A rising flood of invasive species

Invasive species passing through the Suez Canal pose great health and safety risks, writes Rachael Bishop.

All the world’s seas are bedevilled by global warming, pollution and overfishing, but the Mediterranean and the 20-plus nations that ring it face another threat: A rising flood of invasive marine species flowing through the Suez Canal. On August 6, 2015, over the objections of environmentalists and the reservations of many economists, the canal’s latest expansion opened to shipping. The new 22-mile channel will double the canal’s capacity, allowing 97 ships to pass through each day. It also opens a wider path for invasive species from the Indian and Pacific Oceans to flood through the Red Sea into the Mediterranean.

Once they’re in, there’s no way to get them out, and the changes they bring are irreversible. Israeli scientists have identified more than 450 alien species of fish, invertebrates and algae that are not part of the Mediterranean’s natural ecosystem. Several pose public health hazards, while others threaten fisheries and tourism and denude underwater ecosystems, greatly reducing biodiversity.

Egyptian authorities say the $8.5 billion project will reduce bottlenecks and increase toll revenue from $5.3 billion to $13.2 billion a year by 2023. But these benefits come at the cost of continuing environmental degradation. “The recent doubling of the canal will decimate coastal ecosystems with dire implications for the regional economy and human health. We can’t continue to overlook this threat,” warns Bella Galil, a senior scientist at Israel’s National Institute of Oceanography.

Drastically altering
It can take generations, she says, for an alien species to expand its range. The presence of Red Sea fish in the Levant Basin, for example, was not recorded until 1902, more than three decades after the canal first opened in 1869. Subsequent waves have followed major canal expansions in 1980 and in 2010. The eastern Mediterranean, mere miles from the canal’s mouth, has been hit the hardest, and experts from Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Lebanon say this invasion has drastically altered fisheries.

In the 1970s, according to Dor Edelist, a marine ecologist at the University of Haifa, invasive species constituted 21 per cent of Israeli trawler catch; today, more than half are alien. In the first decade of this century, Israel’s Mediterranean fishery brought in $14 million to $26 million a year. Today, it’s about $16 million, of which $6 to $10 million are invasive species. Some are edible, like the goldband goatfish, but it has replaced the native species, red mullet. Gone too are native food fish like European hake and porgies.
Though we can’t remove invasive species, we do have the engineering expertise to stem the migration. The Panama Canal, which opened to shipping in 1914, offers an example of what might be accomplished. It operates a series of locks that function like sets of double doors, allowing ships to pass while making it more difficult for alien species to follow.

Moreover, the fresh water of Gatun Lake, which forms a major part of the canal complex, provides a 21-mile barrier that impedes the migration of most saltwater species.
The Suez Canal once had its own salinity barrier, known as the Bitter Lakes. Previous expansions and agricultural wastewater dumped into the canal flushed it away, but recreating it could be cost-effective. Installing locks for the Suez Canal, located in a much simpler physical environment than the mountainous Panamanian region, should be easier and less costly than the $3.2 billion the Panama authorities expect to pay for modernised lock equipment.

Scientists and environmentalists have appealed to the European Commission to install locks and salinity barriers in the Suez Canal and have requested an environmental impact assessment. Despite Egypt’s assurances that the information would be provided by May, European Union officials say they have still not received a definitive report. But in discussions last October, conducted by the United Nations Environment Program, the Egyptians reportedly said they would not sign an updated United Nations Mediterranean Action Plan unless language stating that invasive species are coming through the Suez Canal was removed. The MAP draft decision, with the language regarding the Suez Canal in brackets, goes to the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean for review in February.

But Egypt and its neighbours are losing sight of the big picture. For Egypt, with its large underemployed population, managing the fishing industry more wisely would employ more people and have greater long-term economic benefits than building expensive canal infrastructure that is vulnerable to a volatile global economy.

So, how can these competing interests be resolved? The problem may require new ideas and neutral leadership. In the mid-2000s, overfishing and environmental degradation was ruining fisheries off California. Nature Conservancy, the leading conservation organisation in America, bought up boats and licenses and leased these back to fishermen willing to employ more sustainable methods and use reporting software to help the organisation develop baseline data on the fishing stocks themselves. The result: Local fishermen are still fishing, and fish stocks are coming back. There’s surely a creative solution for the Mediterranean’s problems, and the place to start is by rebuilding salinity barriers in the Suez Canal.

As we become more aware of the risks to our planet, we must remember that
human beings, by nature, are not only competitive — we’re also cooperative.

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