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Volume 31, Number 5September/October 1980

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To Save a Sea

Written and photographed by Gunnar Bemert

Before they must, and while they can, the Red Sea countries are taking action ….

There are, in the world, several coral seas: the waters around the Great Barrier Reef northeast of Australia, the Caribbean and the vast region called the Indo-Pacific. But the Red Sea, in some ways, is unique. For one thing, it is reel - in some places and on some occasions.

Theories on why it's red - or seems red - abound. One is that the sun, reflecting off the mountains by the Sinai coast, casts a reddish tone across vast stretches of the sea.

But the real reason - or at least the reason accepted by science - is that masses of tiny red one-celled creatures called dinoflagellates, a type of plankton, occasionally float to the surface and in daylight hours tint the water the shade of tomato soup.

The Red Sea is different in other ways too. It is the only fully enclosed tropical coral sea (the Arabian Gulf is not considered a "sea") and is surrounded by countries where a subtropical climate and deserts prevail. With no permanent rivers to feed it, the flow of water into the Red Sea comes entirely from the Suez Canal to the north, and from the narrow passage to the Gulfof Aden. Thus its supply of fresh water is scanty, and since evaporation is high, the Red Sea - over four percent salt - is one of the saltiest in the world. Last, much of its marine life is unique. The Red Sea is home to numerous species of fish and other organisms found nowhere else in the world, and its coral reefs are among the most beautiful and extensive anywhere.

Darwin, in The Origin of Species, wrote that there are basically three types of coral reef: fringing reefs, atolls and barrier reefs, all built by billions of tiny polyps of the limestone armor they secrete from their own bodies - and all represented in the Red Sea.

The type closest to the shoreline is called a fringing reef, which, characteristically, runs parallel to the shore and, north of Jiddah, is very typical: it has a distinctive edge and a "drop-off" about 300 feet out from the shoreline. Toward the shore, within the reef, there is a shallow lagoon, its bottom mostly sand, dead coral and rock and its water temperature slightly higher than outside the reef. Toward the edge of the reef, where the depth is about 20 inches, the live coral begins to grow; because they need sunlight, the coral polyps cannot live in depths greater than 165 feet even in very clear water. Then, at the edge, the reef suddenly drops off to depths of between 40 and 80 feet and appears to be a solid wall. But that’s not so; the wall consists of more than 100 species of coral, some "hard," but some "soft."

The second kind of reef is the atoll, which occurs further out from the shoreline, but still in relatively shallow water. Mostly circular in shape, atolls enclose shallow lagoons, occur frequently in clusters and have an outside wall of live corals.

The third kind of reef is the barrier reef, normally the farthest reef offshore before reefs, connected to each other to form one huge solid reef stretching for miles - as Australia's Great Barrier Reef does - and dropping off to depths of between 325 and 1,000 feet.

Over the 300,000 years since the Red Sea was last connected to the Indian Ocean, these reefs and their attendant marine life have developed in nearly complete isolation - one of the reasons why up to 20 percent of species found in the Red Sea are found only there. They have developed, furthermore, with virtually no interference from man until recently. Although it has been a valuable shipping route, particularly after the Suez Canal was completed, the countries bordering the Red Sea - Egypt, The Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are the main ones - are lightly populated along the shores and only a few have any large ports. In Saudi Arabia, nevertheless, concern is growing that pollution might one day destroy the reefs and the fantastically beautiful creatures that live there.

This is not, it should be said at once, ai imminent danger. At present the Red Sea is almost totally free of pollution, and the conditions which turned, or are turning, the Great Lakes and the Mediterranean into vast sewers do not apply.

Upriver land mismanagement, for example, which leads to siltation on coastal reefs, is ruled out since little rain falls in the area and no significant permanent rivers enter the sea. Moreover, dry conditions allow little agriculture in the coastal areas - thus reducing the runoff of pesticides or other agricultural chemicals which have been so harmful to other bodies of water.

On the other hand, the Red Sea is extremely vulnerable. Because, like the Mediterranean, the Red Sea is enclosed, any pollutants that do get into it will stay there; there are virtually no tides or currents to flush them out, nor rivers to dilute them. The governments of Saudi Arabia and other coastal countries, therefore, are already beginning to worry about the potential dangers involved in industrial development along the shoreline, and in increased shipping.

Already, in fact, some effects of increased shipping have been seen.. Since the 1976 reopening of the Suez Canal traces of garbage and oil have been noted and as expansion continues, observers fear, this will get worse. Even now, delays at some Red Sea ports sometimes force ships to wait outside - with a consequent increase in discharge. And when Saudi Arabia completes two new refineries with oil-loading terminals, now under construction at Yanbu' close supervision during terminal operations will be vital to prevent spillage.

