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Experts say Med Sea altered by Suez Canal’s invasive species


TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — 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 193-kilometer (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.”

Lebanese scientists at the American University of Beirut recently wrote that failing to mitigate the ecological risks associated with the expansion of the Suez Canal would place a large part of the Mediterranean ecosystem in jeopardy, an opinion shared by marine scientists across the eastern Mediterranean, from Turkey to Tunisia.

A relatively simple option for damage control seems to be available in the form of the Qatari-funded desalination plants the Egyptians are building along the canal, the first of which is expected to be opened later this year.

If carried out properly, Galil said the brine output of the plants could be funneled into the canal to recreate a “salinity barrier” that could stem the flow of species from south to north. The Great Bitter Lakes, about 45 kilometers (30 miles) north of Suez, once created such an obstacle. But as the canal widened and Egyptian cities and farms flushed agricultural wastewater into the lakes, that bulwark disappeared.

Egypt, which signed a peace accord with Israel in 1979 and recently signed a massive deal with it to import natural gas, has largely rejected the dire warnings of the Israeli scientists as politically motivated.

“Invasive species is a huge and nonspecific category,” said Moustafa Fouda, an adviser to Egypt’s environment minister. “They can even be productive, replacing species that are overfished, bringing economic benefits or simply adapting to the new environment.”

He estimated that less than 5% of invaders could be regarded as “disruptive” and that most of the shrimp, mollusks, puffer fish and crabs caused no harm. He said even toxic invaders, such as lionfish, were edible if their venomous spines were removed.

Egyptian experts also denied the invasions resulted directly from the Suez expansion. They argue that rising water temperatures brought on by global warming and untreated ballast water discharged by cargo ships spurred the exotic arrivals.

“Invasions are a global trend due to pollution and climate change, the natural result of which is every species struggling to survive and searching for its optimal environment,” said Tarek Temraz, a marine biology professor at Suez Canal University, and author of the environmental ministry’s impact assessment of the canal expansion.

The Suez Canal Authority, the government agency that operates the canal, claimed environmental concerns over its enlargement have been overstated. It said water volume flowing into the Mediterranean increased by 4%, creating “little impact on water flow and plankton movement.

Canal officials say they are closely monitoring species migration, imposing regulations on ships that unwittingly ferry invasive creatures and curtailing water contamination in hopes of restoring salinity to the lakes.

The canal authority said a recent drive to divert agricultural wastewater away from the Bitter Lakes has successfully raised salinity there by 3% over the past years.

Galil says that’s not enough, insisting that salinity must increase significantly to serve as an effective barrier against newcomers.

“One day we will wake up to a compete and irreversible change and know that there was something we could have done about it if only it had been done on time,” she said.

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DeBre reported from Cairo.

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Follow Aron Heller at www.twitter.com/aronhellerap and Isabel Debre at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre





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A new frontier in the Irish Sea – VoxEurop (English)



The introduction of customs and regulatory controls in the Irish Sea, provided for in the latest UK withdrawal agreement, would make Northern Ireland a very special economic area.

Not quite in the European Union, not quite in the United Kingdom. This is the fate awaiting Northern Ireland if the exit agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson with Brussels is ratified by both parties by 31 January, the deadline of the third Brexit postponement.

Compliance with the Good Friday agreements – which ended thirty years of bloody conflict between Irish nationalists and Northern Irish unionist armed groups in 1988 – is a sine-qua-non condition of any deal between London and Brussels. In other words, it is imperative not to re-establish a physical border between the north and south of the island of Ireland. To this end, the agreement negotiated by Theresa May provided for the establishment of a backstop. This interim mechanism was intended to ensure an open Irish land border until British and European negotiators reached agreement on the issue. But Boris Johnson opposed it, in particular because it involved keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union and the European single market for an indefinite period, thus preventing him from concluding free-trade agreements with the rest of the world.

A new and very imaginative solution was therefore developed in the draft agreement obtained in extremis by Boris Johnson in mid-October. It moves border controls (sanitary and phytosanitary regulations, and customs) from the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to the border between Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland. That is, they are to be carried out in the Irish Sea.

