Aqaba Marine Reserve
Aqaba Special Economic Zone
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The Aqaba Marine Reserve (AMR) is an exceptional example of a site that harbours a highly biodiverse northern latitude coral reef ecosystem. The AMR’s high biodiversity and endemism is largely due to its unique geographic location within the Gulf of Aqaba, which is separated from other oceans by two thresholds – one at Bab-al-Mandab that separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, and the other at the Strait of Tiran that separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea. The AMR contains 157 species of reef building corals, 120 species of soft corals, 500 fish species and 1,000 mollusc species; the site also holds great scientific interest as the habitat of endangered species such as the dugong and four species of marine turtles. Endemism is high within the AMR, including 15 endemic scleractinian corals; seven endemic fish species, including the endangered Indo-Pacific Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulates) and the globally threatened Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus); in addition, twenty percent of molluscs and echinodermata as well as several species of algae in the site are believed to be endemic. The reserve’s high levels of biodiversity and endemism make the AMR a site of enormous scientific and intrinsic importance. In addition to its important biodiversity, the AMR’s coral reefs may be globally unique in their resilience to climate change; a resilience that stems from evolutionary selection towards thermally resilient genotypes; as well as the fact that the water current and wind patterns in the region are believed to ameliorate the effect of rising sea temperatures on corals.
The AMR is located in the Aqaba Governorate of southern Jordan, within the Gulf of Aqaba (GoA) which is a semi-enclosed basin located approximately 180 km long and 14-26 km wide, stretching from the Straits of Tiran to its terminus where Israel meets Jordan and Egypt. The AMR is situated along 7 km. of the eastern shore near the northern terminus of the GoA, between 25°46’09’’N to 26°15’84’’N and 30°21’62’’E to 30°37’92’’E. The AMR is 2.8 sq. km. in total or 3% of Jordan’s territorial waters; the terrestrial boundary lies 50 meters east of the Mean High-Water Mark (MHWM) and the marine boundary lies 350 meters west of the MHWM. Approximately 1 sq. km. of the AMR consists of coral reefs, which run the length of the reserve with an average width of 300 meters. The AMR is surrounded by a buffer zone that extends for approximately 100 meters along the length of both the land and seaward sides of the AMR, for a total area of around 1.5 sq. km.
The AMR is located within Jordan’s Sudanian Penetration Zone, which is characterized by warm winters and very hot summers, where the temperature ranges from 15-45°C. Rainfall ranges from 50-100 mm/year and the soil is mostly alluvial, saline, sandy (or sand dunes), hammada, some granite fragments and Lisan marls. The terrestrial area of the AMR includes some areas of relatively narrow beach, but the coastline is mostly rocky in nature. The marine environment consists of a series of embayments that support a wide range of communities, including rocky shores, reef flats, reef faces, fore reefs, fossilized reefs, sandy shores, sandy bottoms, and seagrass meadows. The Gulf of Aqaba drops off steeply to around 900 m depth (reaching around 1800 m in some places) and thus coral reefs are restricted to a very thin band, generally less than 300 m wide, along the predominantly rocky shorelines.
The Aqaba Marine Park (AMP) was established in 1977. In 2000, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ) was declared and the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) was established; since that time ASEZA has had overall management authority for the Aqaba region including the site that is now the AMR. In 2001, the Aqaba Marine Park By-Law No. 22 was issued to govern management of the AMP. In 2020, the AMP was reclassified as the Aqaba Marine Reserve (AMR) and formally declared as such on 8 December 2020. Also in 2020, the AMR was included in the Jordan National Protected Areas (JNPA) network. Although the coral reefs in the AMR are exceptionally resilient to climate change impacts, the Government of Jordan decided to establish to upgrade the site from a multiple-use marine park to a conservation-focused marine reserve, and to include it as the first marine site in the JNPA, in order to more effectively address key threats to coral reefs and associated ecosystems at the site, including land-based pollution; tourism visitation; marine-based pollution; coastal infrastructure development; and unsustainable fishing. The AMR is currently still classified as an IUCN Category VI protected area, but this is under review as part of the area’s new management plan.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
In Jordan, there are six sites included in the World Heritage List, namely Petra, Qusayr Amra, M. Umm al-Rasas, Wadi Rum, Baptism Site and As-Salt, while there are 14 other sites on the tentative list. Overall, only a relatively small number of World Heritage Sites (WHS) have been inscribed for their outstanding marine values. In order to fulfil the World Heritage Committee’s Global Strategy of developing a representative, balanced and credible World Heritage List, States Parties are encouraged to identify and nominate marine sites of potential Outstanding Universal Value, especially in biogeographic regions that are not yet represented, or underrepresented, on the World Heritage List. Furthermore, according to the IUCN/SSC Global Habitat Analysis and WWF’s Global 200 Ecoregions, nominations for World Heritage sites from the Red Sea area should receive priority1. At present, Jordan has no Tentative Sites in the Red Sea area; while the deferral of the nomination of Ras Mohammed (Egypt) suggests the inclusion of adjoining protected marine areas in the coastal zone of the Gulf of Aqaba2.
