A new study by Tel Aviv University reveals significant ecological damage to many marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world. A strong “edge effect” was observed, resulting in a 60% reduction in the fish population living on their outer edges (1-1.5 km), compared to the core areas. The “edge effect” significantly diminishes the effective size of those areas, and largely stems from human pressures, first and foremost overfishing at their borders.
Marine protected areas were designed to preserve marine ecosystems, and help to conserve and restore fish populations and marine invertebrates whose numbers are increasingly dwindling due to overfishing. The effectiveness of the protected areas has been proven in thousands of studies conducted worldwide. At the same time, most studies sample only their “inside” and “outside”, and there still is a knowledge gap about what happens in the space between their core and areas around them that are open for fishing.
The study was conducted by Sarah Ohayon, a doctoral student at the laboratory of Prof. Yoni Belmaker, School of Zoology, The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University. The study was recently published in the Nature Ecology & Evolution Journal.
When a protected area functions properly, the expectation is that the recovery of the marine populations within it will result in a spillover, a process where fish and marine invertebrates migrate outside its borders. In this way, the protected area can contribute not only to the conservation of marine nature, but also to the renewal of fish populations surrounding it that have dwindled due to overfishing.
To identify the dominant spatial pattern of marine populations from within the protected areas to the surrounding areas (that are open for fishing), the researchers analyzed marine populations from dozens of protected areas located in different parts of the oceans.
“When I saw the results, I immediately understood that we are looking at a pattern of edge effect”, says Ohayon. “The edge effect is a well-studied phenomenon in terrestrial protected areas, but surprisingly it has not yet been studied empirically in MPAs. “This phenomenon occurs when there are human disturbances and pressures around the protected area, such as hunting/fishing, noise or light pollution that reduce the size of natural populations within the protected areas, close to their borders”.
The researchers found that 40% of the no-take MPAs (areas where fishing activity is completed prohibited) around the world are less than 1 km2, which means that entire area is likely to experience an edge effect. In total, 64% of all no-take MPAs in the world are smaller than 10 km2 and may hold only about half (45-56%) of the expected population size in their area compared to a situation without an edge effect. These findings indicate that the global effectiveness of existing no-take areas is far less than previously thought.
It should be emphasized that the edge effect pattern does not eliminate the possibility of fish spillover, and it is quite plausible that fishers still enjoy large fish coming from within the protected areas. This is evidenced by the concentration of fishing activity at their borders. At the same time, the edge effect makes it clear to us that marine populations near the borders of the protected areas are declining at a faster rate than the recovery of the populations surrounding them.
The study findings also show that in protected areas with buffer zones around them, no edge effect patterns were recorded, but rather a pattern consistent with fish spillover outside their borders. Additionally, a smaller edge effect was observed in well-enforced protected areas than in those where illegal fishing was reported.
“These findings are encouraging, as they signify that by putting buffer zones in place, managing fishing activity around marine protected areas and improving enforcement, we can increase the effectiveness of the existing protected areas and most probably also increase the benefits they can provide through fish spillover”, adds Ohayon.
“When planning new marine protected areas, apart from the implementation of regulated buffer zones, we recommend that the no-take MPAs targeted for protection be at least 10 km2 and that their shape be as round as possible. These measures will reduce the edge effect. Our research findings provide practical guidelines for improving the planning and management of marine protected areas, so that we can do a better job of protecting our oceans.”
Featured image: Photo credit Dr. Shevy Rothman
Tel Aviv University together with the Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University (CFTAU) on June 14 inaugurated the Asper Clean Water Fund, established with a $407,000 gift from The Asper Foundation, one of Canada’s largest private foundations. The funds will bolster the work of TAU’s Water Energy (WE) Lab to further develop technology that produces safe drinking water in the developing world.
Headed by Prof. Hadas Mamane of TAU’s Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, the Lab is among numerous research teams devising solutions to address global water scarcity. Her Lab has developed a patented technology that uses LED lighting and solar energy to disinfect water. The laptop-sized device—called SoLED—operates without any chemicals or electricity to kill 99.9% of bacteria and viruses from water, making it cheaper and easier to use than existing solutions in remote areas.
