Deteriorating? ...22

 

References ...22-23

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


International Expert Team (IET) on the Gulf of Eilat:

Statement of Findings and Recommendations to the Government of Israel

 

The IET wishes to congratulate the government of Israel on providing the means to make recommendations based upon an objective process, which included quality data, scientific discussions and consensus building. We were appointed by the Director Generals of three Ministries: Agriculture, Environment, and Infrastructure. Oversight of the program was by the three chief scientists of those ministries. Numerous interdisciplinary projects were conducted and provided a better, but not complete, understanding of the complexities of the Gulf. We all are aware that the reef in Eilat is an irreplaceable natural treasure.

 

Findings:

The findings briefly listed below are based on:

1) monitoring and research conducted as part of the IET program,

2) reports and scientific publications provided by Israel scientists, and

3) discussions with Israel scientists.

 

Finding No 1: Water currents in the Gulf are faster and more variable than previously assumed. This is very important. The northern Israel end of the Gulf has an open exchange with the rest of the Gulf. Thus nutrients and plankton from the fish farms move into the whole Gulf relatively rapidly.

 

Finding No 2: Nutrients from the fish cages mix into deep water, widely over the whole Gulf, not just near Eilat.

 

Finding No 3: Nutrients in the deep water of Eilat have been increasing with time, as part of a natural cycle. Nutrients from the fish cages are only a few percent of this amount.

 

Finding No 4: Nutrient delivery to the surface water from Eilat deep water varies from season to season, year to year. This is a natural phenomenon.

 

Finding No 5: Excess organic material from the fish farms is confined to a relatively small area near the fish cages; it does not influence the Eilat reef.

 

Finding No 6: Fish farmers have by now reduced nutrient inputs to the Gulf up to 15% through better management practices.

 

Finding No 7: Coral and associated reef organisms grow and proliferate near the cages. There is some disagreement as to whether they can reproduce and flourish there.

 

Finding No 8: Diseases in natural populations of Eilat fish and caged fish are minimal but can become potentially a severe risk.

 

Finding No 9: A number of contaminants known to affect marine organisms were reported.

 

Recommendations:

 

Recommendation No 1: Do NOT increase nutrients from fish farms into the Entire Gulf.

Nutrients in the water flowing through the Straits of Tiran is the largest source of nutrients to the gulf; fish farm nutrients are presently 2-5% of this source.

 

Recommendation No 2: To understand nutrient changes in the Gulf of Eilat, the Eilat deep water must be continually monitored for specific environmental parameters, regardless of the presence of fish cages. The monitoring program should be a national program affiliated with the international ocean observing systems.

 

Recommendation No 3: Move fish farming to land-based system within clearly defined time period. During the transitional period, specific updated mitigation strategies must be employed. Sufficient and timely funding is critical.

 

Recommendation No 4: Expedite development of artificial coral reefs as a mitigation of the local impacts of the fish cages, a nursery for marketable corals and an educational and research tool..

 

Recommendation No 5: Develop a certified scuba diving program on these artificial reefs. Severely limit tourist scuba diving in the nature preserve.

 

Recommendation No 6: Identify a government authority for the implementation and enforcement of environmental and resource use guidelines.

 

Recommendation No 7: Consider other critical threats to the reef, other than fish cages.

 

Justification:

Even though present nutrient inputs, spread over the entire gulf, are relatively small but significant, any further increases, or uncontrolled additions may alter the functioning of this system in the long term. Combined with unknown and long term risks associated with unpredictable biological interactions, we have made the above recommendations.

 

General Comments:

We suggest that the government considers whether the reef system at Eilat is an untouched natural ecosystem, without any human interference, or whether it is a natural resource with multiple users and affected or controlled by a range of human activities.

 

Recognize that the entire reef may be lost to bleaching, a response to warming of the surface water. This may happen suddenly and regionally from global climate change. Artificial reefs in open water can act as a reserve for corals.

 

Recognize that the deep water has been increasing in nutrients as part of a natural cycle, and if there is a deep mixing soon, it will create a large algal bloom.

Thank you for the opportunity to report our findings.

Executive Summary

 

We all are aware that the reef in Eilat is an irreplaceable natural treasure that must be saved and nurtured for future generations.

 

The IET was originally formed in response to the idea that nutrients from the fish farms may be accumulating in the sediments and deep water of Eilat, creating a pending ecological disaster, the time bomb hypothesis. The IET was tasked to identify sources of pollution and develop an estimate of carrying capacity (IET Report 12-04). This IET report addresses some of the findings from research and monitoring, and makes specific recommendations on the fate of the fish farms. The following paragraphs are a brief review of IET results and the overall of recommendations, followed by our specific recommendations and findings.

 

Overview of the Findings

Nutrients from the fish farm mix to background concentrations and are removed by phytoplankton within several kilometers of the fish cages, depending on current conditions. These organic materials are exported over days to weeks into the central portion of the gulf; they do not accumulate in the sediments in the vicinity of Eilat. They enter the food chain and ultimately are distributed into the deep water and sediments of the entire Gulf, representing several percent of the water column nutrients. Fish farm nutrients are also somewhere between 1-5% of the largest nutrient input to the Gulf, exchange of water and nutrients in the Straits of Tiran. This mechanism is very different from the original time bomb hypothesis (the building of a nutrient reservoir in the sediments of Eilat.) Eilat water changes nutrient inventory seasonally and inter-annually based on the distribution of the deep water. There are some details not yet understood and to further confirm this mechanism, a monitoring of station A and sampling of station B are firmly recommended. The monitoring will also provide a basis to monitor the inputs for the overall Gulf, over decades. In this way the carrying capacity of the Gulf can be actually managed.