From a regional perspective, the Gulf of Aqaba is part of a separate biogeographic zone within the wider Red Sea and is of global significance in having the northern-most latitude reefs in the Western Indo-Pacific. The Red Sea biogeographic zone is designated as a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) “Global 200 Eco-Region” because of its unique marine biodiversity. Within the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba is the area most isolated and the most divergent in its biota. Red Sea endemism is particularly significant for Echinoderms (17%), Crustaceans (15%), Fish (14.7%) and Scleractinian corals (10%). The AMR is distinctive and unique because of its high number of species, diverse number of habitats, high endemism, and remoteness. The Aqaba Marine Reserve contains an array of habitat types, including extensive coral reef complexes, seagrass beds and intertidal areas, which all enable the survival (breeding, feeding and resting) of significant populations of several endemic and threatened species, not to mention numerous other fish and invertebrate species of great importance to maintain ecological balance. The AMR’s coral reefs are unique in that they are the northern-most tropical reef systems worldwide, have a high diversity of marine taxa, and provide habitat for endemic and rare marine species. About 157 species of reef building corals, 120 species of soft corals, 500 species of fish and 1,000 species of molluscs flourish in the AMR. The AMR is also critically important for the wider region as it is believed to serve as an important larvae export area and host important spawning sites for key fishery species.
Criterion (ix): All required elements showing the Outstanding Universal Value of the Aqaba Marine Reserve are located within the nominated property and the property is sufficiently large and has a conservation status necessary to maintain its ecological and biodiversity values. The property is protected by a surrounding buffer zone, which is large enough to protect the important coral reef and seagrass bed ecosystems from land-based impacts, thereby ensuring its function of protecting the property. The marine ecosystems within the AMR support on-going and significant ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of marine biota and communities of endemic species of plants and animals. The unique diversity of the AMR reflects an ecosystem that has evolved over millennia, resulting in the evolution of a high diversity of globally significant marine faunal groups, including 157 species of reef building corals, 120 species of soft corals, 500 species of fish, 1,000 species of molluscs, and a great diversity of sponges, marine worms, sea squirts, molluscs, and macroalgae. Seagrass beds and sand beaches within the AMR provide important ecosystem services by regulating nutrient and sediment input into the reef complexes.
Recent studies have shown that corals in the GoA can withstand water temperature irregularities that cause severe bleaching or mortality in most hard corals elsewhere in the world, and that, despite a documented increase in ocean-surface temperatures in the Gulf of Aqaba consistent with other marine regions, coral species in the GoA have never suffered a confirmed bleaching event. The resilience of corals in the GoA is believed to stem from the fact that corals in the area underwent selection towards thermally resilient genotypes upon entering the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden. In addition, recent studies have shown that the waters of the Red Sea have a high buffering capacity with regard to ocean acidification, and may reach critically low Ωarg levels for reef calcification at a later time point than other tropical coral reef locations. For these reasons, coral reef ecosystems found in the Gulf of Aqaba can serve as an invaluable coral gene bank that can support global efforts to restore coral reef ecosystems in other parts of the world where coral bleaching / ocean acidification has devastated local reefs.