At least 2 billion people around the world use water from contaminated sources. Furthermore, unsafe water is linked to the deaths of an estimated 800 children each day. The issue predominantly affects people in the developing world, where access to clean water resources is often unaffordable or inaccessible. More so, as the impact of climate change increases, water scarcity will affect nearly half the world’s population by 2025, according to expert estimates.
Among attendees at the inauguration ceremony at TAU were Gail Asper, President and Trustee of The Asper Foundation; Moses Levy, Executive Director of The Asper Foundation; TAU Vice President for Resource Development Amos Elad; Dean of the Engineering Faculty Prof. Noam Eliaz; and Prof. Mamane together with researchers from her lab.
“My late parents, Israel and Babs, would be incredibly proud of this endeavor which will make such a positive impact on people’s lives,” said Gail Asper. “The research at Prof. Mamane’s Water-Energy Lab and at Tel Aviv University aligns with our Foundation’s commitment to supporting entrepreneurial spirit and to creating a better world. We are excited to embark on this journey to advance innovative ideas and change lives.”
The support of The Asper Foundation, a leading force in Jewish and general philanthropy in Israel and Canada, will enable Prof. Mamane and her team to further expand the capabilities of the technology and field-test the device. Their ultimate goal is to produce a scalable version that could be manufactured for mass distribution.
Prof. Hadas Mamane, head of Tel Aviv University’s Water Energy (WE) Lab, with the SoLED device. (Credit: Rafael Ben-Menashe/TAU)
The gift enhances the existing partnership of philanthropic support and collaboration between the Asper Family, based in Winnipeg, and the University.
Tel Aviv University President Prof. Ariel Porat said: “As Israel’s largest research university, TAU places great importance on creating solutions to global challenges to the environment and society. We are thrilled to welcome The Asper Foundation as a partner and look forward to working with its team.”
Prof. Mamane, Head of the Water-Energy Lab and Environmental Engineering Program at TAU, explained that her passion for the project stems from her deep-seated desire to help bridge the disparities in affordable clean water access, particularly for vulnerable peoples in rural and low-income communities. Her lab works with interdisciplinary teams from disciplines including Social Sciences, Psychology and Public Policy to determine the most effective ways to incorporate her technology into broader safe water delivery processes.
“My team and I are delighted and honored by The Asper Foundation’s support,” she said. “This gift will accelerate our efforts to provide underserved populations with access to clean water—a basic human right and an endeavor that stands to save thousands of lives.”
Canadian Friends of Tel Aviv University Chief Executive Officer (Ontario & Western Canada) Stephen Adler added: “CFTAU is proud to be a link between the great Canadian family and Israel’s leading research university. We look forward to seeing the fruits of this research and identifying ways to maximize its impact in Israel, Canada and around the world. We thank The Asper Family Foundation and the Asper Family for their continued support and friendship.”
Hydrogen-powered bicycles and cars have been in serial production for years. In these vehicles, the regular polluting lithium battery has been replaced by a fuel cell that converts hydrogen, a non-polluting fuel, to electricity. Most of today’s hydrogen is, however, still produced from natural gas in a highly polluting process and is therefore referred to as gray hydrogen. Not only is natural gas a non-renewable source of energy, but it also creates carbon dioxide gas when burned, damaging our environment and contributing to global warming.
Enter a new TAU discovery, which may boost the industrial transition from using polluting gray hydrogen to environmentally friendly green hydrogen: Researchers identified a mutant of a known strain of microscopic algae that allows, for the first time, the production of green hydrogen gas via photosynthesis on a scale suited to industrial requirements. Hydrogen gas can thus be produced solely through renewable energy and in a climate-neutral manner, reducing our carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions dramatically to stabilize global temperatures.
Humanity’s transition to the use of green hydrogen may be the ultimate solution to the problem of global warming.
The microscopic algae
The study was led by doctoral student Tamar Elman, under the supervision of Prof. Iftach Yacoby from the Renewable Energy Laboratory of The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences at Tel Aviv University. The study was recently published in the prestigious journal Cell Reports Physical Science.
