The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel aims to revitalize wetlands

Birds visiting a wetland in Israel (Credit: Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

One normally might not associate hot, dry Israel with marshy wetlands, but that is precisely where two Israeli environmentalists want the country to go.

“Start-up Nature”—a play on Israel’s status as a high-tech start-up nation—is the latest campaign by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), two of whose representatives were in Canada recently to launch the project and drum up funds.

The idea is to take old and fallow commercial fish farms throughout Israel and repurpose them as wetland sanctuaries, explained Dan Alon, SPNI’s deputy CEO and director of conservation and environmental protection.

He called it an “amazing new project to create new wetland habitats (in) Israel.”

And it’s just in time, he added in an interview with The CJN, as an estimated 95 percent of crucial wetlands in Israel have disappeared over the last century, much of that owing to climate change, but also to human development.

The fish farms to be repurposed have been empty of water for a decade, and besides, there’s shrinking demand for domestic fish, Alon noted.

Alon was joined in Toronto by Jay Shofet, the organization’s director of partnerships and development, under the auspices of the Canadian Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, founded in 2011.

Their aim is to create five or six new wetland sanctuaries for wildlife in Israel. The first two already exist on land leased from Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in the Jordan Valley, and Kibbutz Maagan Michael on the Mediterranean coast.

Together, the current sites cover about 173 acres of land where millions of birds, endangered otters (there are fewer than 100 left in Israel), and other local flora and fauna will be protected.

The term the two environmentalists use is “rewilding,” or retuning the regions to how nature intended.

It’s an expensive undertaking. The Israeli government has kicked in $4 million to date for developing and restoring the sites, but the SPNI must fundraise for maintenance costs. That amounts to $5 million for the upkeep of each site, in perpetuity.

“Our project now is to make sure that the new wetlands can be sustained for the future,” Alon said. Included in the plans are visitor centres and accessible trails for encounters with some 300 species of birds.

Both Alon and Shofet noted that Israel is one of the world’s foremost destinations for birding. Protecting birds is vital, they stressed, because Israel is at the junction of a major migratory route, called a “flyway,” that funnels hundreds of millions of birds from across Europe, Asia and Africa, twice every year.

A lack of wetlands in Israel means the birds would have nowhere to land, rest, and forage on their migration routes. This would affect habitats and ecosystems on three continents, explained Shofet.

Some of the avian species already migrating to the two restored wetlands in Israel are storks, pelicans, egrets, warblers, and swallows.

The wetlands project is also aiming to boost ecotourism to Israel, currently estimated at 150,000 annual visitors, and, according to the SPNI, money generated would replace the income that had been produced by the fish farms.

A little-known fact, Alon pointed out, is that fully 25 percent of Israel is under environmental protection. Both activists said the environment and conservation have gained stature as prominent issues in Israel.

“Israel is undergoing a sea change in its feelings toward the environment,” said Shofet. That’s been growing since the 1950s, when the SPNI established wetlands in the Hula Valley, nearly a decade before the publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal book Silent Spring, which set American environmental consciousness alight.

The entire Middle East is getting hotter and drier, Shofet said, and Israel is experiencing less rain but more flooding.

On the other hand, climate marches are drawing thousands of people into the streets. And Israel sent one of the largest delegations per capita to the COP26 conference on climate change in Glasgow earlier this month, where Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Energy Minister Karine Elharrar announced that the country will join the growing number of nations pledging to be carbon neutral by 2050.

Canadians, said Alon, help hospitals, schools and universities in Israel. “It’s time to help the environment in Israel,” he said. “It’s a message people need to hear.”