Course:CONS200/2023/Sustainable management of the Red Sea coral reefs in Egypt

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Red Sea Region

Red Sea corals are something of an anomaly on this planet. They are incredibly resilient, mainly due to thermal tolerance and the temperature gradient of the Red Sea.[1] The Red Sea, like other bodies of water on Earth, is warming as a result of anthropogenic climate change.[2] Rising sea temperatures have a multitude of impacts on the flora and fauna that reside in its waters. These impacts are exacerbated by local stressors of the region. Tourism is a booming industry along the Red Sea which economically, has helped the region, but environmentally is hurting it.[3] With development and construction of infrastructure expected to continue increasing in coming years, the delicate ecology of the area is at risk of total degradation.[3] To combat the threat of development and pollution, several action plans and protocols have been put into motion. Unfortunately, the geopolitical tensions and history of the region have been major obstacles to any meaningful collaborative progress.[4]

Science of the Red Sea

The Red Sea is a body of water located that is surrounded by the Arabian peninsula and eastern Africa. It is connected to the Indian Ocean by the Gulf of Aden. It's 2000 km long, 200-300 km wide, and considered to be  one of the warmest and saltiest bodies of water on the planet.[5] High levels of endemism are present in the Sea.[4] It’s also a biodiversity hotspot that’s home to various ecosystems like mangroves, seagrass habitats, soft bottom sediment flats and coral reefs.[5][4] The Red Sea is unique in that it has a very peculiar temperature gradient that affects both the currents and organisms found in it. As you move from the North to the South of the Sea, progressively warmer water temperatures are found with a maximum of 28°C in the Gulf of Aqaba (in the north) to 34°C in the Dahlak Archipelago (in the south).[4] Sea surface temperatures (SST) are used to record and compare the latitudinal changes.[5] This phenomenon not only occurs on a latitudinal gradient, but a depth gradient as well. In most large bodies of water, temperature continues to decrease as water depth increases. The Red Sea is an exception in that temperature changes stabilize at 21°C at 200 m below the surface.[5]

Sea level rise, acidification and salinity

Red Sea Coral Reef

The predicted sea level rise of 0.35m-0.6m by 2100 will promote a host of issues for the region surrounding the Red Sea.[6] Among these issues include: coastal erosion, inundation of mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs, saltwater intrusion into aquifers and increased pressure on coastal oil and chemical industries.[6] Global warming as a result of increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have had and will continue to have massive impacts on ocean health. As the ocean warms, its capacity to hold dissolved minerals and nutrients increases which includes CO2.[7] As CO2 concentrations increase in the oceans, it lowers the ocean pH (making it more acidic).[6] This in turn is the dominant cause of coral bleaching and global reef degradation.[6] The salinity of the Red Sea is also increasing, but at different rates depending on where you are longitudinally. Nitrogen concentrations are highest in the South, but very low in the North. The salinity gradient is opposite of both the temperature and nutrient gradients with the highest salinity in the north and decreasing farther south.[5] High evaporation rates along with the lack of freshwater input and warm desert climate are contributing factors to the high salinity levels of the Sea.[5]

Impact on corals

When corals are exposed to temperature or light changes, it deprives them of their main organism that photosynthesizes and as a result, they die from stress.[8] This is known as coral bleaching. With the onset and acceleration of anthropogenic climate change, corals worldwide have seen unprecedented amounts of bleaching and die off.[8] The Red Sea saw its greatest increase in SST between 1950-2006, but only sporadic bleaching had been reported.[6] SST rose from 0.62°C to 1°C from 1985 to 2006.[6] Changes in temperature are likely to influence metabolic requirements of organisms, corals included.[5] Deep water corals, like the ones found in the Red Sea, are usually associated with cold water but have adapted to the warm waters of the Red Sea.[5]

