Meet the Female Scientist Helping to Preserve Saudi Arabia’s Coral Reefs

Lindsay Judge   |   06-04-2022

Dr Eva Aylagas Martinez, Senior Coral Science Manager at The Red Sea Development Company discusses Saudi Arabia’s most ambitious tourist project and the importance of preserving the Red Sea’s coral reefs. 



Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Development project is an ambitious multi-million dollar project designed to transform the country’s coastline into a unique luxury tourist destination, celebrating the natural beauty of the area. With some of the world’s most beautiful, untouched areas including some of the largest coral reefs on the planet, the nation has an incredible amount of potential to explore. While many of the world’s areas of natural beauty have already been destroyed due to both human and natural factors, the Red Sea coral reef has mostly remained untouched, preserving its original beauty. The destination is rich in culture and tradition and visitors will have a wealth of opportunities to explore the history of the region and its modern beauty. This is a key factor being considered by the Red Sea Development Company whose mission is to develop this area of beauty but in a sustainable way that’s kinder to the planet. From island getaways to resort holiday mountain retreats and desert adventures, Saudi’s Red Sea Coast has something for everyone.



With sustainability at the heart of the project, the expertise of some of the world’s most advanced researchers and experts has been employed to ensure the area is developed in the best way possible. A special emphasis has been put on environmental sustainability to ensure that the natural landscape will remain in its beauty for generations to come. Dr Eva Aylagas Martinez, Senior Coral Science Manager has been researching the science behind the world’s coral reefs for several years during the completion of her PhD in Spain and she finally has the opportunity to put her knowledge into practice. Her work resulted in the development of biotic indices for marine monitoring using a new technique based on DNA called metabarcoding. The development of these DNA-based biotic indices has helped managers and scientists to quantify changes in the environment due to anthropogenic pressures in a cost-effective way. Dr Eva moved to Saudi Arabia in 2017 where she continued the investigation of the response of marine organisms (with a focus on microbial communities) to anthropogenic impacts, such as aquaculture activities, oil and gas extraction or coastal development. In 2021 she joined The Red Sea Development Company. Here she focuses on the monitoring of coral reefs and associated communities using novel methodologies to detect potential changes in the marine environment in a timely manner. A key goal of her role is to generate scientific-based information that allows for earlier detection of trends and to more effectively support management decisions. Here we find out more about the project as well as the specific work she is doing to bring new life to this unique area of beauty.



Can you tell us a little about the Red Sea destination and the work that’s happening in Saudi Arabia around this?

It is no secret that Saudi Arabia is a nation being reborn. Since I arrived in the country five years ago, I have witnessed first-hand a spirit of ambition, resilience, and confidence like never before as the Kingdom diversifies its economy away from oil to gain prominence on the global stage as one of the world’s leading, most-visited, destinations. One hundred million local and international visitors are expected to arrive annually by 2030 and raise the industry’s revenue from the current three per cent of the GDP to 10 per cent. Mega-developments like The Red Sea will welcome the world in experiencing the treasures this transforming nation has to offer.


The destination is ushering in a new era of never-seen-before, breath-taking regenerative luxury and the world’s highest standards of sustainability and nature-preservation. Fascinating nature, culture and adventure sites have been cultivated in The Red Sea’s area, which spans 28,000 km2 along the country’s pristine west coast and includes an archipelago of over 90 islands, one of the few thriving coral reefs in the world, and 50 dormant volcanic cones.



What can you tell us about the project on a wider scale and why should our readers visit this resort once it is complete?

The Red Sea is ambitious in every regard. It has an extraordinary vision to deliver new levels of service excellence, world-class innovations, seamless smart technology, and regenerative tourism development. Visitors will have access to undiscovered coastlines, islands, lagoons, mountain ranges, and thriving wildlife. The destination will also attract diving enthusiasts with its underwater reefs of 314 species of coral and 280 species of fish. Historical and archaeological sites will celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.




Can you share with us details on some of the sustainable practices being put in place? 

Our principles for sustainability enable us to set a new precedent in international luxury tourism and lead the industry’s transformation into a regenerative model. We have committed to consistently using 100 per cent renewable energy, which has never been achieved on a project of this scale. The destination will not have any connection to the national grid and instead rely on the world’s largest battery storage facility. We aim to deliver a net positive conservation benefit of up to 30 per cent by 2040, with 75 per cent of the destination’s islands being left untouched. This means that nine islands have already been designated as special conservation zones and only less than one per cent of the site is being developed, which is something that has never been done by any documented coastal development plan in the world. There will be zero waste to landfill even during the construction phase, and annual visitors will be restricted to one million by 2030. Our sustainability practices are aligned with the Saudi Vision 2030 and support national commitments towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2060. They also take into account all 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the circular carbon economy (CCE) targets to reduce carbon emissions to almost 280 million tons. I believe this will be a defining chapter in Saudi Arabia’s historic transformation, and I am excited to play my part.



Why is it so important to preserve the world’s coral reefs and what are some of the major issues in the world related to this and how are they being overcome?

Coral reefs have unquestionable ecological and socio-economic roles. They are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth and support critical services to humans such as shore protection, fisheries, tourism, and recreation. Many fisheries depend on coral reefs and related habitats. For example, in the United States, the commercial value of fisheries from coral reefs is over $100 million. Unfortunately, during the past few decades, coral reefs have been severely threatened by pollution, disease, habitat destruction and greenhouse gas emissions (resulting in ocean warming). At the same time, the awareness of the importance of preserving the integrity of coral reefs is rising, and several environmental monitoring programs have been established in different projects around the world to follow the trends of coral reefs. Also, a measure that is aimed at protecting coral reefs and other marine ecosystems is the establishment of Marine Protected Areas; these are designated marine areas where certain activities are limited or prohibited. 