Criterion (x): Important Natural Habitats: The Gulf of Aqaba’s marine and coastal ecosystems include sand and mud areas (including substantial sea grass beds), rocky outcrops, coastal lagoons, fringing coral reefs, and scattered coral heads. Together these habitats constitute a delicately balanced, interdependent and productive biological system, which includes and sustains both coastal and pelagic fisheries. The AMR is also distinctive and unique because of its high number of species, diverse number of habitats, high endemism, and remoteness. The AMR has been internationally recognized as an Important Bird Area (IBA) for both resident and migratory birds.
Coral Reefs: Coral reef ecosystems cover approximately four km2 in total (including vertical and horizontal faces) in the Gulf of Aqaba, of which approximately 1 km2 are found within the Aqaba Marine Reserve. The coastline is fringed by a discontinuous series of coral reefs characterized by two morphological units – the coral reef flats and the outer reef slopes – and encompassing i) scattered coral heads, ii) fragmented reef flat elements, iii) continuous reef flats representing a narrow fringing reef and iv) a well-structured reef where a back reef channel develops. The AMR’s coral reefs are restricted to a very thin band, generally less than 300 m wide, along the predominantly rocky shorelines. Jordanian coral reefs are in good condition, with up to 90% coral cover in some localized areas. The ocean conditions necessary to support these highly diverse and climate change resilient reefs are rare, and the fragility and location of the reefs close to shore make them vulnerable to damage from human activity. In addition, somewhat well preserved “fossil” (or relic) coral reefs found along the AMR’s southern shores are of great scientific importance, and the protection of these unique features is of fundamental importance to protect Jordanian heritage.
Coral reef communities in the AMR are unique in that they are among the northern-most tropical reef systems worldwide, have a high diversity of marine taxa, and provide habitat for endemic and rare marine species. The combination of optimal temperature, visibility and salinity conditions creates an environment of exceptional regional and global coral growth and reef development within the AMR, which is characterized by 13 different bio-physiographic reef zones, each providing typical coral reef assemblages. Coral species in the GoA represent about 40% of the maximum number of coral species found in any area of the Indo-Pacific, and the number of coral species observed within the AMR specifically are greater than in the entire southern Red Sea and greater than other locations within the GoA. The coral reefs in the AMR are amongst the most diverse per square meter in the world; one study found 112 species of Cnidaria including 88 Scleractinia (hard corals) in a single sq. meter on a fringing reef within the AMR. The AMR’s reefs contain 157 identified hard coral species, including 153 scleractinian corals (Anthozoa, Scleractinia), one organ pipe coral (Anthozoa, Alcyonacea), and 3 fire corals (Hydrozoa, Milleporidae). Of these 153 species, IUCN has classified 14 as Vulnerable and 30 as Near Threatened. Fifteen of the scleractinian corals in the AMR occur exclusively in the Red Sea and are hence considered Red Sea endemics. Of these, IUCN has classified one species (Cyphastrea hexasepta) as Vulnerable and another (Erythrastrea flabellate) as Near Threatened. Although a detailed survey of soft corals in the GoA does not yet exist, it is estimated that 120 species of soft corals are found in Jordanian waters in the GoA.
Most of the endemic fish species restricted to the Gulf of Aqaba are closely associated with and dependent upon the coral reef habitat. Furthermore, the AMR’s reefs serve as an important larvae export area, acting as a source of recruits for all species of plants and animals present in and around the reef, including invertebrates and fish species. The coral reefs also provide critically important ecosystem services that underpin the socio-economic development of the communities that are located along the coastline.
Seagrass Meadows: Seagrass meadows within the AMR are small in comparison to the reserve’s coral reefs, but nevertheless contain high species diversity and provide critical habitat and shelter for many crustaceans and other invertebrates as well as providing a nursery and breeding ground for numerous fish species. Seagrass meadows also play an important role in sediment stabilization. Three seagrass species have been recorded in the AMR, of which Halophila stipulacea has the greatest extent. The coverage of Halophila stipulacea ranges from 35-55 percent in shallow waters between 0 and 10 m depth, reducing to 20-40 percent in deeper waters from 11 to 30 m depth. The other two species, Halodule uninervis and Halophila ovalis, are less abundant and only found at shallow depths within the vicinity of Tala Bay.