The fish farms affect the water locally as described above, and documented in a number of earlier IOLR reports. The water near the fish farms is elevated in nutrients relative to water near the reef, but the nutrient concentrations near the fish farms (50-100m) are within ranges of natural nutrient concentrations reported for other coral reefs, and are well within concentrations that allow coral to grow. Consequently corals and associated organisms grow and flourish immediately adjacent to the fish cages. There is one report, however, that corals, have impaired reproduction near the fish cages, but this work is incomplete because it was observed only in few individuals and was not designed to assess recruitment success at the population level.

Interestingly, three years ago the IET reported that the Eilat reef was deteriorating. During this review, however, there was more evidence presented of reef improvement than of reef decline. Thus there are conflicting reports and a clear analysis of existing data and monitoring goals for the reef needs to be established.

 

 

 

Overview of the Recommendations

The IET does NOT recommend immediate removal of the fish cages, instead the IET recommends hastening research toward a land-based re-circulating system, gradually increasing the rearing of juveniles and larger fish on shore and only growing out the largest fish in the Gulf. The IET believes with immediate initiation, adequate funding and an eight year time-table the fish farming can gradually and almost entirely transfer to land. Land-based expansion of aquaculture to re-circulating systems is now a worldwide effort. The IET recommendation is based on a risk management precautionary approach, because ecological factors may be operating synergistically or chaotically, including unknown inputs from anthropogenic activities along the other coasts of the Gulf, natural fluctuations in the inputs of deep water nutrients, changing weather patterns, heating of the waters, competition from exotics, and disease, interacting with compromised organisms from the effects of contaminants. The fish farms are the largest anthropogenic nutrient source. With these considerations, the IET recommends extensive reduction of the fish cages. The known impacts of the fish cages, now, however are relatively minimal compared to the impacts postulated based on the time-bomb hypothesis. The immediate environmental priority should be to mitigate the local and near-field impacts of the fish cages.

Contaminants and other impacts are reported at several sites near Eilat, including heavy metals, TBT, detergents, sediment re-suspension, and Diver activity. These are more directly related to tourism, than to fish farming. Therefore, immediate removal of the fish cages without proper attention to mitigation measures for the above cited tourism-related activities will not guarantee healthy reefs. Further, the expansion of tourism industry (including the necessary infrastucture development) has to be considered as equally critical. Thus the IET recommends a precautionary approach, representing a mixture of sound environmental stewardship and advances in the technology of mariculture. This project should be adapted as a whole. We further recommend a joint team approach by the scientists of IOLR and IUI. They should focus on two important questions; continued verification of developing a monitoring tool by assessing the deep water at Station A and secondly, answering the basic question on assessing the effects of the fish cages on organism growth and reproduction. The IET commends the scientific effort and scientific leadership of the lead scientists of IOLR and IUI.

 

 


Introduction

 

In principle, four management options regarding the future of the fish farms can be envisioned. They are listed below with their considerations:

 

1. Close fish farms immediately: There are no reasons that the fringing reef will improve or be saved. Large-scale processes affect the system, and clear impacts are not established. This approach is just not realistic nor responsible.

 

2. Keep fish farms operating, business as usual: Lack of precautionary measures, lack of environmental stewardship, and lack of commercial potential for future development of the industry. There is a responsibility to guide development towards long-term livelihood of the community.

 

3. Continue farms with mitigation measures: Employ a series of mitigation measures, develop codes of conduct (Best Environmental Practice & Best Available Technology), continue monitoring, attempt sustainability at the status quo. To continue the farms as a permanent activity in the Gulf does not offer any hope for expansion. Therefore, this activity can only be seen as an option for the medium term. Strict mitigation measures will be required for which the costs will be high towards the end of this period, and no incentive is left for the farms to comply with these measures. Unacceptable impacts towards the final years of the life time of the operation may occur.

 

4. Continue farms with step-wise transfer to land-based systems: Invest strongly, with- out delay, in alternative rearing technology onshore. Once ready for application, decide on total removal of cages or small-scale continuation. These three choices are potential ways for future development and economic growth, while at the same time employing a precautionary approach to protect the environment. Most of the recommendations focus on this option, accompanied by reasonable mitigation measures imposed on fish farms. These mitigation measures offer in themselves development potential for environmentally friendly and commercially viable activities, serving also other stakeholders in the coastal zone (e.g. tourism).

 

In consideration of these four management options and the various findings, the following recommendations were formulated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recommendations

 

Recommendation No 1: Do NOT increase nutrients from fish farms into the ENTIRE Gulf. Nutrients in the water flowing through the Straits of Tiran is the largest source of nutrients to the Gulf; fish farm nutrients are presently 1-5% of this source.

 

Nutrients are not accumulating in the sediments near Eilat and are spreading over a much larger area of the gulf, thus the entire Gulf can be treated as the sink for these nutrients. While 1-5% (see finding below for explanation) seem like a small amount of nutrients, they are significant. In view of not knowing the extent of inputs along the remaining Gulf coast from other countries, and the variability in the Gulf deep water, the IET recommends not increasing the nutrient load to the entire gulf. The fish farms also affect the environment within several kilometers of the cages; and it is yet to be established how beneficial or detrimental this impact is to the natural environment. Expanding the industry will certainly affect the local environments. Thus the IET does not recommend immediate and complete removal; a gradual reduction in size is recommended.

 

Recommendation No 2: To understand nutrient changes in the Gulf of Eilat, the Eilat deep water must be continually monitored for specific environmental parameters, regardless of the presence of fish cages. The monitoring program should be a national program affiliated with the Global Ocean Observation Systems (GOOS).

 

Station A deep water must be monitored for nutrients (nitrate, nitrite, phosphate, ammonia, dissolved organic nitrogen) oxygen, temperature, salinity, and perhaps CO2 chemistry such that the carbonate ion can be calculated for both surface and deep water, and even other compounds of interest. See further discussion below in findings.

