October 26, 2007

By Dominic Waghorn
Sky News correspondent

Friday October 26, 2007

A giant artificial coral reef is being built in the Red Sea in a move to protect natural reefs from destruction – without banning scuba divers.
An estimated 50% to 70% of the Red Sea’s reefs have already been destroyed in Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

Divers are the main culprits as they flock to the biodiverse region in large numbers and accidentally knock the coral or create a disturbance with their flippers and diving boats.
Dr Nadav Shashar, a marine biologist at the Ben Gurion University, is supervising the pioneering project.

He admitted: “I have well over 1,000 hours underwater and by mistake every once in a while I also break the coral.”

Israeli and Jordanian scientists are working together to reverse the destruction of the reefs.

The fruit of their efforts lies a few hundred metres off the coast in the Israeli resort town of Eilat.

The artificial reef is designed to give divers something else to look at and provide an alternative home for fish and coral.

As we approached it diving last week it loomed out of the azure haze as big as a small house, with the appearance of a submerged spaceship.
Dr Shashar said: “We actually built it in a way that it will encourage or give shelter to endangered species.

“From the divers point of view what we want is a place that they will enjoy and that will be different to the natural environment.”

Artificial reefs have been used before, normally sunk ships or other submerged structures, but this is the first to be specifically designed for the purpose.

But the really pioneering element of the project lies submerged further north, in Israeli waters near the border with Jordan.

Here the scientists have created hanging coral gardens, or nurseries, where ranks of baby coral are growing suspended on nets and crates in perfect conditions.

When they are big enough they are transplanted into the artificial reef.

“For me as a scientist and an ecologist it’s almost like playing God,” said Dr Shashar.
“You take a piece of water and a piece of sand then do whatever you want and create the environment you are planning. And that’s exciting.”

So far the experimental artificial reef, funded by the Whitley Foundation, has attracted both fish and divers and another four are planned in Israel and Jordan.

And with threats growing from divers, pollution and global warming, scientist hope it could help save reefs elsewhere in the world.

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