Biodiversity: The Gulf of Aqaba lies within the Red Sea biogeographic zone, which is designated as a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) “Global 200 Eco-Region” because of its unique marine biodiversity.
Fish Communities: Fish diversity is considered to be very high along the Jordanian coastline, which hosts over 500 fish species along a coast of only 27 km, in comparison with the 1,280 fish species of the Red Sea, which extends for 1,932 km. Fish communities in the Gulf of Aqaba, where coral reefs are dominant, differ substantially from those in the neighbouring Gulf of Suez (shallower and sandier) and the rest of the Red Sea. The Gulf of Aqaba harbours more than 510 marine fish species, of which 507 species belong to 109 families have been recorded in the AMR. The rate of endemism is considered high and represents 13.7% of the total fish species recorded, with seven fish species recognized as endemic to the Gulf of Aqaba, including the endangered Indo-Pacific Humphead Wrasse (Cheilinus undulates) and the globally threatened Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus). The first recording of the extremely rare Sea Grass Wrasse (Novaculichthys macrolepidotus) was confirmed in Al-Mamlah Bay within the AMR in 2004. More than 50% of the species recorded in Jordan are coral reef dwelling species, which explains the richness of fish stocks in the AMR due to its healthy coral reefs3. Valuable pelagic or migratory species such as mackerel and tuna also partly depend on the GoA’s reefs as they often feed on small reef-based fish and in some cases uses the reefs as spawning areas.
Sea Turtles: Four species of marine turtles have been recorded in the AMR: the Critically Endangered Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricate); the Endangered Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta); and the Vulnerable Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea). The most endangered of these species, the Hawksbill turtle, is also the most abundant within the Gulf of Aqaba, and most individuals recorded have been juveniles found in coral reef areas, highlighting the importance of the GoA and its coral reef ecosystems to this species.
Marine Mammals: Marine mammals found within the GoA include the Dugong (Dugong dugon; Vulnerable), observed in small numbers, as well as the Pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus).
Marine Invertebrates and Microorganisms: The AMR provides habitat for 72 species of sponges, 4 common species of Chaetognatha, 20 species of urochordates, and 645 species of molluscs, as well as eighteen genera of benthic macroalgae including seven chlorophytes, eleven Rhodophytes, and ten Phaeophytes. Twenty percent of molluscs and echinodermata as well as several species of algae occurring in the Gulf may be endemic. Giant clams in the GoA (including Tridacna maxima and Tridacna squamosa, both of which are considered endangered in Jordanian waters) support a wide variety of reef dwelling vertebrates and invertebrates by providing hard substrate for soft corals, macroalgae, sponges, sea squirts, various crustaceans and echinoderms as well as providing a foundation for reef growth and development.
Birds: The GoA is considered a major bird migration route that connects Europe and Asia with the African continent. This migratory route is used by up to 1.5 million birds belonging to up to 250 different species. The Aqaba coast, including the AMR, and surrounding mountains have been declared as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Important bird species observed in the AMR include the Red Sea endemic White-eyed Gull (Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus), the Western Reef Heron (Egretta gularis), the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) and Little Tern (Sternula albifrons).
Terrestrial Flora: The terrestrial part of the proposed AMR is weakly covered with vegetation, consisting mostly of shrubs and saline-tolerant plants. A detailed study is required to confirm the floral species that exist in the AMR, but the presence of 13 species has been confirmed, only one of which (Capparis spinosa) has been evaluated by the IUCN (and classified as of Least Concern).
Terrestrial Fauna: Five mammalian species are found within the proposed AMR -- (Tadarida teniotis), (Pipistrellus kuhli), (Acomys dimidiatus), (Dipodillus dasyurus), and (Vulpes vulpes) -- all five are classified as Least Concern by IUCN. In addition, three reptilian species are found within the proposed AMR -- (Cyrtopodion scabrum), (Hemidactylus turcicus), and (Spalerosophis diadema) – all three are classified as Least Concern by IUCN.
