The Suez Canal enlargement: scientists call for the sound environmental decision

by B. Galil & S. Olenin

Galil3“Egypt to build new Suez canal… ‘This giant project will be the creation of a new Suez canal parallel to the current channel’ said Mohab Mamish, the chairman of the Suez Canal Authority, in a televised speech. This is ominous news. Expected to double the capacity of the Suez Canal, the expansion is sure to have a diverse range of effects, at local and regional scales, on both the biological diversity and the ecosystem goods and services of the Mediterranean Sea.

Of the 720 multicellular non-indigenous species (NIS) currently recognized from the Mediterranean Sea, fully half were introduced through the Suez Canal. Many of the NIS introduced via the Suez Canal have established thriving populations along the Levant, from Libya to Greece, whereas some species spread further, such as the toxic pufferfish, Lagocephalus sceleratus, occurring from Sevastopol in the Black Sea to Italy, Tunisia and Spain.

 

Rhopilema nomadica

Rhopilema nomadica, a scyphozoan jellyfish introduced to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, forms annual swarms in the Levant and off Tunisia. When drift close to shore they clog cooling water intakes of coastal power plants, interfere with fisheries and sting bathers.

The individual and cumulative impacts of these NIS adversely affect the conservation status of particular species and critical habitats, as well as the structure and function of ecosystems and the availability of natural resources. Some species are noxious, poisonous, or venomous and pose clear threats to human health. Significant and often sudden decline of native species, including local population extirpations, have occurred and are occurring concurrent with proliferation of Canal-introduced NIS. Local population losses and niche contraction of native species may not induce immediate extirpation, but they augur reduction of genetic diversity, loss of functions, processes, and habitat structure, increase the risk of decline and extinction. The effects of past invasions are continuing to increase, as the ranges of NIS continue to expand through the Mediterranean basin and beyond, since impact is partly a function of occupied area.

We recognize that global trade and shipping are vital, however, the existing international agreements also recognize the urgent need for sustainable practices that minimize unwanted impacts and long term consequences. Given the sensitivity and specificity of the Mediterranean Sea, a project of this size and potentially negative environmental consequenses, requires a transparent and scientifically sound Environmental Impact Assessment to facilitate both the identification of bioinvasion risks and the implementation of mitigating strategies.

In order to better communicate relevant scientific opinion to policy- and decision makers, a group of bioinvasion scientists published a “Letter to the Editor”. The letter is available as Open Access resource at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10530-014-0778-y

It was later picked up by the media – making it to The New York Times in November 2014 and March 2015 (and on its paper edition), The Guardian, The Conversation, The New Scientist, and Nature.

A recently prepared ‘open letter’, signed by over 450 scientists of 38 countries, was sent to intergovernmental organizations (such as UNEP/MAP, IMO, CBD), to the EC Environment Commissioner, stakeholders and media channels. We already received some positive responses – from Ms. Marton-Lefèvre, Director General of IUCN, and Commissioner Karmenu Vella, Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Directorate-General for the Environment, European Commission.

There is much more yet to be done – we invite you to join the network by sending your name and affiliation to bella(at)ocean.org.il – The Mediterranean needs your help!