Largest Environmental Study of the Red Sea Coast Sets New Standard

Red Sea Development Company turtle
Image courtesy of Red Sea Global

Published Nov 10, 2022 1:21 PM by Dr. Luis Silva

As we find ourselves in one of the most decisive decades in global history when it comes to climate, planet, and environment, we are seeing the effects of economic expansion and overexploitation on our natural resources and habitats.

While many headlines focus on the more visible impacts, increasing portions of our oceans and marine environments are under enormous stress. The risk of long term and lasting effects is becoming more and more evident. However, we can and must do better in analyzing and mitigating the impact of economic development on natural ecosystems below the waterline.

The Red Sea is one specific ecosystem that is close to my heart. It’s an area of extraordinary natural beauty, an exceptionally diverse marine ecosystem, and home to threatened and endangered species, including hawksbill turtles and elusive dugongs. It’s also still an area with thriving coral reefs.

At Red Sea Global (RSG) we’ve made it a priority not just to protect, but actively enhance these surroundings throughout the development of two of our tourism destinations. Over the next two decades, our destination THE RED SEA has committed to delivering a net conservation benefit of 30 percent to this precious ecosystem by implementing practices that promote the long-term wellbeing of its diverse flora and fauna. It’s a goal that marks the destination out as one of the most ambitious regenerative tourism projects in the world.     

Proper assessment of whether we meet these ambitious environmental goals within 20 years’ time requires good data and suitable metrics against which we can measure our progress. Hence, we have conducted one of the world’s largest environmental surveys of wildlife and marine ecosystems, across 125 miles of Saudi Arabia’s northwestern coastline. We believe it is the largest study ever carried out by a private development company. Having such a comprehensive survey program helps RSG understand and assess the coastline along which it is striving to create a thriving blue economy, both ahead of and during its development.

The study was conducted by a core team of scientists, of which I am part, and offers a key insight into our philosophy of evidence-led sustainable development. We have provided counsel to the board throughout the development of both destinations, and have played a crucial role in detecting, highlighting, and mitigating environmental impacts.

Many of the challenges facing our oceans that were reflected in the survey, from climate change to biodiversity loss, transcend far beyond the capabilities of a single business. This is why collaborations between private and public sector organizations – like ours with the National Center for Wildlife and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology – are essential, as they spur on the urgently required shift from traditional ocean activity to a sustainable blue economy.

Key survey findings

The survey revealed that many threatened and endangered animals inhabit the Red Sea coast, further signifying the importance of RSG’s environmental protection and regeneration efforts. Some personal highlights, include encountering schools of up to 100 bumphead parrotfish, a vulnerable species that is rarely encountered in such large groups across much of its range. In addition, the survey team recorded close to 200 nests of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, several nursery habitats with significant numbers of the critically endangered Halavi guitarfish, and had some rare but thrilling encounters with the endangered Indian Ocean humpback dolphin.

The health of ecosystems around thriving coral reef sites was also monitored closely, with impressive coral communities found throughout the area, particularly around Mardunah and Waqadi Islands. The largest single coral colony we encountered was over eight meters in height and certainly several hundred years old. There are many large and healthy corals in some parts of our areas, and as our studies continue, we expect to find many more. Throughout these coral reef sites over 300,000 fish of 280 different species were counted, and fish assemblage highlights included uncovering the locations of mass spawning aggregations for snapper, grouper and emperor fish.

Over the course of the survey, we recorded 261 sharks and rays, including eight separate shark species and seven separate ray species. Notable among these were the endangered whale shark and zebra shark. Very positively, the presence of several species of young sharks and rays indicated the presence of important nursery areas in the region that will be essential to future protection of these animals as we develop and implement our spatial management plans.

While much of the Red Sea coast is in excellent condition and home to thriving wildlife, the survey unearthed some evidence of earlier impacts in a few areas (pre-dating RSG development). This is a clear reminder that these environments are dynamic and full of potential, but also vulnerable to change, and need careful management.

Survey Methods

Much of our data is gathered in situ by field teams, but we also utilize technology where it can improve our efficiency and ability to cover the really large areas we want to gather data from. A key tool for us is Coral Net, a machine learning program that generates insights equal to that provided by skilled human analysts, which was used during the study to automatically analyze coral reef survey images. This technique requires substantially less time to make assessments and receive data than traditional methods and has allowed researchers to inspect the condition of coral habitats across all complex shallow reef systems, encompassing around 40 square miles of reef habitat. They found that, although conditions of reefs varied, the highest quality reefs were found at outer reef walls and crests.

We also used Structure from Motion photogrammetry technology. This methodology involves taking thousands of photographs of the benthic communities and generating a mosaic image and 3D model. These digital models can be rotated to different angles, providing insight into the general health of reefs and allowing scientists to extract a lot of additional data from them, without concerns over time spent underwater. Moreover, this technology provides the possibility to compare future monitoring efforts with an archive of older models to gauge the change in reef status over time.

Next Steps

While this initial research provides crucial and immediate data on marine ecosystems and wildlife in the region, it also sets a benchmark for future reporting. We plan to undertake regular surveys of similar size and scale to establish trends and analyze impact over time, as part of a long-running commitment to our ambitious regenerative goals. This will allow us to track progress against key environmental promises – such as a 30 percent net conservation benefit by 2040 – and progress in the enhancement of key habitats crucial to biodiversity across the destination.

We hope that the discoveries from this unique survey will prove useful to the global scientific community, as we welcome them to the Kingdom. This work, and the future work that will follow, will be instrumental in our ability to estimate the impact of marine protection and enhancement efforts being considered. All knowledge gained, and lessons learned will be shared with the rest of the world, inspiring others, and supporting the conservation and enhancement of ecosystems globally.

Dr. Luis Silva is microbiology manager at Red Sea Global. He holds a PhD in microbial oceanography and ecology from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.