While production of green hydrogen is possible through solar panels wired to devices that perform water breakdown into hydrogen and oxygen (electrolysers), the researchers explain that this is an expensive process, requiring precious metals and distilled water. In nature, hydrogen is produced as a by-product of photosynthesis for periods of minutes by micro-algae, unicellular algae found in every water reservoir and even in the soil. For this biological process to become a sustainable source of energy, however, humanity must engineer micro-algae strains that produce hydrogen for days and weeks.
Prof. Yacoby explains that as part of the laboratory tests, the researchers identified a new mutant in microscopic algae that prevents oxygen from accumulating at any lighting intensity, and therefore hypothesized that continuous hydrogen production could be achieved from it. With the help of bioreactor measurements in liter volumes, they were indeed able to prove that hydrogen can be produced continuously for more than 12 days.
According to Prof. Yacoby, the new mutant overcomes two major barriers that have so far hindered continuous production of hydrogen:
To industrialize these results, the research team led by Prof. Yacoby is working on a pilot program of larger volumes and the development of methods that will allow the time of hydrogen harvest to be extended, in order to reduce its cost to competitive levels. “The rate of hydrogen production from the new mutant reaches one-tenth of the possible theoretical rate, and with the help of additional research it is possible to improve it even further,” concludes Prof. Yacoby.
Tamar Elman and Prof. Iftach Yacoby in the lab
Featured image: Tamar Elman and the microscopic algae
We use plastic in almost every aspect of our lives. It is cheap in production, durable and can be reused multiple times. The problem is, though, that 350M tons of plastic waste is produced annually, out of which only 8% is recycled. To counter the environmental hazard, laws and regulations, are implemented towards reducing landfill and increasing recycling. The EU has pledged to reduce landfilling to 10% of its current capacity by 2030. We spoke with Tal Cohen, a TAU alumnus with an MBA from the Coller School of Management and founder of a startup company called “Plastic Back”, who may have found the perfect solution.
When plastic was originally introduced, 70 years ago, it was commonly believed that it would contribute to save the environment. “When plastic was first introduced, it was actually thought to be the big savior of the future environment, replacing the use of ivory, tortoise shell and corals. While petroleum came to the relief of the whale, plastic has given the elephant, the tortoise and the coral a respite in their native haunts,” says Tal. With time, however, it went from being the big savior to instead becoming recognized as a major environmental hazard,” Tal muses. Over the past 70 years since its invention, 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste has been accumulated worldwide.
And how is plastic produced? “After developing over millions of years underground, crude oil is drilled out and extracted. It is then sent to be refined by the petrochemical industry, after which it can be used for various purposes, such as fuel for cars and… plastic production,” explains Tal. Plastic is, in other words, produced from oil, a non-renewable source of energy.
Tal is well acquainted with plastic. After earning his B.Sc. in Marine Sciences and Environment at the Ruppin Academic Center, Tal Cohen worked as a marine biologist. Three kilometers offshore, surrounded by fish and – you guessed it – plastic, he would research, work in the lab and dive. After a few years, he went on to study for an MBA at Tel Aviv University: “I wanted to learn how to develop technologies and businesses that are focused on ecological solutions. While studying ‘Entrepreneurship and Innovation Technology Management’ at TAU, I was also working at a venture capital fund, handling portfolios of ten renewable energy companies. It taught me a lot about the needs of startups in the renewables field.”
Plastic Back’s technology offers waste handlers to help treat their waste streams and create profit, as an alternative to landfill
Tal Cohen and his Israeli based startup company “Plastic Back” offers an interesting solution: “By way of ‘reverse engineering’, we are able to convert plastic waste back to its original, valuable form of oils, waxes and other valuable chemicals. With unique chemicals, ratios and timing, our technology breaks down the carbon-to-carbon bonds of the plastic polymer to liquid fractions that can be (re)used by the petrochemical industry.” Brilliant, isn’t it?