In addition, there is the danger of shipwrecks and collisions. The Red Sea is notorious for its navigational difficulties and dangerous reefs; thus when tanker traffic expands, additional care will be necessary to guard against collisions and navigational hazards.

As to industrialization, development in several coastal countries is proceeding rapidly; several modern ports and industrial cities are being built. But ports and new installations are often placed on the natural creeks and coves which occur on both sides of the Red Sea and are very likely to be important spawning and nursery grounds for fish, shrimps and other forms of marine life.

In coastal cities, meanwhile, rapidly growing populations have, in some cases, resulted in the discharge of sewage directly into the sea. The same is true of suburban residences and vacation homes now being built along the coasts from many cities. As most of the coast is enclosed by the fringing reef, and as there is little tidal action, such wastes are flushed from the lagoon at a slow pace. At some point the reef corals are bound to be affected.

Another threat arises, ironically, from the incredible beauty and variety of the Red Sea's marine life. Drawn by reports of colorful reefs teeming with fish, skin divers, scuba divers and shell collectors have begun to range the coasts in alarming numbers. Added to the losses from small reef-based industries - such as the collection of shellfish (Trochus niloticus) for mother-of-pearl and black coral for jewelry - and the use of conch for food, this incursion might already be affecting the delicate ecosystem.

In Jiddah, furthermore, the population is already so large that it has had an impact. Fishermen for example have already used up the area's modest stock of spring lobster, a local favorite; close to Jiddah there are virtually no more. And observations in a recreation area north of Jiddah, suggest that the populations of predatory fish such as groupers and coral trout, and of branching corals such as Acropora and Stylophom -and thus of small fish, like angelfishes and butterfly fishes, which shelter in them - are all lower than in most comparable reef areas. A further effect, often overlooked, is that swimmers, divers, and outboard engine propellers stir up sand that settles on the coral, blocks the sunlight needed and kills it. This appears to be happening, to some extent, in Sharm Obhor.

Again, the situation today is far from critical. Nevertheless, the countries bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have already begun to develop a regional marine environmental program under the auspices of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization and of the United Nations Environment Programme. Furthermore, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources has been asked to help establish a network of marine reserves throughout the region. And in January 1976, those organizations agreed on a program for protection of the Red Sea's marine environment.

The foresight evident in such meetings has already led to establishment of a national marine park covering the major part of the Dahlak Islands off Ethiopia, and in The Sudan marine conservation is well on its way. Spearfishing is now banned, certain areas have been set aside as marine reserves and, in areas where tourists are welcome, breaking and collecting coral and shells is prohibited. In some particularly popular spots, the Sudanese government has even provided permanent moorings for divers' boats to prevent the destruction of corals by anchors. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is opening a national park that includes part of the Red Sea shoreline and coral reefs (See page 22).

Saudi Arabia, North Yemen and The Sudan have also taken steps to protect fishing in the Red Sea. Even though, so far, only the Egyptian waters have been heavily fished, those countries have launched major fisheries development programs of their own and are working toward protecting potential spawning and nursery areas that must be preserved if the fisheries are to succeed.

Without question, these precautions are wise - if only because it is much easier to enact conservation measures before industrial organizations and businesses have invested large sums in a given area. In addition, environmentalists say, even environments managed solely for man's benefit should incorporate extensive areas free from development and available for recreation, such as now exist in the Red Sea region.

To insure the survival of an ecosystem as fragile as the Red Sea's, of course, the countries around it will have to do still more, particularly as development proceeds. They must, for example, prevent overfishing, continue to protect spawning grounds and restrict spearfishing. They must control waste and sewage disposal, establish marine laboratories and protect such particularly vulnerable species as the dugong, the manta ray, the whale shark and all the turtles. Finally they must, in the remote and as yet untouched areas, establish large marine parks, equivalent to biosphere reserves, where a large group of species and marine biotopes functions as an ecosystem.

As the near destruction of the Great Lakes and the gradual destruction of the Mediterranean show, such measures are vital if the enchanting beauty of the Red Sea - suggested in these photographs - is to be preserved for the generations to come. Fortunately for those generations, some leaders, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, have already demonstrated their willingness to take such steps - and to do so before it's too late.

Gunnar Bemert has lived in Jiddah for five years where, in cooperation with the Ministry of Information, he and Rupert Ormond have written and photographed Coral Reefs and Marine Life of Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea, which is scheduled for publication this year.

This article appeared on pages 6-11 of the September/October 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1980 images.