1 Abulhawa, T., Abdulhalim, H., Osipova, E., Cummings, T., (2014). TABE’A II Report: Enhancing Regional Capacities for World Heritage. Amman, Jordan: IUCN. ii + 74pp. (pp. 39-40)
3 Khalaf, 2004
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
All required elements showing the Outstanding Universal Value of the Aqaba Marine Reserve are located within the nominated property as detailed above and the property is sufficiently large and has a conservation status necessary to maintain its ecological and biodiversity values. The AMR represents a unique and outstanding marine ecosystem that sustains intact ecological communities and interacting biological processes which are in need of long-term conservation support. The AMR covers both shallow habitats and reef formations and deep-sea areas that ecologically interact by natural exchange. The property has a number of rare and endangered species listed by IUCN, including 157 hard coral species that have outstanding universal value for their climate resilience and ability to support high levels of marine biodiversity. The property is protected by a surrounding buffer zone, which is large enough to protect the important coral reef and seagrass bed ecosystems from land-based impacts, thereby ensuring its function of protecting the property.
The AMR is the first marine area within the Jordan National Protected Areas (JNPA) network, and the establishment of the AMR positively and significantly contributes to protection of marine biodiversity in Jordan and within the wider Red Sea region, as well as marine protected areas in adjacent countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan etc.). The importance of the AMR cannot be overemphasized; it is a biodiversity ‘hotspot’ lying close to the centre of marine biodiversity in the Red Sea and boasting hard and soft coral fauna that is amongst the richest in the Region. The site is aesthetically spectacular, with unspoilt coastal landscapes and diverse seascapes. The AMR contains an array of habitat types, including extensive coral reef complexes, seagrass beds and intertidal and mudflat areas, which all enable the survival (breeding, feeding and resting) of significant populations of endangered sharks, manta rays and dolphins, not to mention numerous other fish and invertebrate species. The AMR is a vitally important potential reservoir of reef species, and a natural laboratory for the study of climate change impacts on coral communities.
Present State of Conservation
Based on assessments of landscape context, condition, size, and biodiversity viability carried out in preparation of the AMR Management Plan 2022-2026, the Overall conservation status of the AMR was classified as Good; as for specific ecosystems within the property, coral reefs, terrestrial ecosystems and open sea ecosystems were also classified as Good, while seagrasses were classified as Fair. Numerous studies, including several large research cruises in the past few years, have identified and recorded critical ecosystems and species. The property is situated in the region where tourism, fishing, shipping and other livelihood activities take place, but these activities are strictly managed and controlled, so that biodiversity and ecosystem services within the site are well protected and have remained intact. Visitation is strictly enforced by the AMR’s management rules and regulations, and some parts of the reserve (e.g. important coral reef areas) are strict no entry zones.Managment of the GoA and the AMR
The Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) is the autonomous manager, regulator and developer of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, and has both the right and responsibility to oversee the conservation of Aqaba’s coast and marine resources. ASEZA’s management of the Gulf of Aqaba is supported by the Environmental Protection By-Law No. 21 of 2001 issued under Articles (52) and (56) of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Law No (32) of 2000, which addresses issues such as sea water usage, solid waste disposal, dangerous materials, radioactive materials, wastewater, and cooling water disposal; as well as articles that deal with Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), environmental auditing, protection of the air, and protection of the marine environment.
ASEZA, through its Environment Commission (which contains a specialized Beaches Directorate) is tasked with management of the AMR and it owns the land within the reserve. Management of the property is carried out under the Aqaba Marine Reserve Management Plan (AMRMP) 2022-2026, and supported by the Aqaba Marine Reserve Law 2022, which aims to protect the marine and terrestrial environment and their natural, historical and cultural elements, and focuses on combatting the impacts of climate change and organising and managing the reserve. Management of the AMR is also supported by the Aqaba Marine Park bylaw No. 22 of 2001, which was issued in accordance with the ASEZA Law No. 32 of 2000, as well as the Protected Areas and National Parks Bylaw No. 29 of 2005, issued in reference to the environmental law No. 7 of 2016.
