Patience is a virtue. But it was impatience, along with a love for nature and plucky entrepreneurship, that motivated Andreas Weil to tackle environmental problems littering the coastline of his adopted homeland. He detailed his creative approach to this situation during a panel discussion last Thursday, Nov. 17, at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, accompanied by a small exhibit, “Israel Sea the Future.”

In 2000, Weil made aliyah from the Swedish capital of Stockholm, where he learned about recycling from the Swedes, whom he calls, “The inventors of recycling — we recycle 95 percent of everything,” He was appalled when he saw Israel’s trash-infested beaches.

Intending to study marine sciences and a longtime devotee of explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his vessel Calypso, Weil was also stunned to learn that Israel “had a marine college with students who graduated without ever setting foot on a ship” to conduct research, mainly due to the prohibitive $5,000-$6,000 daily cost for use of a specialized vessel.

Weil recalled thinking, “Maybe I can solve everything with one solution.”

So in 2000, he founded EcoOcean, an organization to help preserve Israel’s marine and coastal environment through research, education and preservation and to increase awareness for the importance of the sea. He also enrolled in the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, but soon came to the United States for more formal education.

“I studied marine sciences for two years but I got impatient,” he said. “I wanted to move, I wanted to do things. I wanted to go back to Israel.”

When he returned, he said he set his sights on creating a sea change.

Weil gathered the funds to design a vessel built for scientific research, and construction was completed in 2004. He gave researchers the keys to the ship in exchange for fuel costs and access to the data gathered from their work.

“From the first day, scientists were saying, ‘You’re really going to let me use this boat for $200 a day?’ It started working immediately,” Weil said. “Scientists who had money to do two days of research due to limited funds suddenly could do 10 days or 20 days.”

Weil and his team collected the data, disseminated it to the public, and based educational and advocacy campaigns on the findings.

EcoOcean is “the first privately run, data-based, data-driven organization,” he said.

Great Opportunity

At the aquarium, Weil co-presented an overview of the organization’s findings and campaigns along with his colleagues, Dr. Assaf Ariel, EcoOcean scientific advisor; Haifa University assistant professor and National Geographic explorer Dr. Beverly Goodman; and Arik Rosenblum, EcoOcean executive director. Approximately 50 people attended the event.

Israel has four coastlines, said Goodman. There’s the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, but it’s the Mediterranean — where natural gas was discovered — that is the focus of much of the organization’s efforts.

“Once the gas started flowing from the sea to Israel,” Assaf said, “the government and people started looking at the sea differently. Suddenly, they realized there is a great resource and a great opportunity. But on the other hand, there’s a great challenge to protect that. What was important to us as a [non-governmental organization] dedicated to science was to start to research the area and learn about the underwater world really, really fast.”

EcoOcean’s exploration spans from marine archaeology to tsunamis to shark infestation to sea level rise, but perhaps most impactful has been the tracking of trash.

“It’s a great concern as it is in the world,” Assaf said, “but in Israel it might be the worst.”

Litter isn’t just an eyesore, he added. Water erosion and current chopped-up plastic bags, bottles and containers into micro pieces, which fall into sea, are eaten by marine life, then work their way into food chain and end up on our plates.

EcoOcean used data to discern whether litter piled up on Israel’s shores drifted from the sea, passing ships or geographic neighbors, “but it’s mostly our fault,” Assaf said, “and primarily from local vacationers.”

Rosenblum said EcoOcean conducts extensive outreach — in Hebrew and Arabic — and they learned that young people are bothered by the loads of litter, too.

That discovery resulted in the launch this year of #2minutebeachclean, an international internet campaign that went viral (watch it here), which encourages the small act of beach clean-up by asking people to take two minutes to pick up trash. Beach-goers photograph themselves with the waste and upload the photo to Instagram, including the hashtag and immediately becoming part of an international and Israeli internet page community.

The campaign was a huge success, with more than 200,000 trash-carting Israelis posting photos. But it will require about five more years of participation, Rosenblum said, to really make an impact on the amount of debris. EcoOcean intends to promote the campaign extensively using recently acquired funding.

But what does EcoOcean’s research matter to the rest of the world?

“From the scientific perspective, the eastern Mediterranean has the highest temperatures, the highest solidities, and it’s highly populated,” Goodman said. “So what this means is this is our ‘canary.’ Whatever is going to happen worldwide — with global warming, sea level change — [the eastern Mediterranean] is going to see it first. … So it’s our laboratory to know what the effects are going to be, to understand how things are going to be impacted and hopefully to understand how to mitigate some of those issues that we’re about to encounter.”

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Photo of Tel Aviv coastline by Sarah Ohayon

Melissa Gerr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

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