An Egyptian old belief says that black coral brings good luck. It is called “El Yusr,” which in Arabic means “facilitation”, and it is used in the manufacture of rosaries and jewellery in Egypt and the Gulf region.
Black coral grows at great depths in the Egyptian Red Sea; reefs grow at a rate of 1 millimetre per year and their age is estimated at hundreds of years. From time to time, security services reveal attempts to hunt and smuggle these rare precious reefs, threatening them with extinction.
Although Egyptian law criminalizes cutting coral reefs and encroaching on them, they are not spared from human activities such as tourism, overfishing, digging and filling operations, among others. That’s not to mention the damage caused by high temperatures resulting from climate change.
Encroachment on coral reefs not only threatens tourism, which is an important source of national income for Egypt, but it also threatens the loss of a complete ecosystem that provides many benefits and services for the environment,” says Dr Mahmoud Dar, professor of Marine Environment at the National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries.
At least 500 million people worldwide rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection and livelihoods, according to a 2004 study by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.
“Coral reefs are considered nurseries for many marine organisms, and they also provide food and protection for many ornamental and economic fish. There are also species of fish whose life cycle is linked to the reefs and die if the incubating ecosystem dies. [Reefs] also contribute to protecting coastal communities from storms, beach erosion and the danger of floods,” Dr Dar explains.
Although coral reefs cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface, they are home to 25% of all marine fish species, according to the “Reefs at risk” project of the World Resources Institute, published 2008. The same source states that coral reefs support nearly 4,000 species of fish and 800 species of corals.
Coral reefs are the medicine chests of the 21st century, with more than half of all new cancer drug research focusing on marine organisms. Already at the end of the last century, coral reefs had been used to treat cancer, HIV, cardiovascular disease, ulcers, and other ailments, according to a 1996 report.
“We, in Egypt, have about 22 types of soft corals, from which extracts are used in the manufacture of medicines. For example, elements such as calcium are extracted from the hard corals that are used in the treatment of osteoporosis,” adds Dr Dar.
Egypt, which represents the largest economy of coral reef tourism in the world, obtains US $7 billion annually from diving and surface diving activities, while the coral reef tourism industry worldwide generates US $35 billion annually.
However, by the end of the century, the North African country may lose up to $ 65 billion in revenue under forecasts for more severe climate, leading to a massive loss of coral cover, according to the findings of the Panel on Achieving a Sustainable Ocean Economy presented at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP25), which was held in Madrid in December 2019.
As the report warns, even with aggressive mitigation measures taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global coral cover is still expected to shrink by 28%, resulting in global economic losses of up to 6%.
Global and local causes
Climate change and local practices threaten coral reefs. According to experts, the second reason is the most destructive in Egypt.
Dr Mahmoud Dar says that, compared to other regions around the world, the coral reef area in the Red Sea is relatively well adapted to heatwaves. Many of the corals monitored have been exposed to bleaching, but recovered after a period or were replaced by reefs better adapted to warmer climatic conditions.
“Human activities are the most dangerous threat facing coral reefs in Egypt,” he added.
“Coral reefs in the Red Sea suffer from overfishing, petroleum pollution, drilling and backfilling operations, and an exaggerated spread of tourist activities in some diving areas,” says Dr Mansour Bashar, professor of marine sciences at Al-Azhar University.
As an example, Dr Bashar mentions the Blue Hole area, near the city of Dahab. The intensity of diving activities is seriously damaging corals in the area, which is visited by more than 5,000 tourists per day during the high season.
“There is a lack of awareness regarding how to preserve coral reefs. Hotel owners, for example, change the coarse sand of the beach with fine sand and do not know that, when the fine sand drifts into the sea, it clogs the pores of the corals and kills them. The excavation and filling operations to create anchoring points increase the turbidity of the water, while fishing leads to coral reefs being broken by nets”, he said.
National authorities are trying to stop these encroachments by persecuting the violating fishermen and setting controls for digging and filling operations. Local NGOs have also launched efforts, including the establishment of HEPCA (Hurghada Environmental Protection & Conservation Association), a network of mooring buoys to reduce the accidents of breaking coral as a result of throwing anchors at diving sites.
In 2019, the Green Fins organization, along with the Reef-World Foundation and the UNEP, launched the Green Fins initiative. This project aims to enhance sustainability in the marine tourism sector by identifying and reducing tourism-related risks. During the first year of its implementation in Egypt, this initiative intends to reach 30 companies operating in the marine tourism sector, train 150 diving guides, and raise awareness about sustainability and best practices among 30,000 tourists.
“Coral reef tourism in Egypt is a national wealth, but the continuation of tourism in its traditional form will ultimately lead to the depletion of this wealth, which we badly need to preserve,” adds Dr Mansour Bashar