Experts: Mediterranean Sea altered by Suez Canal’s species
Tel Aviv, Israel – As Egypt marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Suez Canal, marine biologists are bemoaning one of the famed waterway’s lesser known legacies – the invasion of hundreds of non-native species, including toxic jellyfish and aggressive lionfish.
The canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, revolutionized maritime travel by creating a direct shipping route between the East and the West. But over the years, the invasive species have driven native marine life toward extinction and altered the delicate Mediterranean ecosystem with potentially devastating consequences, scientists say.
The influx has increased significantly since Egypt doubled its capacity in 2015 with the opening of the “The New Suez Canal,” raising alarm in Europe and sparking criticism from various countries along the Mediterranean basin. The sharpest criticism comes from neighboring Israel, which once battled Egypt in war alongside the 120-mile-long canal.
Bella Galil, an Israeli marine biologist who has studied the Mediterranean for over three decades, said much of the ecological damage is irreversible.
But with the invasive fish and crustaceans buoyed by warming water temperatures and rapidly spreading toward European shores, she argued that urgent action is needed to minimize its long-term impact. Galil, of Tel Aviv University’s Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, said the continued widening and deepening of the canal had created a “moving aquarium” of species that, if unchecked, could make coastal waters inhospitable for humans.
Galil said the number of invasive species, currently about 400, has more than doubled over the past 30 years, a phenomenon she called a “historic example of the dangers of unintended consequences.”
Already, Israel is coping with an unprecedented wave of toxic jellyfish that has damaged coastal power plants and scared off beach-goers and tourists. Several other venomous species, including the aggressive lionfish, have established permanent colonies, creating a potential health hazard when they end up on plates of beach-side restaurants. Most worrisome has been the arrival of the Lagocephalus Sceleratus, an extremely poisonous bony fish commonly known as the silver-cheeked toadfish.
Galil said half of all the Israeli fish intake – and all the crustaceans – are now of the invasive variety.
With the “rolling invasion” now reaching as far as Spain, European countries are increasingly taking note. The issue is set to feature prominently at a United Nations ocean sustainability workshop this month in Venice.
“These non-indigenous organisms present serious threats to the local biodiversity, at the very least comparable to those exerted by climate change, pollution and over-fishing,” Galil said.
She said the new species have caused “a dramatic restructuring” of the ecosystem, endangering various local species and wiping out native mussels, prawns and red mullet.
Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry said it was monitoring the process with concern since its coasts were the new species’ “first stop” in the Mediterranean. It stressed that Israel could not stop the phenomenon alone but is promoting regulation to protect the most vulnerable marine habitats. With Israel increasingly reliant on the Mediterranean Sea for drinking water, the ministry said protecting the country’s marine environment was “now more important than ever.”