The Gulf of Aqaba and thermal resistance

The Gulf of Aqaba is an inlet of the Red Sea located between Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf is considered a refuge from climate change as the corals found there are very resistant to thermal stress.[4] This is explained by the fact that the ancestral thermal maximum of corals in the Gulf of Aqaba are much higher than corals elsewhere.[6] Compared to the rest of the Red Sea, where corals are close to being under stress, the corals in the Gulf are living well below their thermal maximum.[6] The warming of the northern Red Sea may promote increased growth rates of reef building corals which would offset coral calcification from ocean acidification.[6] It’s hypothesized that once corals in the rest of the Red Sea surpass their threshold and are bleached, the Gulf of Aqaba corals will continue to be fine.[4] These corals currently have a 6°C gap between the average summer maximum and the predicted bleaching threshold of 32°C.[4]

Threats to the Coral Reefs

Economic constraints

Sharm El Sheikh, one of the cities that lies on the coast of the Red Sea

It is common that many developing countries share shorelines with some of the greatest areas of marine biodiversity.[9] Over 64% of the world's coral reefs are located in developing countries with dense populations on the shore lines.[6] These cities, which are still under development, have lessened abilities to take action and protect the sacred ecosystem that surrounds them. Resources such as research initiatives, funding, facilities, equipment and employees are lacking in these areas.[9] As a result, it is difficult to enable conservation efforts, despite their need.[9] Exposure of the Red Sea to these land-based and large-scale disturbances can greatly damage coral reefs.

Global threats

Global warming and acidification

The turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution, gave way to many modern day environmental concerns. Vast CO2 emissions led to ocean acidification, both having damaging short and long-term effects on the Red Sea. The rapid rise of carbon dioxide concentration poses a significant threat to the existence of coral reefs as a whole. As, one third of released carbon dioxide has been absorbed by the ocean, carbonate chemistry within the water has been altered, leading to the lowering of ocean pH, a term coined ocean acidification.[6]

Ocean acidification has many adverse effects on coral reefs. Studies show that acidification reduces the calcification rates of marine calcifying organisms.[10] For example, over the last two decades, thinning of shells and a decrease in the weight of calcium carbonate shells were recorded. Corals in the Great Barrier Reef also showed a decline in calcification.[10] Unusual warming and acidification causes mass bleaching and has been killing corals since the 1980's. It has been studied that the more acidic the water is, the less likely the survival of coral is.[10]

Outlining areas in which ocean acidification takes place, substantially, showing increased acidification near the Red Sea.
Ocean present-day pH

However, a major setback in handling climate change and greenhouse gas emissions is the fact that the Red Sea and surrounding cities have only accounted for about 5% of global emissions.[9] This shows a common pattern relating to climate change, where communities that contribute the least, are often affected the most. As a result of this, little can be done directly through conservation efforts and mitigation strategies surrounding the Red Sea, as the issue is on a much broader scale.

Elevated sea surface temperature

Elevated SST is the leading cause of coral bleaching.[6] Now considered the main driver for global reef degradation. An increase in SST would cause harmful impacts on coral colony size.[11] The IPPC determined that global SST will increase in the future, whether or not greenhouse gas emissions are controlled.[11] This then becomes an expected and certain threat to reefs. Increased heat waves pose a risk to thermal collapse- temperatures exceeding organisms capacity to survive.[11]

Sea level rise

By the year 2100, sea levels are predicted to rise by 0.35-0.6m.[6] This will greatly affect the tourism industry, along with national income. This is because sea level rise may begin to promote accelerated coastal erosion, which will also affect mangroves, wetlands and coral reefs.[6] The new waterline is predicted to be closer to coastal oil and chemical industries, putting nearby reefs at risk of more pollution.[6]

Local threats


Fishing trip at the Red Sea

Sea based resources and aquaculture is a growing industry in this area. There has been an increase in demand for fish and shellfish, however, farms pose huge threats to the fragile ecosystem of the Red Sea.[6] The eutrophic affect that these farms have on the wildlife surrounding them causes shifts in the coral microbial community and ultimately coral health.[6] Overall, overfishing in the Red Sea affects 55% of all coral reefs, it is without a doubt a huge issue with many implications to the health of these ecosystems.[6]