What is so special about the Red Sea coral reefs in particular?

The Red Sea itself is very special because it is one of the saltiest and warmest seas in the world. The Red Sea hosts some of the most productive and richest coral reef ecosystems with more than 350 species reported – 23 of them being endemic, meaning they are exclusively found in this area. Red Sea coral reefs are also subjected to the effect of increasing sea surface temperature. Warmer temperatures cause corals to bleach, meaning that they expel the microscopic algae that live in their tissues and turn white. Long bleaching events can cause the mortality of the corals. This effect usually occurs when temperatures rise above 1 or 2 °C in summer. Yet, it has been observed that corals in the northern Red Sea can tolerate temperatures above 5 °C before they bleach. This behaviour hasn’t been observed in any other region in the world. Understanding why the Northern Red Sea harbours are so resilient and temperature-resistant may help to protect reefs elsewhere.


The Red Sea coral reefs are an untouched area compared with many coral reefs in the world, what can be done differently here to other reefs that have already been impacted by global issues? 

The Saudi Red Sea coast is a clear example of species-rich marine tropical ecosystems that have been historically subjected to low human pressure but are currently under increasing demands due to economic development. If tourism and economic development are not managed properly, reefs can be degraded, representing important socio-economic losses. There is a unique opportunity to make things different through sustainable marine ecosystem management. This means creating a framework to balance human needs and the preservation of the marine environment through adaptive management, for which collaboration between different stakeholders is crucial. We need to also differentiate between global and local stressors to protect the environment efficiently. An example of a global stressor is global warming (several models have predicted that sea surface temperatures will rise by 2-3° C by the end of the century), which represents a major threat to the integrity of coral reefs. There is little we can do at a local level to avoid global warming. However, local stressors such as coastal development, pollution, and fishing can be controlled and reduced to preserve the integrity of coral reefs. This will have a significant role to play in helping corals to recover.



How do you balance the safe preservation of these reefs and optimising the area as a tourist destination?

One of the main goals of the project is not only to avoid impacts (preserve the reefs and other marine ecosystems) but to improve the environment. To achieve this, we are creating a new environmental regulatory system that goes beyond typical global practices designed to minimise impacts and will be science-informed, adaptive and ecosystem-based. By the sustained collaboration of different stakeholders following this new regulatory system, we can find the balance between preserving the reefs whilst also meeting the goals of the destination.




What can you tell us about your research into coral reefs and how your findings have helped in your current role?

My research focuses on understanding the changes in coral reefs as a response to natural and human-induced environmental changes. Coral reefs support a number of co-existing species that maintain the structure and function of these complex ecosystems. If the composition of these species changes due to a negative effect of activity, the balance of the ecosystem may be disturbed and triggers the degradation of the reef. For this reason, understanding how the different species inhabiting coral reefs respond to environmental alternations is key to preserving the integrity of coral reefs. 


In my work, we apply a variety of advanced monitoring tools to capture the structure and composition of the coral reef as a whole. For example, we use a combination of high-resolution imagery and machine learning tools to detect changes over time in corals but also other benthic organisms that live in the reef, such as sponges, macroalgae, giant clams or calcified algae. Additional technologies based on DNA (molecular tools) are helping us to detect changes in other organisms (such as bacteria or invertebrates) that otherwise are very difficult to survey. The combination of these techniques can give a very rapid indication of changes to the environment before effects become too severe, helping to better protect organisms and their habitats.   


How does the project support local communities? 

The Red Sea will benefit the communities bordering it, so we see a lot of positivity towards it. The project is expected to create up to 70,000 new jobs and to contribute as much as 22 billion Saudi riyals (USD 5.3 billion) to the nation’s GDP. There is a dedicated community outreach strategy to bridge the gap between the community needs, and the destination’s objective, to benefit, involve and uplift the local population and provide them with alternative livelihoods. The Red Sea is committed to developing socioeconomic opportunities in the local community by focusing on three main aspects: Building partnerships, building capabilities and enhancing livelihoods. We work collaboratively with internal and external stakeholders to document key aspects of the local culture and strive to shed light on it and celebrate it as an integral part of our destination’s DNA.  




What first inspired you to get into this line of work? 

I always wanted to apply my research in the real world and The Red Sea Development Company has provided me with this opportunity to finally make it happen. A few years ago, whilst I was still a university researcher, I expressed my wish to see my research being used by government agencies and industries through the establishment of permanent marine monitoring programs. The ultimate goal of this hope was to help managers and policy-makers to support adaptive environmental management practices.



What is the biggest challenge you face in what you do and what is something you would still like to do that you haven’t done yet? 

It is not very common to sit at the same table with environmental scientists and project delivery staff members to discuss best environmental practices. I am honoured to be part of a project that gives importance to science-based decisions. My biggest challenge in what I do is to balance what I do as an environmental scientist to preserve the environment and coordinate it with the deadlines that need to be met to deliver the industry products. Something I am looking forward to seeing in the future is that the science-based programs we are currently implementing continue to evolve.




What is something you would like everyone to be aware of and keep in mind to help protect the world’s oceans? 

As humans, we take care of something when it matters to us. We can be aware of the importance of the oceans for our economies but if we don’t love the ocean, we will forget about it. I’d love to see people spending more time near the sea, whilst connecting to it. We don’t need to dive to observe the beauty of the sea but just connect with it when going for a walk or feeling the sea breeze.