Artificial coral reefs
Aqaba’s artificial reef safe haven to fragile marine species
By Dalya Dajani Jordan Times
AQABA — Beneath the pristine waters of this Red Sea resort, a concrete paradise is giving Mother Nature and the local fishing community a helping hand.
Emerging from a featureless sandy bed in the northernmost tip of the Aqaba coast, an artificial reef has been steadily thriving over the past two years as a safe haven for the fragile marine species of this ecosystem.
Salim Moghrabi, who has been overseeing the project under the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority’s (ASEZA) environmental department, said a whole new settlement of marine life has already made it home.
“The project has been progressing remarkably well,” said Moghrabi, who conducted a firsthand exploration of the site this week. “We now have a natural settlement of hundreds of coral species and hundreds of invertebrates, as well as rapid growth of the coral saplings transplanted there,” he added.
For Moghrabi, a professional diver and head of ASEZA’s Permitting and Environmental Impact Assessment section, the thriving reef is an important asset for the area.
Aqaba’s marine paradise attracts hundred of tourists each year with its unique coral treasures and pleasant clime. But its limited coastline of fringing coral reef — half of Aqaba’s 27- kilometre coastline — particularly shoreline reefs at the northern limits, are under intense pressure.
The area already attracts hundreds of divers every month who come to explore the coral treasures. This, along with regular environmental and pollution threats, will inevitably cause greater stress to the fragile marine and coral habitat.
The artificial reef project, implemented in cooperation with the Regional Organisation for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf, will not only provide a safe haven from which marine life can thrive, but also relieve stress on current dive sites and foster recovery of other coral reefs by offering creative new sites for divers. To build the artificial reef, divers deployed 200 cement blocks on 2,000 square metres of featureless sandy seabed to create the needed solid substrate required for reef production, where coral saplings can be planted manually and coral larvae settle down naturally.
Divers then worked to build a city-like habitat with 12 structures ranging from one to four metres in height that mimic characteristics of natural reefs that can accommodate all kinds of marine species.
The reef was designed to have its own special touch, with a nine-tonne Royal crown adorning the top of the gates leading into the underwater city.
Divers utilised orphan coral samples they found during cleanup campaigns and transplanted the coral saplings in the blocks at depths of 10 and 14 metres.
According to Moghrabi, some 33 fish species representing 22 families were recorded in the first four months of the project, including 21 invertebrates representing 16 families. In addition, two species of fish, Jordan’s damsel (Teixeirichthys jordani) and the domino fish were noticed spawning over the artificial reef only days after deployment.
As a tool for integrated coastal management and tourism planning, the artificial reef project also serves the local fishing community.
In many parts of the world, artificial reefs are a valuable resource for fishermen, as they attract various species of fish.
Acting as fish refugia, these reefs become sources of food for them from the
biomass developing at the bottom of the structure which increases fish stock
in the local ecosystem.
ASEZA, which banned fishing in the southern coastal waters to safeguard coral reefs in the protected area, allows fishermen in this section.
Moghrabi, however, did not consider this a good idea because of the risk of nets snagging and damaging the reef, given that the project is still in its infancy.
But he said it was the only option for now until a final plan was formulated to manage the site.
“Under the management plan, we were to close the area off to fishermen for the first two years in order for the reef to flourish, but this did not work out,”
Moghrabi told The Jordan Times.
“Our objective is to balance the environmental needs of the area with local community needs, which under the circumstances, is a challenge,” he added.
Moghrabi said the artificial reef was a valuable resource for fishermen, adding that waiting at least two years would allow for greater fish communities to form.
The Marine Science Station and the Aqaba Marine Park had earlier proposed a
regulation obliging fishermen to use biodegradable nets that would be
less harmful to the reef, but the idea was put on hold due to financial and regulatory issues.
For now, one of the most exciting aspects of the programme is the “Adopt a Coral Sapling”, initiative, which gives divers the opportunity to take part in the development of this marine habitat by transplanting coral saplings during their dives and monitoring their growth on future visits.
“Divers can transplant a coral saplings in the artificial reef and come back to check up on it one day, or even expand the trail by telling a friend to check on its progress if they plan to head here,” Moghrabi said.
“That way, the reef also contributes to sustaining the flow of tourism here while seeing it flourish,” he added.