The fringing Reef must be monitored for nutrient data, light quality, suspended particles deceased corals, photo-transects, and diseases.

This coastal monitoring should be a part of the developing global observing systems to maintain compatibility, data quality and availability of ancillary data and information. Monitoring of this deep water and its dynamics allows for an ongoing tool to evaluate carrying capacity of nutrient and detect and monitor other inputs into the Gulf. Thus this monitoring should be actively pursued and a consensus developed as to the utility of this monitoring program.

 

Recommendation No 3: Move fish farming to land-based systems within a clearly defined time period. During the transitional period, specific updated mitigation strategies must be employed. Sufficient and timely funding is critical.

 

Fish farming will have to expand and to grow as an industry in Israel. At present there is no chance to do this in cages. IET does not recommend increased nutrient loading to the Gulf (Recommendation No 1) and feasible opportunities for cages in the Mediterranean are minimal. The only sound and reasonable strategy in the long-term is to develop land-based aquaculture systems, mainly employing recirculation technology. IET believes that the biotechnology can be developed, if properly funded. Expanding the mitigation methods (Recommendation 4) is also seen as a sound measure to reduce the output of organic load and of nutrients from the farms gradually to less than 1% of the total input, making them environmentally acceptable. The IET-recommendation to move the farms gradually and not immediately onshore is, therefore, not primarily because of environmental concerns but takes into account the viability of the industry and its future development potential.

The IET proposes that the transition period to gradually transfer the fish farms to land-based systems should be 6 to 8 years, with the initial time beginning when funding starts. Any other setting to count the deadline to complete the transition to land is not at all endorsed by the IET. Towards the end of this period (last two years) only a small component of the original farm size should remain in the water and its fate can be reconsidered at that time (see statements below).

 

Time frame and modus for gradual transfer of production to land-based systems:

Starting date is when funding begins: It will take some time to prepare logistics and budgets; therefore it is strongly recommended that the preparation of the proposal starts IMMEDIATELY so that funding should become available as soon as possible. The following is a brief schedule:

Year 1: Improve land-based hatchery operation and grow juvenile fish to a size of 25 g average weight before stocking into cages. At the same time improve husbandry technique in cages to reduce the feed conversion efficiency from 1.8 to 1.7, which reduces the output of nutrients to the Gulf further.

Year 2: Improve and scale-up the land-based on-growing of fish to average sizes of 65 g before stocking into cages and reduce the overall standing stock biomass in the cage systems accordingly. At that time, a first assessment of the development success of the recycling technology should be under-taken, identifying gaps in technology and the feasibility of various recycling approaches before further scale up steps are implemented. This approach will safeguard the success of the development. Also during this project year, implementation of the first phase of building an artificial reef to capture and utilize a portion of the farm outputs.

Year 3: Scale-up the land-based operations to grow fish to 100 g average size before placing them in cages while reducing the standing stock biomass in the cages accordingly. Expand the artificial reef operation for harvestable products (e.g. corals and other valuable invertebrates) which could be sold on the aquaria trade market. The artificial reef may have reached a state of development to become attractive to tourists and divers. Parts of the reef should be opened with limited access to the tourist industry.

Year 4: Gradually improve the land-based operations to the 150g grow-out stage while reducing the size of the fish cage operation to a total of about 55-60% of the 2004 biomass.

Year 5: The operation should achieve on-growing on land to 200g body weight while also transferring about 70% of the equivalent of the 2004 biomass production to land-based facilities.

Year 6 and 7: During these years the cage farms should be operated at 30% (year 6) and 20% (year 7) of 2004 production level. These percentages are based on an annual integrated average, not a monthly or weekly load. During this period there should be a serious final evaluation whether the technology developed for onshore fish farming recirculation systems can be reliably and sustainable.

 

 

Comment of IET on funding level:

While the first year will require modest funding, the major financial support will be needed between year 2 to 4 while funding support can be gradually reduced during years 5 and 6, assuming that the land-based operations have gained momentum. Some funding for accompanying R&D (fine tuning of system component technology) will be required for years 7 and 8. The actual budget calculations require the preparation of a full-scale proposal which should be critically evaluated. IET is prepared to provide comments and judgements on this proposal.

 

Comment of IET on final fate the fish cages:

At the end of the transitional period, IET recommends that the Government of Israel reconsider the option whether to continue at small scale (e.g. to supply some nutrients to the artificial reef) or totally close down the cage operation. It is anticipated that at that time, our understanding of the overall nutrient flux and budgets of organic matter in the entire Gulf would be greatly improved. The carrying capacity can at that stage be more precisely assessed. A decision on whether or not to maintain cage farming and at what level should be easy.

 

The IET feels very strongly about the starting date of the transitional period and wishes to express its firm commitment to the recommendation that this date HAS TO BE STRICTLY COUPLED to the day when funding for the transfer project becomes officially available.

 

Observation: The chances for developing coastal mariculture at the Mediterranean coast of Israel as repeatedly proposed - are seen by the IET as extremely marginal. Besides a few options, the harsh environment will require the development of offshore technology, which is extremely expensive and requires high running costs, while also being a high risk operation. Although the technology is available at experimental and pilot scale also in Israel- this option will remain marginal with a doubtful future for development at a large scale unless the Government commits itself to R&D at a much larger scale. It would be irresponsive to promote this concept to move the Eilat cages to the Mediterranian without a serious feasibility analysis of its commercial viability and competitiveness and any suggestion for moving now the Eilat cage farms to the Mediterranean must be rejected.

