By Rivka Borochov
It started 11 years ago as an organization to help researchers monitor the sea, and provide marine educational facilities for youth. Today, Israel’s EcoOcean NGO is transforming marine policies in the Mediterranean and is conserving Israel’s shores.
EcoOcean’s acts of liquid kindness have also developed into international collaboration projects for marine conservation that will benefit the entire Mediterranean Sea and the people that live around it.
Danny Schaffer, the manager of EcoOcean, is also the ship’s captain. He steers EcoOcean’s several million-dollar research vessel, the Mediterranean Explorer. About 70 percent of Israel’s marine research community has at one time or another rented the ship, available at cost to cover basic expenses such as petrol.
EcoOcean’s founder Andreas Weil commissioned the vessel because he realized that while Israel has a great activist spirit, and internationally renowned researchers, the prohibitive cost of renting out marine vessels was leaving a hole in what is known about Israel’s ecological issues out at sea.
The Mediterranean Explorer is rented at cost to researchers
The organization also runs a children’s marine educational center at Megalim that, as estimated by Weil, has impacted tens of thousands of young visitors.
The affluent preventing effluent
Swedish-born Weil was raised in a society that puts environmental issues on the front page of the newspaper. After studying at the Arava Institute in Israel, he wanted to take his passion and abilities to change Israeli society from within. As a lover of the sea, he secured basic finances through a family fund in Sweden, and EcoOcean was ready to set sail.
Charting their course in the early days to provide education and equipment to the young and the old, over the last few years, Weil’s NGO has put a focus on conservation efforts.
“A very big project we’re running right now is trying to quantify the origins of solid waste in Israel’s Mediterranean beaches and waters,” says Schaffer. Where is this waste coming from? What is the size of it, and how much of it is out there? The two year study will culminate in a report.
Working with Haifa University, EcoOcean is trying to figure out what can be done to reduce the amount of solid waste in the sea, especially the small pieces of plastic that environmentalists call “floating plastic patches.”
“Maybe it is coming from overseas, and if so, how much? How much of it is beach-generated garbage from Israel, and how much of it is coming through the sewage system?” Schaffer wants to know.
Moving into international waters
Meanwhile, EcoOcean has designated part of its 11-person team to dive to the sea bottom to collect data. Other data is collected on board through water samples. The academics will do the statistical number crunching.
In another new direction, EcoOcean is developing a biodiversity action plan for the rocky habitats found in the Mediterranean Sea. “This is an important place for nurseries of both coastal and pelagic species,” says Schaffer. “And this area is under a lot of pressure, from over-fishing and from the gas pipes and the gas industry.”
At the international cooperation level, EcoOcean is working with the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), based in Denmark. As the sole representative for Israel, EcoOcean is running FEE’s Blue Flag project -- an eco-label that signifies a safe beach to swim in. In this respect, EcoOcean (in cooperation with the government’s Ministry of Health) checks additional water safety parameters at the nine beaches and two ports participating in the program in Israel.
Through the FEE, EcoOcean is also granted funds to train young reporters from junior high and high schools on how to use investigative reporting to access issues that are close to their hearts.
In another international project, EcoOcean is working with MEDPAN (Marine Protected Areas in the Mediterranean Sea).
“I think that the Mediterranean Sea is very complex because it has got a lot of nations from different cultures around it, with different economic situations. We are trying to re-create what Europe is doing, to create regional policies, and that’s very hard to do,” says Schaffer.
EcoOcean may only be a drop in the sea of work being done to save the Mediterranean, but this work is already linking cross-border study between PhD students in Mediterranean countries.
EcoOcean is administering the Blue Flag beaches program
in Israel. Manager Daniel Schaffer is pictured at right
Its vast educational resources for youth have been translated into Arabic for Israel’s arab-speaking population, and could be used by neighboring countries in the Middle East.
While measuring success for the Mediterranean will be far in the future, EcoOcean and staff are aboard for a long journey at sea.