The vision of the AMRMP is: “Aqaba Marine Reserve is a model of effective planning and management that ensures that the unique ecological values and associated social and economic benefits are used sustainably for future generations through active stakeholder stewardship”. The AMRMP 2022-2026 has the following primary objectives: i) maintain and improve healthy, resilient, bio-diverse reefs and seagrass habitats within the AMR up to and beyond 2026; ii) create and implement the necessary mechanisms to promote the AMR as a model for ecologically sustainable tourism which complies with international principles and standards; iii) effective surveillance and patrolling is being implementing to cover the entire AMR area; iv) improve and strengthen institutional/legal framework and associated management capacities; v) marine conservation awareness and education is improved at the international and national Level; and vi) sustainable financial mechanisms are established and implemented to finance future AMR related management operations and activities.
The AMRMP (2022-2026) has established three zones that encompass the entire reserve and its buffer zone. The reserve itself consists of the Coral Coastal Zone, which includes the area of the AMR from the Passenger Terminal extending south to the Royal Diving Club; and the Coral Reserves, which protect the magnificent coral reefs within the above defined Coral Coastal Zone. The buffer zone includes the Beach Protection Zone, which covers the area 50 meters to 150 meters landward from the MHWM, as well as an equivalent marine area that extends beyond the reserve to the point 350 meters seaward of the MHWM. Activities in the buffer zone are governed by the AMR Bylaw 2022, which mandates that activities and projects within the buffer zone based must be recommended by the AMR Committee and approved by the AMR Council, based on the following conditions: i) compatibility of project elements with the Reserve’s Ecosystem and Management Plan ; ii) compatibility of project elements or activities with the foundations and criteria of Green Growth, Blue Growth and Environmental Sustainability ; iii) no harm to the ecosystems, biodiversity, and ecosystem services; iv) a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment Study is required; v) projects or activities should consider the sustainable use of natural resources, ecosystem and natural habitats; and vi) priority is given to projects related to eco-tourism.
The AMR currently employs 26 staff, who are responsible for a range of tasks including: issuance of licenses, permits and monitoring of the activities of dive operators, glass-bottom boats and recreational boats, and fishers; routine clean up dives for the collection of trash underwater; surveillance of visitors and ensuring compliance with reserve regulations; and rehabilitation and restoration of degraded ecosystems. ASEZA is working to strengthen the human and technical resources necessary to effectively manage the property and ensure its conservation status, including development of a diverse portfolio of funding sources for AMR management, including direct subventions from government, entrance fees, grants from national and international sources and others, as well as cost reduction strategies such as sharing certain management responsibilities with stakeholder groups through special agreements (e.g. maintenance of mooring buoys; collaborative monitoring activities, etc.). Management of the AMR will also benefit from continued cooperation with various community stakeholders, including service organizations such as the Aqaba Women’s Association; fisher associations including the Al Thagher Fishermen’s Cooperative with a membership of 190 fishers, and a second association with 139 a membership of 139 fishers; and the Aqaba Diving Association, a Jordanian NGO whose main mission is to develop the scuba diving industry and support local diving businesses.
ASEZA is also partnering with international institutions to implement two projects that will strengthen the AMR’s management. The IUCN-GEF project “Towards low carbon footprint from ecotourism activities and management effectiveness of Aqaba Marine Reserve” has the objective “to enhance and strengthen the management effectiveness, equity and operational capabilities of Aqaba marine reserve through capacity building and participatory approaches”, and includes activities to redefine the site’s IUCN management category, strengthen the design of the buffer zone, establish a zoning plan, and ensuring that the AMR meets the criteria of the IUCN Green List. ASEZA is also a key partner in the “Gulf of Aqaba and Northern Red Sea Resilient Reefs project” supported by the Global Fund for Coral Reefs and UNDP, which will greatly strengthen the scientific basis, regional cooperation mechanisms, and innovative funding mechanisms to support coral reef conservation (and likely will enable the nomination of additional WHS sites in the region).