The placement of cage farms in a harbor also cannot be endorsed by the IET. IET anticipates that the future requirements to meet the standards in accordance with the internationally more aggressively employed HACCP procedures (Hazard Analytical Critical Control Points) will pose problems to such an operation in the long-term.

for moving the Eilat cage farms. There is a need to incorporate the sustainability issue in all of such proposals.

 

Recommendation No 4: Expedite development of artificial coral reefs as a mitigation of the local impacts of the fish cages, a nursery for marketable corals and an educational and research tool.

 

Recommendation No 5: Develop a certified scuba diving program on these artificial reefs. Severely limit tourist scuba diving in the nature preserve.

 

These recommendations should be seen as both, a medium-term link to cope with cage farm output and a long-term mitigation strategy for the betterment of the Gulf as a tourist attraction as well as a sound and solid protection measure for the natural reefs of Eilat. Tourism is a major threat to the struggling and small fringe reefs of Eilat.

The artificial reef, which should be made up of several units and developed Step by Step as the gradual transfer of the fish farms to land proceeds, should serve multiple purposes:

a)      Reduce substantially the environmental load from fish farms,

b)      Reduce damages to natural reefs by diverting a huge number of dives by unexperienced divers,

c)      Serve as training ground for first-time tourist divers to earn their Eilat/Israel Environmentally friendly Diver Certificate (Attractive incentive to obtain permits for diving on natural reefs),

d)      Serve as ecosystem learning/training/research tool for the public, NGOs, biologists, environmentalists and even for foreign research teams dealing with coral reefs to carry out their own projects (gaining insight in system performance without having to pay the costs).

To visualize the concept of using artificial reefs as mitigation measures to environmental load, the graphic in the Figure below shows a principle setup.

 

Figure: A sketch showing the in-situ recycling concept of farm outputs to an artificial reef and the conversion to useable products. Wastes become resources for the downstream user, a recycling concept increasingly employed by agriculture industries and inland and coastal aquaculture.

 

While writing the final report, IET realized the importance of the general comment stated to the Government of Israel during the oral presentation regarding the establishment of an artificial reef in open (deeper) waters. It was said to: Recognize that the entire reef may be lost to bleaching, this may happen suddenly and regionally from global climate change. Artificial reefs in open (deeper) waters can act as a reserve for corals.

IET is inclined to raise this observation to recommendation status to be appended to recommendation No 4. The reasons are clear. Global warming is real and the risks associated with this warming may have severe consequences for the Eilat near surface fringe reefs. They may simply be killed by a massive bleaching event (an effect of a temperature rise higher than 2-3C above average seasonal maximum). It would be advisable to have at deeper or open waters (where temperatures will remain below the critical level) coral reefs from which re-seeding of the damaged reefs may be possible (naturally or through transplantation). This is seen as a strategic, advisable and precautionary measure to cope with global environmental changes. Remember: the Gulf is unique and in need of a pro-active environmental management approach.

 

 

Recommendation No 6: Identify a government authority for the implementation and enforcement of environmental and resource use guidelines.

 

The environmental and management issues of the Gulf are complex and require a mandatory coordinated and concerted effort to preserve and enhance the gulf ecosystem. The recommendations proposed by the IET are not worth anything if their implementation is not adequately monitored and enforced. Thus it is necessary that there is a lead agency or committee established that interacts with all involved in the implementation of recommendations in a timely manner. The IET was pleased with the appointment of the lead scientists of three ministries to provide oversight for the first phase and would recommend this leading committee to continue the work. The organization, leadership and cooperation from IOLR and IUI directors and scientists have been vital in addressing this multidisciplinary program

 

Recommendation No 7: Consider other critical threats to the reef, other than fish cages.

 

During the entire evaluation period, IET considered briefly a number of other potential threats to the Gulf and received some reports (IET Reports A, B1 B2 ). However, in terms of overall effects and risks, there are potentially more impact sources which may act as single stressor or in combination. Among those are:

 

a) Tourism (the number of dives is still of great concern).

b) harbor and coastal bay construction (little information on the impact as little or no data were available to IET prior to and after these constructions).

c) beach alterations (sand deposits). Replenishing of beaches with sand and washing of the fines into the nearshore environment, and lateral transport to the fringe reef. These sediments add another stress to the reefs.

d) sewage disposal and oil spills, ballast water from commercial ships and pleasure boats.

e) potential effect of hotels as wind shades altering seriously the surface current patterns of the most northern part of the Gulf ,and thereby altering mixing characteristics.

f) Surface drainage (rainwater) during sporadic but heavy local flooding bringing freshwater and contaminants.

 

 

Findings

 

Each finding, listed below, has an explanation based on:

 

1) monitoring and research conducted as part of the IET program,

2) reports and scientific publications provided by Israel scientists, and

3) discussions with Israel scientists.

 

The findings are phrased in short statements and are followed by extended explanations in scientific language of the IET reports.

 

Finding No 1: Water currents in the Gulf are faster and more variable than previously assumed. The northern end of the Gulf (Eilat) has an open exchange with the rest of the Gulf. Thus nutrients and plankton from the fish farms move into the whole Gulf relatively rapidly.

Modeling of the Gulf showed several dynamic gyres with roughly 20 km scales. These gyres have intense E-W flows of up to 20 cm s-1 (IET project 6: Brenner). ADCP data from the Meteor Cruise 1999 confirms this model (Manasrah et al 2004; Fig 5) for 105 m depth (note changes in the velocity vectors from one day to the next). These gyres create relatively fast horizontal mixing. Brenners model also shows penetration of the gyres into the deep water. Thus vertical gradients of nitrate to the bottom near Eilat show no E-W nor N-S differences (IET project 7a: Erez and Lazar). Plots of nitrate versus temperature below 21.5 degrees (permanent thermocline) are linear, indicating vertical mixing is the dominate process that affects the nitrate distribution, not remineralization of organic material within the water column. Seasonal and yearly changes in the vertically integrated nitrate do not necessary mean deep water is increasing or decreasing its nitrate content suddenly; it does indicate that the deep water may depend on the distribution of temperature in the Eilat deep water. Suspended material is moved in and out of Eilat water on time scales of several days. The variability in the transport associated with changes in the forcing is not known , but Brenner suggests it will not alter the result that currents are relatively fast and mixing materials laterally. We recommend some caution and monitoring.

