This summer, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt announced that the Suez Canal would be expanded — to around double its size. The canal is the fastest way to sail from Asia to Europe, a shortcut that brings Egypt $5 billion of revenue a year. But in addition to hosting 10 percent of the world’s shipping traffic, the canal is a major conduit for invasive species.
Invasive species are one of the greatest threats to biodiversity and ecosystem stability. Yet the Suez Canal expansion is proceeding without any environmental review whatsoever.
In September, 18 scientists published a paper in the journal Biological Invasions calling the expansion and lack of environmental oversight “ominous” because “the Suez Canal is one of the most potent mechanisms and corridors for invasions by marine species known in the world.” The lead author, Bella S. Galil, from the National Institute of Oceanography in Israel, told me, “We are playing Russian roulette, not with a bay or a river, but with the entire Mediterranean Sea.”
Water in the Suez Canal mostly flows from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The new project will involve digging a new canal roughly parallel to the current waterway, and widening and deepening existing sections. This will also allow for a much greater volume of seawater — and sea life — to flow into the Mediterranean. Scientists have already documented more than 350 non-indigenous organisms that have passed through the Suez Canal and established populations in the Mediterranean, and that number is growing. The Mediterranean is colder than the Red Sea, but getting warmer, which means it is becoming more hospitable to the Red Sea’s tropical creatures.
The nomadic jellyfish (Rhopilema nomadica), originally from the Red Sea, now infests the eastern Mediterranean. Pale blue and measuring about two feet across, with thousands of stinging tentacles, these jellyfish gather in huge swarms each summer — a single swarm can extend more than 60 miles. Fishermen can’t fish during the swarming season because the jellies foul their gear and mucus coats their catch. Beachgoers stay home, resulting in estimated tourism losses of several million dollars a year. This species also blocks intake pipes at desalinization and power plants.
The silver-stripe puffer fish (Lagocephalus sceleratus) crossed through the Suez Canal, and was spotted in the Mediterranean in 2003. An aggressive predator, it now ranks among the 10 most abundant fish in the eastern Mediterranean by weight. This boxy fish contains tetrodotoxin, which causes paralysis and, potentially, death. Locals unfamiliar with the fish are catching, selling and eating it. Poisonings requiring hospitalization have now been reported in Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Israel and Lebanon.
Near Turkey, two species of Red Sea rabbit fish (Siganus rivulatus and Siganus luridus) have clear-cut hundreds of miles of seaweed forests. The seaweed is habitat for a multitude of species, including many invertebrates, which are prey for carnivorous fish. By destroying this habitat, the rabbit fish collapse the Mediterranean’s complex food web.
In a region often beset by delays, the speed at which the canal expansion is progressing is impressive. Bonds worth $8.5 billion to fund the project were sold in just eight days. Sixty million of the 140 million cubic meters of digging were completed by October. Fifteen hundred homes have been destroyed and thousands of Egyptians displaced to make room for the expanded canal, according to local reports. It could all be completed as early as next year.
Environmental concerns are not going to stop this project. Ship size and traffic are increasing worldwide. The Panama Canal is doubling its capacity, and Nicaragua is planning to build another canal connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific. Transoceanic canals play a necessary role in globalization, and the Suez is critical to the economic stability of Egypt.
But when a construction project of this size is planned, the first step is to perform an environmental impact assessment, followed by a risk analysis and evaluation of measures that could potentially mitigate the harms. These steps must be taken for the Suez.
Solutions to the problem of invasive species traveling through canals do exist. Air curtains — essentially walls of bubbles — create turbulent fields that aquatic organisms avoid, although building an air curtain big enough for the Suez could be problematic. Low-frequency sound emissions can also be used to deter animals, though noisy ship traffic may interfere. The most promising technology for the Suez has precedent in the past. In the early 20th century, naturally occurring highly saline Bitter Lakes bisected the Suez Canal, making it difficult for species to cross through. A salinity barrier could be re-established by inserting a high-salinity lock in the canal. We need to immediately begin exploring the feasibility and effectiveness of these, and other, mitigation technologies.
The United Nations should pressure Egypt to begin an environmental review. It oversees three treaties — the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Mediterranean Action Plan, and the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea — that have jurisdiction over activities that affect the health of Mediterranean ecosystems and invasive species. Egypt is a party to all of these treaties. But despite my repeated calls and emails to United Nations officers, only two responded to me, and both refused to comment.
The overwhelming financial support behind this project is evidence that the cost of an environmental review would not be onerous. Its absence is not just a breach of legal obligation; it puts at risk an ecosystem that would still be familiar to its first students, Aristotle and Pliny the Elder. The ocean that has long been called “mare nostrum” — our sea — deserves our protection.
Juli Berwald is a science writer.