“While transforming plastic back to oil through burning is already done, that requires very high temperatures, between 600-1000 degrees Celsius, which constitutes an environmental and financial burden. The real innovation here, is that we manage to convert the plastic to oil by chemical means only, and at room temperature. So there’s an environmental advantage which is expressed financially, and it is also advantageous energy-wise. The goal is to offer an alternative to the traditional drilling for additional non-renewable oil.”
The idea, Tal got while he was working with one of the aforementioned portfolio companies: “Once I felt like I had learnt enough about the startup world and what setting up a startup entailed, I went on a mission to find technologies. At The Hebrew University, they had a technology in place from 2016-17. It spoke to me, as it was related to plastic, which I was intimately familiar with from my time working underwater as a marine biologist, and I also knew that the renewables field is evolving.”
“The technology was in place, and so I decided to find out if there was any business interest for it. In 2019, I attended Shell’s competition in Holland, which is the largest energy competition in the EU, where more than 250 companies competed during 10 days of business and technological validation. We ended up in 2nd place. We knew then that there was demand for the crude oil which we were able to convert the plastic back to. Shell was willing to invest and to pay some money up front, so we had some starting capital. I went ahead and founded the company. We have since found an angel investor who invested a certain amount, have received recognition from the European Commission and are taking part in the EU accelerator program.”
Who are the winners with this initiative? “Plastic Back enables a shift from a linear to a circular economy, by closing the loop between the petrochemical industry (including companies such as Shell), which is currently dependent of crude oil drilling and operating under increasingly heavy regulation and pressure, and the waste handlers who receive millions of tons of plastic waste from waste manufacturers, such as agriculture, factories and hospitals and medical devices, most of which goes to landfill. The waste handlers are seeking alternatives, especially as there’s been a fivefold increase in landfill price since 2019. The waste manufacturers, on their side, would gain the ability to treat their waste on site/close by, save expenses on removal and treatment fee and even create profits from their plastic waste.”
Tal is not planning to rest in the coming years, “The research and development phase of our project is completed for the most part. Last year, we successfully proved that there is demand for what we are offering. We have received a grant from the Ministry of Energy to set up our first pilot facility together with an industrial partner in the South of Israel in 2022. A year and a half after that, we would like to set up our first facilities. In five years from now, we should have two or three active facilities, hopefully one of them here in Israel and the rest in Europe.”
Tal Cohen presenting his startup at TAU’s Coller $100,000 Startup Competition in July 2021
Featured image: By way of ‘reverse engineering’, Tal’s team is able to convert plastic waste back to its original form.
Nitrogen is a common fertilizer for agriculture, but it comes with an environmental and financial price tag. Once nitrogen reaches the ocean, it disperses randomly, damaging various ecosystems. As a result, the state local authorities spend a great deal of money on reducing nitrogen concentrations in water, including in the Mediterranean Sea.
A new study by Tel Aviv University and University of California, Berkeley suggests that establishing seaweed farms in areas where freshwater rivers or streams meet the oceans, or so-called “river estuaries”, significantly reduces nitrogen concentrations and prevents pollution in marine environments.
As part of the study, the researchers built a large seaweed farm model for growing the ulva sp. green macroalgae in the Alexander River estuary, hundreds of meters from the open sea. The Alexander River was chosen because the river discharges polluting nitrogen from nearby upstream fields and towns into the Mediterranean Sea. Data for the model were collected over two years from controlled cultivation studies.
The study was headed by doctoral student Meiron Zollmann, under the joint supervision of Prof. Alexander Golberg of the Porter School of Environmental and Earth Sciences and Prof. Alexander Liberzon of the School of Mechanical Engineering at The Iby and Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering, Tel Aviv University, and was conducted in collaboration with Prof. Boris Rubinsky of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley. It was published in the prestigious journal Communications Biology.
“My laboratory researches basic processes and develops technologies for aquaculture,” explains Prof. Golberg. “We are developing technologies for growing seaweed in the ocean in order to offset carbon and extract various substances, such as proteins and starches, to offer a marine alternative to terrestrial agricultural production. In this study, we showed that if seaweed is grown according to the model we developed, in rivers’ estuaries, they can absorb the nitrogen to conform to environmental standards and prevent its dispersal in water and thus neutralize environmental pollution. This way, we actually produce a kind of ‘natural decontamination facility’ with significant ecological and economic value, as seaweed can be sold as biomass for human use.”