 

Finding No 2: Nutrients from the fish cages mix into deep water, widely over the whole Gulf, not just near Eilat.

 

The evidence for this statement comes from several IET projects. Firstly, sediment shows a fairly low and relatively even distribution of organic carbon (0.2-0.6%) increasing into deep water. There are no spatial gradients of organic phosphate from fish cages towards the deep water. The highest organic carbon is actually at the base of the fore-reef, quite typical of sediments near reefs. There are also no major accumulations of organic carbon in the sediments. There are no increases of organic phosphate in the top layers of sediment, indicating no changes in the deposition of organic material with increasing nutrient delivery by the fish cages. The high total phosphate is because of calcium phosphate, suggested to be from dust (IET Project 11: Herut and Nishri). The measured flux of nutrients from the sediments is relatively low 0.1 mmole m-2 d-1 to 1 mmol m-2 d-1 (IET Report 8: Erez and Nishri), in fact 1-2 orders of magnitude too low to support the large changes in vertically integrated nitrate (IET report 12-01). IET Report 8 discusses support of planktonic production, based on fluxes of nutrients near 1 mmol m-2 d-1. These fluxes are based on calculations of nutrient gradients, not measurements, and are the upper values.

 

These two IET projects were designed to test whether nutrient accumulation in the sediments could sustain the fluxes of nutrients required for the relatively rapid seasonal changes in nitrate in the water column. The advection and mixing into the wider part of the Gulf and the linear relationship between nitrate and temperature (discussed above) gives evidence that the distribution of nutrients in deep water is fairly uniform. If the sediments accumulated nutrients and released them back to the water column at Eilat disproportionately, then we might expect horizontal gradients in water column nutrients; there are no horizontal gradients reported (IET Report 7a). David 2002 also concludes that changes in the amounts of plankton cannot account for the seasonal changes in nitrate, and reasons that it must be changes in dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) or changes in the water mass below the permanent thermocline.

 

 

Finding No 3: Nutrients in the deeper water of Eilat have been increasing with time, as part of a natural cycle. Nutrients from the fish cages are only a few percent of this amount.

 

IET Reports 7a and 7b present data indicating deeper water near Eilat is getting higher in nitrate concentration. There is some disagreement between these two reports as to how to interpret the data, but after discussions there appears to be, at this time, a consensus. However further analysis and on-going monitoring must happen to solidify the following interpretation. Firstly we define two different terms, Eilat deep water, meaning water below the permanent thermocline at station A, and deep water, meaning water below the permanent thermocline throughout the gulf. The above statement, regarding increasing nitrate in the Eilat deep water, is made based on either vertically integrated nitrate (IET Report 7a) or nitrate at fixed depth ranges (IET Report 7b). Both show similar trends. Thus we recognize that nitrate is increasing in Eilat deep water. The same data, however, plotted with respect to temperature, indicate that water below the permanent thermocline, increases linearly with respect to temperature. The end-member of those mixing plots appears to increase from 1990 to 2003. This apparent increase is due to the fact that the 1990 profile was not as deep as the 2002 and 2003 profiles (IET Report 7b). Thus all the apparent increases in nitrate may be due to different distributions of temperature (read density) in the deep water. It is absolutely critical to re-evaluate the existing nitrate data with respect to density and temperature. We note that an inspection of the IUI CTD data set shows appropriate pairs of temperature and salinities for the deep. Thus a plot of integrated density from the deepest water to the base of the permanent thermocline (pick some arbitrary pycnocline) versus integrated nitrate for that water will reveal any trends in the actual increase in this deep water.

 

These dynamics can be visualized by comparing the horizontal temperature structure between winter and summer periods (IET Report 12: German and Brenner; Fig 5-8) and the oscillation in the temperature change at 200 m (roughly the summer depth of the thermocline: IET Report 12: Fig 9). Inspection of Fig 9 reveals that in summer, 200 m water is cooler than in winter and more high nutrient deep water moves into the northern gulf. This brings massive amounts of nutrients with it. The original time bomb hypothesis was erected based on comparisons of winter summer graphs. IET report 12-2001 pointed out that these large changes in the nitrate inventory must be explained. Note also from Fig 9 of the variability throughout the summer in the 200 m temperature. This means there is a large annual variability in the nitrate inventory. The scatter in the data also indicates there is some wandering. We emphasize that the nitrate vs density or temperature data must be more fully analyzed before anyone can conclude whether the deep water of the entire gulf, not just near Eilat, is changing. The data exist to attempt an answer to this question.

 

If nutrients and plankton are spread over the entire Gulf water relatively fast (weeks to months) as argued by finding No 1, then the annual flux of nutrients times the residence times of water, divided by the surface area gives the vertically integrated nitrate contribution of the fish farms or (20 x 106 mole yr-1 x 8 yr / 2.5 x 109 m2 or 0.032 mole m-2. The vertically integrated nitrate over the average depth is at minimum around 2 mole m -2, thus the fish contribution to the total nitrate pool is about 2 %; thus we say several percent. This is small, but significant; it certainly is not negligible. We also recognize that there is little known about the variability in the residence time and fluctuation in export and import of nutrients in the Tiran Strait, so there may be some fluctuations in the deep water nutrient content of this order. The fish farm nutrients are about 2-5% of the total nitrogen exchange through the Tiran Straits (20 x106 mol yr-1 /1012 m3 yr-1 x 1 mmol m-3 = 2% ). This is not an insignificant number, it is small and a safe loading, but we do not recommend going above this value until a better understanding of the deep water fluctuations exist. It should be noted here that inputs of nitrogen from groundwater are approximately 10 fold less that inputs from fish cages (IET Report A). Groundwater flows for the entire Gulf should be estimated.