Growing population and exploitation of resources

As population grows in this region, so will the demand for resources such as water, agriculture, and industry, many of which have an adverse effects on reefs. The sea is viewed as a resource. Fishing, transportation, bioactive materials and tourism and commonly found in these crucial areas for coral reef growth.[6] These industries are often overexploited and misused, which compromises coral health and lowers its resistance to the previously mentioned global factors.[6]

Sewage run-off

Land pollution makes its way into the ocean as run-off. Harmful substances like sewage discharge, are dispelled into coral reef environments. Beachfront hotels and businesses are massive sources of sewage run-off, which causes eutrophication of these coastal waters.[6] Additionally, other chemicals and pollutants are also dragged into the ocean. The more industrialized coastal cities become, the more polluted the surrounding water will be.

Oil pollution

Oil terminals and pipeline burst are the leading cause of oil pollution. This imposes a 'chronic stress' in some areas of the Red Sea.[6] Oil tankers that transport large amounts of crude oil very close to coral reefs are a great threat. For example, in April 2018, an oil tanker attacked by a missile caused 200 years worth of damage in the coastal area where the oil spilled.[6] Long flushing times of these substances make the Red Sea highly sensitive to pollutants.[6]

Increased marina transportation

Port expansion leads to an increase in marine transportation, both of which pose threats to environmental sustainability. There has been an increased transports in goods, passengers, containers, oil, minerals and naval bases over the last few years, damaging reefs as a direct result of dredging, increased sedimentation, and construction.[6] The Red Sea ports act as an important link between European harbours with Chinese and East Asia harbours.[11]

Light pollution

Condo construction on the coast of the Red Sea

Another consequence to increased population and economic development is light pollution. Increased urbanization of coastlines causes higher amounts of light pollution which influences biological processes such as the synchronization of circadian clocks and coral spawning.[6] Additionally, light pollution affects vertical migration of plankton, feeding patterns, and prey/predator interactions.[6]

Acoustic pollution

It has been known that underwater noise has negatively impacted marine animals for years, however, new evidence shows that acoustic pollution as a result of increased transportation and boat traffic also negatively affects coral reefs.[6] This is because it affects coral reef fish and coral larval settlement preference and distribution. Fishing boats, speed boats, and glass bottom boats all come into close contact with these ecosystems, deterring important species from their own habitats.[6]


Diver photographed near coral reef

Economic Activity

Tourism is one of the two most important economic activities in the Red Sea region.[12] A large majority (90%) of ecotourism is concentrated in the Gulf of Aqaba (GoA), an area of the Red Sea bordered by Egypt, Eritrea, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.[3] With the high demand for ecotourism in the GoA, populations have been densifying around the coastline in order to satisfy hospitality needs.[12] The Red Sea Tourism Project is currently planning the development of more that 10,000 hotel rooms and luxury residences along the coastlines and islands of the area, plans which will further densify the population. The Project is set to capitalize on ecotourism, such as snorkeling and diving, maintaining the value of the reefs as an economic asset.[4] Coastal and marine tourism in the Red Sea region is seen as "opportunity for national development, education, and poverty reduction."[3]


NEOM is the one of the largest current developers in the Red Sea region and the company best known for their proposal of The Line[13](a linear city).[4] The company is based in Saudi Arabia, NEOM meaning 'neo' or 'new' and 'M' standing for 'Mustaqbal', arabic for 'future'.[6] The development of the mega-cities proposed by NEOM are expected to boost tourism and immigration to urban centers near the Red Sea coastline.[6] The plans for these large urban centers will lead to the deterioration of rural livelihood across the region; the already present political instability will allow for these developments to stress demography, climate change, and socio-economic issues even further.[6]