“Our model allows marine farmers, as well as government and environmental bodies, to know in advance what the impact will be and what the products of a large seaweed farm will be – before setting up the actual farm,” adds Meiron Zollmann. “Thanks to mathematics, we know how to make the adjustments also concerning large agricultural farms and maximize environmental benefits, including producing the agriculturally desired protein quantities.”
“The whole world is moving towards green energy, and seaweed can be a significant source,” adds Prof. Liberzon, “and yet today, there is no single farm with the proven technological and scientific capability. The barriers are also scientific: We do not really know what the impact of a huge farm will be on the marine environment. It is like transitioning from a vegetable garden outside the house to endless fields of industrial farming. Our model provides some of the answers, hoping to convince decision-makers that such farms will be profitable and environmentally friendly. Furthermore, one can imagine even more far-reaching scenarios. For example, green energy: If we knew how to utilize the growth rates for energy in better percentages, it would be possible to embark on a one-year cruise with a kilogram of seaweed, with no additional fuel beyond the production of biomass in a marine environment.”
“The interesting connection we offer here is growing seaweed at the expense of nitrogen treatment,” concludes Prof. Golberg. “In fact, we have developed a planning tool for setting up seaweed farms in estuaries to address the environmental issue while producing economic benefit. We offer the design of seaweed farms in river estuaries containing large quantities of agriculturally related nitrogen residues to rehabilitate the estuary and prevent nitrogen from reaching the ocean while growing the seaweed itself for food. In this way, aquaculture complements terrestrial agriculture.”
Featured image: The cultivation reactor that was used as the base of the model
Against the backdrop of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, and following a comprehensive series of tests, TAU prepares to formulate a strategic plan for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions generated by its activities and promoting more efficient use of resources and renewable energy. The university places great importance on reducing its environmental footprint by using sustainable energy, recycling water and materials, reducing use of paper, introducing green purchasing procedures and other activities designed to reduce the campus’ carbon footprint, and eventually attain carbon neutrality.
To this end, a team of academic and administrative experts appointed by TAU’s Green Campus Committee headed by TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat, launched a comprehensive inspection to assess the overall carbon footprint (in terms of CO2 equivalent) and water footprint of all TAU activities both on and off campus. The analysis, which began approximately a year ago, included assessment of the following:
The team will soon complete their mission and submit their findings to the Green Campus Committee and TAU’s senior management. Based on their report, TAU will formulate a strategic plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions on campus and reaching carbon neutrality.
TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat: “As a leading academic research and teaching institution in the fields of ecology and environmental science, committed to addressing the climate crisis, TAU established an ‘initiative for carbon neutrality’ about a year ago – the first of its kind at an Israeli university. Currently we are completing the initial inspection, and its findings will serve as a foundation for a strategic plan that will significantly reduce the campus’ carbon footprint, and eventually bring us as close as possible to carbon neutrality. As a leading public university, it is our duty to lead the efforts for addressing the climate crisis on and beyond our campus. We hope that other institutions will join us. Time is running out and we must act immediately.”
“It is our duty to lead the efforts for addressing the climate crisis on and beyond our campus,” says TAU President Prof. Ariel Porat.
Prof. Marcelo Sternberg of the School of Plant Sciences and Food Security at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, co-leader of TAU’s carbon neutrality initiative, added: “I am proud to be part of the team leading an historical move toward reducing TAU’s carbon footprint and turning it into a sustainable institution. The current climate crisis leaves no room for inaction. As a teaching and research institution, we can show the government and society the way to reducing the environmental footprint and ensuring a better world for future generations. It can be done, and we will do it.
Lior Hazan, Chair of TAU’s Student Union, added: “The climate crisis is spreading and intensifying, causing great concern. It is no longer something occurring far away, it is happening right here and now. We, the young people, have the power to change and work for a better future, in face of the gravest crisis of the 21st century, and academia is an excellent place to begin. Students must become leading ambassadors of this cause, since they are the future of society, industry, and leadership, and to this end, we must change and introduce change for the benefit of our planet. The Student Union takes an active part in TAU’s plan to attain carbon neutrality and continues to work for the rapid reduction of environmental damage.”