 

If nutrient and plankton are spread over the entire Gulf water relatively fast (as above), we would expect remineralization of organic material to occur throughout the sediments of the entire gulf. The linearity of the nitrate vs temperature plots indicate that the most dense and deepest water has the highest nutrients. This is also an indication that the source of these nutrients must be the sediments, or the very highest residence time water is the deepest water. In practice this is same thing, nutrients must constantly mix upwards from the very deepest water. Organic matter may be oxidized in the deep water but it keeps accumulating downwards. We can estimate the nutrient content of the deep water pool by estimating the flux of nutrients from the sediments into that volume of deep water. Taking a middle value between the upper nutrient release rates (calculated from diffusion gradients) and lower rates based on actual measurements of nutrient release rates (IET Report 11) times the residence time of the deep water and times surface area to volume ratio of water below 400 m (Klinker et al. 1978) gives the average deep water concentration (0.22 mol m-2 yr-1 x 8 yr x 2.0 x 109 m2 / 386 x 109 = ) or 9 mmol m-3. This indeed is the right amount considering on average the calculated release rates from the diffusion gradients are 10 times higher that of the measured. If we assume just the measured rates, then the concentration would be about 2 mmol m-3. This calculation is only meant to demonstrate that sediment release can give the right magnitude of deep water concentrations. The deep water concentration will also depend on how much the residence time of deep water varies from one set of years to the next. Given this mechanism, we may expect some fluctuations in the concentration of the deepest water, depending on how rapidly it is mixed from the surface through deep convection (IET Report 12: Fig 11 &12).

 

David (2002) recognized that the Eilat deep water pool was dominated by mixing, and seasonal plots of Eilat deep water nitrate vs temperature were linear with the same end-members. The question is, how much DON is in the surface water? If there is a refractory component to the DON (an organic compound that is not decomposed on time scales of decades) we might predict that DON varies in the surface waters (water< 2 uM nitrate), probably positively correlated to chl a, but constant in the deep water. This is a good test of the understanding of the deep water pool throughout the basin. We recommend measuring DON at station A. Further, the deep water end-member of nitrate will be set largely by the pore-water nitrate concentrations, averaged over the basin and thus should have a very steady profile under the permanent thermocline. Even though the Eilat deep water nitrate can change (vertically integrated) there must be some component of it that is driven by the distribution of temperature. The hypothesis to check with station A data is to what extent the slope of nitrate vs temperature changes below permanent thermocline. We also recommend (IET report 12-01) using measuring 15N of these different pools of nutrients to confirm there is a weak signal from the fish farms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Finding No 4: Nutrient delivery to the surface water from Eilat deep water varies from season to season, year to year. This is a natural phenomenon.

 

This finding is reported so people will understand that nutrient delivery varies, and occurs over a wide region in Eilat. Deep nutrients are correlated to temperature. IET Report 12 shows the seasonal variability in vertical mixing which brings different amounts of nutrients to the surface (IET Report 12: Fig 11-13)

 

Finding No 5: Excess organic material from the fish farms is confined to a relatively small area near the fish cages; it does not influence the Eilat reef.

 

The excess organic material settles to the bottom and creates a bacterial mat. This has been described in several reports, previously discussed in the IET 12-01 report to the government. The question however, is to what extent do nutrients or excess carbon affect the natural reef. Unfortunately there are almost no data to substantiate any claim of eutrophication. (Loya 2004) Firstly the nutrient concentrations reported near the cages are not high, they are in fact within typical ranges for coral reefs (Atkinson and Falter 2003). Loya et al. ( 2004) report nitrates and ammonia of only 0.38 and 1.0 uM, respectively and phosphates of 0.12 uM for their experiments on coral reproduction. Nutrients along the coast do not show any excess nutrients on the reef. It is also physically impossible for these nutrients to elevated concentrations basin wide. Do all these nutrients increase organic matter? The IET has seen little data.

 

There have been no light measurements to address light attenuation and no particle measurements to determine the amount of organic material in the water. Even a 17 year record of chlorophyll over the reef (Genin personal communication) shows steady concentrations with many short term spikes. There is no increase in chlorophyll in the last 4 years of increasing nutrient output from the fish farms. Erez, however, provided a provocative plot of productivity to the IET (Iluz et al. 2004), This report has no numbers nor sampling times on which to evaluate the annual means. These numbers show a doubling of productivity and should be considered very carefully for the following reason. A calculation can at least estimate the area of elevated chlorophyll as phytoplankton. Given an average chlorophyll concentration of 0.4 mg chl m-3 and 0.7 mmol N mg chl-1 in the top 50 m of water the biomass of phytoplankton over a 100 km 2 represents 1.4 x 106 moles of N. If these phytoplankton double every day, they will utilize this amount of N in a day. The fish farms release about 20 x 106 moles yr-1 or 5.5 x 104 d-1, roughly 25 times less, so it can be expected that there would be a gradient in phytoplankton, and thus productivity, from the farms outward for 4 km2 -8 km2 depending of the thickness of the surface layer. The change in chlorophyll would not be large but the steady nutrient supply would maintain these higher chlorophyll concentrations, supporting higher production.

