THE BLOG
08/05/2015 05:14 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2016

Silence on the Suez

Egypt is abuzz with Suez fever. On Thursday, world leaders will visit, pop singers will perform, and the world's largest flag spanning twelve kilometers will be unfurled during inauguration celebrations for the New Suez Canal.

Thirty-five kilometers of new channels have been dug parallel to the old, and existing channels have been dredged to accommodate larger ships travelling between Asia and Europe. Ship wait time will decrease by eight hours. Annual revenues are projected to increase from $1.5 to $4 billion. And the ambitious project was completed in just one year.

But in contrast to the fanfare over the completed construction, the impact of the project on the ocean's ecosystems has gone nearly unnoticed.

The Suez Canal has no locks or other barriers, and the height of the Red Sea is slightly higher than the Mediterranean on its opposite side. Water flows downhill and Red Sea water moves freely through the canal, carrying Red Sea organisms with it.

Originally the Suez Canal passed through a section of very salty water, the Bitter Lakes, which are thought to have acted as a barrier to organisms passing from one sea to another. But the cross-sectional area of the canal was quadrupled in 1956 and again in 2010. As more water flushed through the Bitter Lakes, they became less salty. That barrier is now gone.

In the Suez Canal's first fifty years, ten Red Sea species traveled to the Mediterranean. In its second fifty years, the number increased nearly ten-fold. Today, the number of Red Sea species in the Mediterranean is 447, the majority migrated in the last forty years as the Canal became wider, deeper, and less salty.

Some Red Sea species have had adapted well to their new Mediterranean home. Prior to 1980, the most common commercial fish in Israel was the indigenous meager. Now, it is rarely caught and the major catch is the narrow-barred Spanish mackerel hailing from the Red Sea. The Red Sea tiger prawn now fills Mediterranean fishermen's nets, as well as plates in upscale Mediterranean restaurants.

Other arrivals been damaging. The Red Sea nomadic jellyfish forms massive swarms in the Mediterranean. This summer, millions of these bulbous white creatures clogged water intake gratings nearly shutting down the Rutenberg power station in Israel. Its scorching sting chased swimmers out of the ocean for eight weeks.

The toxic silverside pufferfish arrived in the Mediterranean in 2003, and spread rapidly west, reaching coastlines from Italy to Libya and from Tunisia to Spain. People unfamiliar with the fish have been hospitalized after eating its poisonous organs. A voracious predator, the pufferfish's toll on on small-scale fisheries in Turkey alone was estimated at $10 million in 2014.

Over the last year, a growing number of scientists have voiced concern that the larger Suez Canal and the additional boat traffic and water moving through it would increase the likelihood of similarly opportunistic and destructive species establishing populations in the Mediterranean.

In September 2014, one month after the project was announced, eighteen scientists published an article in the journal Biological Invasions highlighting the threat of invasive species and calling the expansion "ominous." The article asked for the oversight of three United Nations treaties that have jurisdiction over environmental issues in the Mediterranean, and to which Egypt is a signatory. They did not receive a response.

By December, two hundred concerned scientists from twenty-five countries, led by Dr. Bella Galil of the National Institute of Oceanography, Israel, sent a letter to environmental groups asking for help approaching authorities to request an environmental risk assessment of the Canal expansion. They wrote, "We recognize that global trade and shipping are vital to society, however, the existing international agreements also recognize the urgent need for sustainable practices that minimize unwanted impacts and long term consequences."

A single Member of the European Parliament, Ricardo Serrão Santos of Portugal, introduced a statement about the Canal on the floor of the Parliament. He said, "I would like to draw your attention to the enlargement of the Suez Canal. This process will increase marine pollution, including more alien species. The expected impact goes far beyond the proposing country and will have implications across the Mediterranean Sea, as indeed has the actual Suez Canal. For this reason I call for a proper environmental impact study that is holistic, comprehensive, deep, international and, more important, consequential." No further action was taken by the Parliament.

Of the dozens of environmental groups who received the letter, only the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) responded. They wrote to the Directorate-General of the European Commission suggesting mitigation measures and offering technical assistance. "Effective solutions do exist, for example the creation of an environmental barrier to biological invasions using naturally occurring highly saline Bitter Lakes (in fact these lakes blocked the migration of Red Sea species into the Mediterranean for many decades)."

By February, the letter authored by the concerned scientists collected five hundred signatures from forty countries. Still, the international community remained mute.

No response ever came from any group charged with environmental oversight of the Mediterranean. No environmental risk assessment was ever performed. Galil called the near silence "the willful myopia by the bodies whose mission it is to protect the sea despite urgent requests from a growing body of international scientists."

Despite the Canal's completion, Galil and other scientists remain convinced that there's a way out. She said, "Cost-effective solutions to prevent, or minimize, a potential, great ecological setback to the biodiversity and the ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea still exist. These may be installation of locks or reestablishing a salinity barrier."

But implementing such solutions require the international community to make some noise.