Ofer Lugassi, Vice President for Construction & Maintenance at TAU emphasized that the mapping of the university’s carbon and water footprints was carried out by a specialized external company, which made a great effort to include all activities on campus.
Featured image: Students enjoying a moment on the increasingly greener TAU campus (Photo: Rafael Ben-Menashe)
Plastic wastes endanger marine life in many ways: animals get entangled in large plastic items or swallow small particles and chemicals, consequently dying of suffocation, starvation or poisoning. Awareness is growing, and research is expanding, but the effort to monitor and prevent plastic pollution encounters many obstacles, first of all due to the enormous complexity and diversity of plastic debris.
A new review from Tel Aviv University has determined that global standardization of methodologies for monitoring and measuring marine plastic pollution can significantly boost international efforts to mitigate this troubling phenomenon. In a comprehensive survey of all methods described in existing literature, the researchers charted the great complexity and diversity of marine plastic pollution, which makes unified measurement and accurate evaluation very difficult. According to the researchers, this is precisely why a standardized system is urgently needed, enabling comparisons, exchange of information, and effective tools for decisionmakers.
The study was led by Gal Vered and Prof. Noa Shenkar of the School of Zoology at The George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University. Gal Vered is also a researcher at the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat. The review was published in Current Opinion in Toxicology.
According to Prof. Shenkar, plastic pollution, which is all human-made, poses a grave and immediate threat to the marine environment, with constantly rising amounts of plastic entering the oceans. Thus, for example, a 2013 survey conducted by Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection found that plastic accounts for about 41% of the volume of waste produced annually by Israelis. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has generated extreme demands for personal protective and single-use products, has further exacerbated the problem.
The researchers explain that marine plastic pollution comprises many different types of plastic and plastic products of various shapes and sizes – from huge ghost nets to nanoparticles, as well as a vast range of chemical additives. Different methods for monitoring, sampling, and identifying plastic pollution relate to different properties of the sampled material: from size, source, and original use, through shape and color, to chemical composition and physical properties. Sampling is usually conducted with a towed net, with the size of collected pollutants dependent on the net’s mesh size, and tiny particles are identified in the lab using various spectroscopic and chemical methods. In addition to the diversity in sampling and identification methods, units used for reporting measured concentrations of pollutants also vary: from the number of plastic objects per area, to the weight of particles per organism, and more.
“These differences generate confusion and lack of communication among researchers in different parts of the world, hampering our efforts to work together toward our common goal: providing decision makers with reliable data in order to promote the efforts to reduce plastic pollution and its many hazards,” explains Prof. Shenkar. “We are in urgent need of standardized methods and comparable measures for monitoring, sampling, identifying, classifying, and quantifying marine plastic pollution and its impact.”
“This study is a response to problems encountered in my research, which deals with the impact of plastic and its chemical additives on marine life in the Eilat coral reef (presenting Israel’s largest marine biodiversity),” says Gal Vered and explains: “The differences in methodology make it difficult to use the findings of other researchers – as either a source of information or for comparing results. Thus, for example, most measurements worldwide relate to samples obtained with a towed net from the surface of the water, while I wish to discover which materials reach the seafloor and reef organisms.”
“Standardization will enable accurate evaluations and valid comparisons between plastic pollutions in different places on the globe. This will maximize the power of scientific research, enhance our understanding of the impact of plastic pollution on ecosystems and marine life, and help us develop effective tools for decisionmakers facing this crucial issue.”
Prof. Shenkar concludes: “Marine plastic pollution is a global problem, which requires extensive international collaboration. At the bottom line, we all wish to focus our efforts and obtain the best results. Like many others, we believe that efforts should begin close to the shoreline, in areas directly impacted by plastic pollution. However, a great deal of research is still required in order to establish this assumption and build effective strategies for managing plastic pollution. But first of all, we urgently need standardization that will enable all of us, all over the world, to work together.”
Featured image: Prof. Noa Shenkar
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