 

Erez and Lazar showed the IET chlorophyll plots three years ago, indicating a gradient from the fish cages outward. This elevated production however does not mean organic material nor nutrients are accumulating in the sediments. Instead the plankton are probably confined to the surface layer and in time scales of days to a week, they are mixed away from Eilat, as reasoned earlier. The issue here is that under some physical conditions, unknown as yet, chlorophyll and nutrients could be trapped for days and not be transported outward, giving spikes of chlorophyll. The Princeton Ocean Model (IET Report 6) was only run over steady winds. There are no extreme scenarios representing changing winds, etc. This gradient is most likely the most important feature of the existence of the fish farms. Iluz et al.(2004) data should be considered very carefully. As chlorophyll is mixed outward and downward it becomes negligible, but the fish farms are a steady source, so there should be some gradient over the first several kilometers at least. There are earlier IOLR reports on modeling this dispersion, and it is no surprise to anyone involved. For this reason the IET still considers the local elevation in chlorophyll and perhaps productivity to be important and recommends caution, hence recommendation to not increase nitrogen from the fish farms.

 

There apparently are no profiles of light attenuation, and the IET recommends monitoring light characteristics throughout a 50 m water column near the reef. The IET also recommends comparing the biomass of fish removed by fishing, to the biomass in the cages, to give some idea of the relative change in nutrient excretion from fish.

 

 

Finding No 6: Fish farmers have by now reduced nutrient inputs to the Gulf up to 15% through better management practices.

 

The IET was impressed with the performance of the fish farms; they have reached a high international acceptable quality standard, to the extent that in 2003 the farms were granted the ISO 14001 standards. Therefore, from a biological and management point of view these farms can be considered comparable to other acceptable farm operations in European countries including the Mediterranean. Most of the recommendations on mitigation strategies made by the IET (Report 12-04) have been implemented by the farms, although not all have been fully achieved. These include the following:

 

1)      reducing protein content in the feed for fish over 90g weight. A 3% reduction was achieved in the given time frame of several months after IET Report 12-04. IET asked for a 5% reduction, however, there seems to be health implications in doing so.

2)      growing fingerlings to larger size onshore before transferring them to cages. The year after the IET recommendation, the fingerlings were stocked at 7g average size instead of 3g, reducing substantially the output of small particles (feaces) that sink slowly and drift further downstream. IET has asked for 10g stocking size. There seem to be still some bio-technological problems to achieve this. One critical issue will be whether full recycling or partial recycling provides the best biotechnology for application. If partial recycling is seen as more viable, treatment technology for the residual effluents need to be employed .

3)      growing fish to max 400g body weight (instead of 500-580g). This has been implemented immediately, thereby culturing fish to a size at which growth rates are still the highest. Older fish grow slower and nutrient/ organic output per unit weight gain decreases. The size limit has lead to an overall more environmentally friendly operation and a sound reduction in nutrient and organic output per unit fish produced. Between 2000 and 2003 the output in total nitrogen was estimated to be in the range of 20%.

4)      no use of antibiotics in caged-cultured fish. During the entire reporting period (since IET 12-04) there has not been a single case where the use of antibiotics was necessary. In fact, farms claim to have not even antibiotics on stock. If diseased fish occurred, fish were removed and disposed of in an approved manner. Further, the farms are supervised and regularly inspected by a veterinarian. IET was informed the veterinarian keeps all the health records.

5)      In the past, the farms experienced violence by public divers cutting the nets on purpose to either steal fish or let mass escapement purposefully occur (perhaps to later claim that escaped fish threaten the Gulf). Such criminal acts needed to be prevented and IET strongly recommended employment of effective guarding techniques. This recommendation was implemented immediately by using 24 hours video coverage (more than 10 video cameras permanently employed). Additionally, several guards and professional divers are permanently employed to attend the farms and control the nets (2 dives a day at each net). This represents more tight control measures than average cage farms do in Nordic European countries. Any report on new escapements must be considered with skepticism unless independent proof is provided.

 

IET was also impressed by the pro-active approach of the farms to (a) aggressively seek to meet the standards of ISO 14001 in 2003 and (b) to experiment with building artificial reef structures on a test basis on the farm site. IET strongly believes that building artificial reefs for tourist diving purposes and also for production of valuable aquarium trade species is a highly endorsable and environmentally friendly development that generates significant income, supports the tourist industry and should be strongly encouraged.

Finding No 7: Coral and associated reef organisms grow and proliferate near the cages. There is disagreement as to whether they can reproduce and flourish there.

 

The fish farms have provided video of coral growth. There are now several publications showing increased growth rates of corals, weedy species of Acropora and Stylophora. There are several critical manuscripts, culminating in a report showing compromised reproduction under the cages, (Loya et al. 2004) i.e lack of planula production compared with a site at IUI off the natural reef. A full discussion of those studies and the published criticis is rather long. The IET considers that the experiments on coral reproduction need to be re-done at different depths and horizontal distances from the cages to conclude anything about the impact of fish farming nutrients on coral reproduction. Light and nutrients need to be measured at each experimental site and compared with appropriate light and nutrient conditions at the IUI sites. One repeated concern is that only weedy species are settling under the cages; this is incorrect; corals of the genus Favities are beginning to settle.

 

 

Finding No 8: Diseases in natural populations of Eilat fish and caged fish are minimal but can become potentially a severe risk.

 

IET Report 22 addresses this issue in great detail, covering not only the IET-project phase but also considers numerous findings from studies in the Gulf over the past 20 years as well as information from peer review literature. The overall conclusion is that disease-related mortalities of fish in the Gulf of Eilat have been occurring, but do not appear to be a large scale phenomenon. IET shares this overall conclusion and also agrees that this perception may change as new data become available. IET also is in agreement with the global science community working on diseases of aquatic organisms, that diseases are highly diverse and are an integral part of biodiversity. Therefore diseases and parasites must occur in well-functioning ecosystem. Their population dynamics is as variable as that of their final and intermediate hosts. They can emerge suddenly, causing epizootic outbreaks, but can also be latent over years or decades.