NEOM excavation progress for The Line Project, 2022 satellite image

Geopolitics in the Region

The Red Sea is unfortunately situated in a region with a long past and present of political turmoil and tension that has impacted the ability to effectively manage and conserve the coral reefs. The region has been plagued by terrorism, wars, and political instability for decades, all of which has had major impacts on the ability to make progress on scientific research.[3] There is currently no coordinated scientific research or management efforts that encompass the entire Red Sea coral reef complex.[4] The main challenge to cooperation and collaboration is political tension among regional states.[4] Many of the obstacles to sustainable practices stem from geopolitical unrest.[6] Besides the actual, physical difficulty of collaborating across different nation-states, the tensions among them impact the ability of research and scientists to produce comprehensive data and results.[3] Possible solutions proposed by different scholars include the need for full regional cooperation with directive from high levels of government.[4] The main blockade to any meaningful progress in the conservation of coral reefs in the Red Sea is political tensions so a neutral and/or third party is necessary.[4]

Management and Solutions

The socioeconomic future of the Red Sea and its surrounding coastal nations depends on the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services that the desert ocean provides. Management decisions should be focused on mitigating current ecosystem degradation, protecting flourishing climate resilient ecosystems like the Gulf of Aqaba, and restoring already degraded coral ecosystems like those in the southern Red Sea. It may be beneficial to bring in a neutral third party organization to oversee management operations as this will help avoid the “tragedy of the commons” where countries’ self interest interferes with progress.[6] With the expected increase in tourism and infrastructure in the region, it will be crucial to regulate and enforce sustainable waste removal practices to reduce pollution and give these ecosystems the best chances of survival.[6]

Latitudinal Differential Solutions

Marine Protected Area network in the Red Sea

Due to the wide range of environmental conditions (temperature, pH, salinity) and anthropogenic activity throughout different regions of the red sea, each section will require its own specific management practices, a theory known as latitudinal differential solutions.[6] The southern part of the red sea, known for high summer temperature fluctuations, low salinity, high levels of pollution, and other types of reef degradation, will need special attention as this area has been under significant stress for years now, and it is thought that much of its reefs have reached a point of no return.[14] Because the conditions in the southern section differ so much from the rest of the Red Sea, there is a knowledge gap on how to restore this ecologically degraded area, but for now governments can focus on limiting pollution and overfishing to maintain levels of biodiversity.[15]

The Northern section of the Red Sea, especially the gulf of Aqaba, is often referred to as a coral refugia due to its lower temperatures and high resilience to coral bleaching, therefore it will be important to protect this area now before it is infiltrated with anthropogenic activity.[6] The gulf of Aqaba already has a protected area network (The Nabq Managed Resources Protected Area) made up of at least 4 management zones ranging from strict natural zones, no–take zones, recreational, and multiple use zones.[9] These areas aim to protect the natural reefs from overfishing and damage from tourism, as well as protect coastal mangrove ecosystems that play an important role in carbon sequestration.[9]

Neutrality & 3rd Party Organizations

The management of a body of water as big as the Red Sea with its 8 bordering countries and countless self interested stakeholders is a challenge that needs to be taken on by a 3rd party organization. The Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA) was formed in 1995 with 7 member states, and is still working today to conserve the environment. In their reports and action plans regarding corals, habitats, biodiversity, land based activities and marine protected areas, they have identified tourism as a key threat to the natural environment.[3] PERSGA aims to continue their efforts  to educate the public and train MPA rangers on proper reef protection practices, as well as work with the relevant countries to introduce marine monitoring programs.[4]

The Transnational Red Sea Center, established in March 2019 as a neutral organization to foster effective regional scientific collaboration, aims to bridge science and diplomacy for the purpose of protecting Red Sea coral reefs into the future.[4] Currently the Center is working on a revolutionary expedition along the entire 4,500 km coastline of the Red Sea, studying a series of selected reefs in hopes of gathering data for the implementation of seven scientific programs across the entire region.[16] These programs include metabolic response to thermal stress, thermal adaptive potential, seascape genomics, determination of benthic communities, systematic sampling for water quality, 3D-mapping, and coral health monitoring stations.[16]

Another 3rd party organization that has recently gotten involved with reef conservation in the Red Sea is Green Fins. They are a UN Environment initiative implemented in 2019 that works with ecotourism companies to set environmental standards for the diving and snorkeling industry.[17] Green Fins educates member companies on environmentally sustainable diving/ snorkeling practices, and offers practical low cost alternatives to harmful practices like anchoring, chemical pollution and fish feeding, all in hopes to minimize the negative effects of the tourism industry.[17] There are currently at least 25 active member dive companies in Egypt that tourists can choose from.