Management strengthening and collaborative partnerships will be critical to effectively address ongoing threats to the globally significant biodiversity and ecosystem services within the AMR. Coral reefs and associated ecosystems in the Gulf of Aqaba are under pressure from a variety of sources, including: land- based pollution (sewage, industrial pollution, micro-plastics, etc.); intensive tourism visitation; marine- based pollution (from ships and ports, including solid waste, oil spills, etc.); coastal infrastructure development for tourism, trade and industry; unsustainable fishing; and climate change (which may enable the spread of invasive species and change rainfall patterns / intensity that could increase flows of freshwater, sediments and pollution onto coral reefs). Fortunately, ASEZA and the AMR managers are already addressing many of these issues. Visitor impacts are being controlled through management and enforcement of regulations in public areas; proactive engagement through voluntary incentives with managers of adjacent private beaches; and international eco-certification programs (e.g. Green Key and Blue Flag) for nearby resorts. ASEZA has a Corporate Social Responsibility program to mitigate potential environmental impacts from port development (and to help fund the AMR); water / effluent monitoring systems and a MoU with industries to reduce nutrient inputs to the GoA; and a zero-discharge policy for oil spills as well as a cooperation agreement on oil spills with the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA). The AMR is controlling marine debris though a marine plastics strategy for the AMR and application of the ISO13009 Beach Standard for all public beaches within the AMR; the AMR is also working to control harvesting of marine resources through improved surveillance and enforcement with the participation of fishermen; and the establishment of sustainable fisheries management plan and fisheries management zones. Addressing these and other anthropogenic threats will provide the coral reefs within the AMR with their best chance of remaining healthy and resilient to future climate change impacts.
Comparison with other similar properties
Globally, only 49 World Heritage Sites have been formally inscribed for marine values. Of these, only 3 sites are in the Arab States region, and only two of these sites, Socotra Archipelago (in the Indian Ocean) and Sanganeb Marine National Park and Dungonab Bay – Mukkawar Island Marine National Park (in the Red Sea), harbour coral reef ecosystems. Overall, only 0.4% of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden Nearshore & Continental Shelf Province is covered by marine World Heritage sites.
The proposed Aqaba Marine Reserve (AMR) property shares some characteristics with several other World Heritage Sites, in particular those that also harbour living coral reef ecosystems built by marine organisms that provide important habitat for a great abundance and diversity of other species. The Sanganeb Marine National Park and Dungonab Bay – Mukkawar Island Marine National Park in Sudan, which is the only other WHS in the Red Sea, includes a highly diverse system of coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds, beaches and islets. However, because of its location within the Gulf of Aqaba, which is separated from other oceans by two thresholds – one at Bab-al-Mandab that separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, and the other at the Strait of Tiran that separates the Gulf of Aqaba from the Red Sea – the AMR contains notably high levels of marine biodiversity and endemism as compared to other sites in the Red Sea.
The AMR is also similar to a number of WHS found in tropical marine environments in terms of its importance as habitat for diverse coral reefs and seagrass beds. Among the most similar of these other sites are: Ha Long Bay, which contains large areas of coral reef, including more than 166 reef-building species and has the most developed coral reef ecosystem in the Gulf of Tonkin; Great Barrier Reef, which encompasses the world’s most extensive coral reef ecosystem, with 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc; the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, which is an outstanding natural system consisting of the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, offshore atolls, several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons and estuaries; the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, which is a unique example of an atoll reef with a very high density of marine species, supporting over 360 species of coral and almost 700 species of fish; and the Pitons Management Area, which is similar to the AMR in that it is relatively small (2,909 hectares) and well-covered by coral reefs (almost 60% of the site’s marine area). The Aqaba Marine Reserve has levels of marine diversity similar to or exceeding these other sites, including 157 species of reef building corals, 120 species of soft corals, 500 fish species and 1,000 mollusc species.
What truly sets the AMR apart, however, is the globally unique resilience of coral reefs in the site to climate change impacts, including both coral bleaching and ocean acidification. Recent studies have shown that corals in the GoA can withstand water temperature irregularities that cause severe bleaching or mortality in most hard corals elsewhere in the world, and that, despite a documented increase in ocean- surface temperatures in the Gulf of Aqaba consistent with other marine regions, coral species in the GoA have never suffered a confirmed bleaching event. In addition, recent studies have shown that the waters of the Red Sea have a high buffering capacity with regard to ocean acidification. For these reasons, coral reef ecosystems found in the Gulf of Aqaba can serve as an invaluable coral gene bank that can support global efforts to restore coral reef ecosystems in other parts of the world where coral bleaching / ocean acidification has devastated local reefs.