 

Report 22 states that .dispersal of fish pathogens from the cage farms, however not negligible, are less alarming than previously suspected. IET is in agreement with this statement. Emergenceof diseases in 35 years of Israeli aquaculture indicate that only a few have been introduced; the occurrence of at least three pathogens (Mycobacterium marinum, Streptococcus iniae, Lactococcus garvieae) and the parasite (Enteromyxum leei), however, is worrisome. These disease agents and the parasite may be native in the Red Sea, they are new in the Gulf and two (S. iniae and E. leei) may have been introduced with the transfer for live fish for aquaculture purposes. All of these agents are in need of attention, even if the fish farms are removed. Furthermore, monitoring diseases is in general also required as new disease agents will emerge or show epizootic outbreaks do to climate change or other human activities (see below).

 

It is generally accepted that transmission of pathogens can occur from cultured fish to wild fish as well as from wild fish to cultured fish. Risks of disease transfer in both directions are real, need to be monitored and properly managed. Most of the diseases found in aquaculture species were previously known from the region, but few are new and have been introduced by aquaculture. The risks of transfer with live fish can be minimized or controlled by following the internationally accepted Codes of Practice on introductions and transfers from ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, Copenhagen), EIFAC (European Inland Fisheries Advisory Commission of FAO, Rome) and IOE (International Office of Epizootics, Paris). Principles and strategies employed to manage the risks of disease transfer are similar as when dealing with other human risk pathogens such as SARS or BSE. However, IET recommends that candidates for aquaculture be only chosen from indigenous species to avoid transfer of exotic diseases. Although it would be advisable to develop vaccines for those disease agents that caged fish could be perceived as both a source and a reservoir (this has been shown to be extremely effective in large-scale cage farms in other parts of the world), there is no future perspective for cage farming in Israel and therefore no economic incentive exist to do so.

 

Global evidence is accumulating that transfer of aquatic disease organisms are increasingly occurring through other vectors such as ballast water and pleasure boats. These vectors are in need of attention as real threats to the Gulf. The prevalence of disease agents and parasites will also change with global warming. Even when fish farms are removed, diseases are important components and regulators in ecosystem dynamics and community structures.

 

 

Finding No 9: A number of contaminants known to affect marine organisms were reported.

There are now reports of heavy metals, detergents in nearshore areas of Eilat (IET Reports A, B1 B2 ). These agents can create sub-lethal stress on coral and other organisms, which are suggested to be at North Beach and Eilat harbor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Appendix A: Is the Reef Deteriorating?

 

The specific work outlined in the IET Report 12-04 was intended to determine whether anthropogenic nutrients were accumulating in the sediment, being released and creating a time bomb. It was not intended to evaluate the state of the coral reef, nor was it intended to discover causes for the perceived decline of the reef.

 

IET Report 12-04 stated that the reef in Eilat was deteriorating. Now there seems to be some re-consideration. Loya (2004) reports a continued decrease in coral cover on a single 4 m deep transect that he has been studying since 1969 (Loya, 1969). This transect is small, a 10 m long transect representing less than 1 millionth of the reef. There is some evidence on nearby transects that coral cover and diversity is higher than 1969 (Perkol-Finkel and Benayahu, 2004). The IET is now aware of conflicting statements and reports in the scientific literature, so the IET believes there is some aliasing of the observations. IUI should have a careful, well documented program to evaluate the health of the reef. Extensive benthic photographs are recommended.

 

 

 

References

 

Atkinson, MJ and Falter, J. 2003 Biogeochemistry of Coral Reefs. In Biogeochemistry of Marine Ecosystems. K. Black and G. Shimmield. CRC Press Boca Raton Florida p 40-64.

 

David E. (2002) Vertical distribution and fluxes of dissolved inorganic nitrogen and phytoplankton in the Northern Gulf of Aqaba (Eilat). MS Thesis, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

 

Iluz, D; Erez J, Silverman J., Lazar B. 2004 Eutrophicaiton in the northern Gulf of Eilat (Aquaba) detected by increase in its primary production. ABSTRACT NOT PUBLISHED.

 

 

Klinker, J.; Reiss, Z, Kropach, C., Levanon, I.; Harpaz, H., Shapiro, Y. 1978 Nutrients and biomass distribution in the Gulf of Aqaba (Eilat) Red Sea. Marine Biology 45:53-64.

 

 

Loya, Y 2004 The Coral Reefs of Eilat. In Coral Health and Disease. Ed. Rosenberg E. and Loya Y. pp1-29

 

 

Loya Y, Lubinevsky H., Rosenfeld M., Kramarsky-Winter, E. 2004 Nutrient enrichment casued by in situ fish farms at Eilat, Red Sea is detrimental to coral reproduction. Marine Pollution Bulletin 49: 344-353.

 

Loya, Y 1972 Community structure and species diversity of hermatypic corals at Eilat, Red Sea. Mar Biol 13, 100-123.

 

Manasrah, R.; Badran, M.;Lass,H.; Fennel, W. 2004 Circulation and winter deep-wter formation in the northern Red Sea. Oceanologia 46:5-23

 

Perkol-Finkel and Benayahu, 2004 Cummunity structure of stony and soft corals on vertical uplanned artificial refs in Eilat (Red Sea): comparison to natural reefs. Coral Reefs 23, 195-205, 2004

 

Stambler, N. and Z. Dubinsky 2004 Stress effects on metabolism and photosynthesis of hermatypic corals. Eutrophication p207. In Coral Health and Disease. Ed. Rosenberg E. and Loya Y. pp195-212.