  1. Fitzgerald, Sunny (April 8, 2020). "The super-coral reefs of the Red Sea". BBC - Future Planet.
  2. Wijffels, Susan; Roemmich, Dean; Monselesan, Didier; Church, John; Gilson, John (January 27, 2016). "Ocean temperatures chronicle the ongoing warming of Earth". Nature Climate Change. 6: 116–118 – via
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Gladstone, William; Curley, Belinda; Reza Shokri, Mohammad (July 30, 2013). "Environmental impacts of tourism in the Gulf and the Red Sea". Marine Pollution Bulletin. 72: 375–388 – via Science Direct.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 4.14 Kleinhaus, K., Al-Sawalmih, A., Barshis, D. J., Genin, A., Grace, L. N., Hoegh-Guldberg, O., Loya, Y., Meibom, A., Osman, E. O., Ruch, J.-D., Shaked, Y., Voolstra, C. R., Zvuloni, A., & Fine, M. (2020). Science, diplomacy, and the Red Sea’s unique coral reef: It’s time for action. Frontiers in Marine Science, 7.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Berumen, M. L., Roberts, M. B., Sinclair-Taylor, T. H., DiBattista, J. D., Saenz-Agudelo, P., Isari, S., He, S., Khalil, M. T., Hardenstine, R. S., Tietbohl, M. D., Priest, M. A., Kattan, A., & Coker, D. J. (2019). "Fishes and Connectivity of Red Sea Coral Reefs". Coral Reefs of the Red Sea., 157–179.
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 6.15 6.16 6.17 6.18 6.19 6.20 6.21 6.22 6.23 6.24 6.25 6.26 6.27 6.28 6.29 6.30 6.31 6.32 6.33 6.34 6.35 6.36 Fine, M., Cinar, M., Voolstra, C. R., Safa, A., Rinkevich, B., Laffoley, D., Hilmi, N., & Allemand, D. (2019). "Coral reefs of the Red Sea — Challenges and potential solutions". Regional Studies in Marine Science., 25, 100498.
  7. Manasrah, Riyad; Raheed, Mohammed; Badran, Mohammed (2006). "Relationships between water temperature, nutrients and dissolved oxygen in the Northern Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea". Oceanologia. 48: 237–253.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Iseskär, S. (2022). Sustainable development of a global common pool resource among autocratic countries: A case study of the "Regional Action Plan for the Conservation of Coral Reefs in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden".
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 Sammy-Kamal, M (2011). "Status of marine protected areas in Egypt". DOI:10.32800/abc.2011.34.0165.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Waleed, Omar. "Ocean acidification in the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea". External link in |journal= (help)
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Shaltout, M. "Recent sea surface temperature trends and future scenarios for the Red Sea". External link in |journal= (help)
  12. 12.0 12.1 Hilmi, N., Safa, A., Reynaud, S., & Allemand, D. (2018). "Coral Reefs and Tourism in Egypt's Red Sea" (PDF). Topics in Middle Eastern and African Economies., 29–43.
  13. "The Line - NEOM".
  14. Steiner, Zvi (2018). "Water chemistry reveals a significant decline in coral calcification rates in the southern Red Sea". Nature Communication. 9: 3615: 1 – via National Library of Medicine.
  15. Wang, Yixin (2019). "Physical connectivity simulations reveal dynamic linkages between coral reefs in the southern Red Sea and the Indian Ocean". Scientific Report. 9: 16598: 1 – via National Library of Medicine.
  16. 16.0 16.1 "The Center/ Expeditions and Programs". 2023. Retrieved 14/04/2023. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  17. 17.0 17.1 "About Green Fins". 2023. Retrieved 15/04/2023. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
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