A Trojan horse in the single market

With regard to regulatory controls, all British goods entering Northern Ireland will have to comply with European standards in order to preserve the integrity of the single market and avoid “Trojan horses”, i.e. the entry into Europe of goods that do not comply with European standards – such as American chlorinated chickens – via Northern Ireland.

The levying of customs duties will require a little subtlety. Goods destined for Northern Ireland’s domestic consumption will be exempt, since the province is part of the British market. As for goods defined as “at risk of re-export” to the European Union, they will have to pay European customs duties. And that’s where the puzzle begins. How do we know which types of goods might only be passing through Northern Ireland before heading straight for the mainland? These criteria will have to be defined during the transition period and will take into account, as specified by the European Commission, “aspects such as the final destination of the goods, their value, and the risks of smuggling”.

Increased vigilance will therefore be required on goods for which the United Kingdom has successfully negotiated customs tariffs with third countries. Import-export businesses could take advantage of Northern Ireland’s hybrid status to escape European customs duties, thus practising a form of dumping. Whether or not these situations increase will depend on the negotiating ability of the “Global Britain” freed from the EU’s shackles, which the British Conservatives dream of.

“We have no history to help us assess these re-export risks. In theory they will be low in the many sectors where European customs duties are zero and higher in those where customs duties are higher, such as cars or agriculture,” explains Vincent Vicard, economist at Cepii. Proponents of this solution of controls in the Irish Sea also argue that it is easy to predict the domestic consumption of a small economy of less than 2 million inhabitants (and representing only 1% of EU trade).

Despite its relative complexity, the European Commission has therefore welcomed the fact that the agreement respects the two red lines it had set, namely that it “fully protects the integrity of the single market and the EU customs union and avoids any regulatory and customs control at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland”. But at what price for the latter? “The territory will be a special economic zone, both a member of the British and European market. But in both cases, there will also be access restrictions,” says Vincent Vicard. Not surprisingly, this solution earned Boris Johnson the wrath of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which accused him of sacrificing the province in an attempt to obtain the “do or die” Brexit to which he had committed himself.

Threats to the Northern Irish economy

“The carrying out of customs checks for all goods from Great Britain is likely to be a burden for Northern Irish companies, particularly SMEs”, says Vincent Vicard. “More broadly, Northern Ireland will have higher barriers to its commerce and will therefore have more difficulty in trading and obtaining goods at a reasonable price”, he adds. The “imports” from Great Britain account for almost half of Northern Ireland’s external purchases (£13 billion out of £20 billion in 2017), according to the latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistical Agency (NISRA).

In Belfast, the local section of the Confederation of British Industry considers that “by the cascade effect, Brexit would harm business investment, productivity, competitiveness and Northern Ireland’s trade relations”. That is why the president of this employers’ organization called at the end of October for an “urgent clarification” of how London intended to preserve the province’s place in the British internal market.

What if Northern Ireland took the opportunity to turn more to the neighboring Republic of Ireland? “Since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, economic exchanges on the island have developed, but we are still far from the reunification that some are beginning to talk of”, says Thibaud Harrois, lecturer in British civilization at the Sorbonne-Nouvelle. While Northern Ireland’s dependence on the British market has decreased over time, it remains of critical importance.

The border issue could reappear

Another lingering question: “Today, Northern Ireland is aligned with European standards just like the rest of the United Kingdom, but there is no guarantee that this will remain the case in the future and that the British will not choose to move away from those standards”, points out Thibaud Harrois. Given the British government’s apparent objective of trade deregulation, such a hypothesis would therefore bring the risk of a restored land border between the two parts of the island of Ireland in a few years’ time. The scenario demonstrates how the whole issue is still far from being resolved. “In the event that the United Kingdom decided to move away from EU standards, British companies might be forced to set up dual production lines: one with lower British standards, and one with European standards to serve the Northern Irish market”, speculates Vincent Vicard.

The early British parliamentary elections on 12 December will be crucial in clarifying the future of the province. “If the Conservatives or the Brexit Party [of Nigel Farage] come out stronger, a no-deal Brexit is still possible. If they lose their majority, Labour will surely seek to renegotiate the agreement to get closer to the European Union and obtain a softer exit, or even propose a new referendum”, concludes Thibaud Harrois. In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the country, uncertainty remains the order of the day.



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