Suez Backstory

A story that forewarns of ecosystem demise begins, for me, with two deaths.

On October 17, the effervescent Heather Kahout lost her three-year battle with cancer. Heather and her husband Martin took a chance on me when I was really just a textbook writer and offered me a writing residency at Madroño Ranch, where, since they believed in me as a writer, I had to begin to believe in myself as well.

Martin famously referred to Heather on Facebook as L&THCK, and it took me a while to realize what that meant. (She was anything but THiCK.) Until one day it clicked: the Lovely and Talented Heather Catto Kahout, which just about sums her up perfectly. From the first time I met Heather, I felt like I could talk with her animatedly about both the complex and the mundane. It was an unusual sensation, and one that I came to understand emanated from a fundamental quality of Heather. She had a unique ability to make sacred space for whatever and whomever were around her.

On October 23, I returned from Heather’s memorial service and clicked on Facebook to learn that one of my closest friends from grad school, the incomparable Jay Vavra lost his fight with cancer as well.

Jay was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma about three years into his Ph.D. He underwent brutal treatments while we were in school together, but never for a minute saw himself as a victim. Jay survived for 16 more years and became one of the most celebrated high school biology teachers in the country, personal friends with E.O. Wilson and Jane Goodall. His students published four books on the biota of San Diego Bay and set up a lab to uncover poaching crimes in Africa. He married a wonderful woman and had two beautiful sons, the same ages as my kids.

When I see those Dos Equis commercials starring “the most interesting man in the world,” I always think they got it wrong. If anyone at Dos Equis had met Jay, he would have been instantly cast instead of that grey-bearded old man. Jay was handsome, brilliant, sincere, and adventurous, and despite all that, slightly, lovably goofy. There’s a classic picture of Jay that’s been emailed around since he died. He’s in the lab, dressed in a tux. He’s pipetting one last bit of an experiment before dashing off to hob knob with celebrities at the Oscars.

One of the most magical moments in my life happened while camping on a deserted beach near Santa Barbara. Jay and my boyfriend at the time wanted to surf a sort of famous break, but when we got there, no surf was to be found. We sat on the beach for a while trying to figure out our next move, when one of us spotted a spout just 100 yards offshore.

The next thing I knew, we were all paddling out into a small pod of three young gray whales. They were working together to scrape food off the seafloor, swirl it into a whirlpool, and then inhale it. One by one they rose up in the middle of the invertebrate stew they had spun, mouths agape and pointed skyward. The rich water streamed off the sides of their massive jowls in green waterfalls. We paddled after the undisturbed whales into the next cove, where they performed the same feeding ritual. And again in a third. Then they grew tired of us, or maybe they were just full, and they simply vanished, leaving behind nothing but an indelible mark on each of our memories.

At the time Jay and Heather died, I was in the middle of digging into the story I mentioned at the top of this blog, a story of ecosystem demise. It’s a story I found in Italy last month, when I went to visit Fernando Boero and Stefano Pirano at the University of Saliento in Lecce.

Both of these jellyfish scientists are authors on a paper titled Double Trouble: the expansion of the Suez Canal and marine bioinvasions in the Mediterranean Sea. The paper details how the Suez Canal is being doubled in size, but there has been absolutely no environmental review; this, despite three UN treaties forbidding activities that affect the health of ecosystems in the Mediterranean.

Like the current Suez Canal, the expansion will also be an unlocked canal, a straight shot from the more biologically diverse Red Sea to the Mediterranean. Nearly 400 alien species have already taken up homes on the north side of the canal. A number of them, including a nasty, stinging jellyfish called Rhopilema nomadica, are having negative impacts on both ecosystems and humans.

Stefano talked to me about the paper, saying that it hadn’t had the response he’d hoped in the media. I vaguely offered to try to write something about it,.

After I returned to Texas, started looking into the canal construction. The money to fund the canal, $8.5 billion, had been raised in a brisk eight days. Digging was underway. Thousands of Egyptians had been uprooted. One story told of an mango farmer who lost his orchards, and was given no compensation for his land. Firms had been hired to start dredging. This thing was real.

I called the lead author on the paper, Bella Galil. I asked her whether the UN was really shirking their obligations. It seemed impossible. It’s not like Egypt was building a marina. They were building a second canal parallel to the one that turned Africa into an island. This was a major project. She said, “Why don’t you call and ask them about it.”

The next morning I picked up the phone. At the Convention on Biological Diversity, no one picked up. So I emailed. Then I called again. And again. Finally, an officer named David Cooper picked up. “Hi, it’s Juli Berwald, I wonder if you could talk to me about the Suez expansion. I wrote you an email about it.”

“Right, yes, the email. I’ll have to call you back,” he answered. But he never did, even though I left several more messages for him.

Someone in Greece at the UNEP Mediterranean Action Plan picked up. He said, “We haven’t responded to Egypt’s plans because none of the countries that will be affected have asked us to…..” and the line went dead. I tried to call back, no answer, no answer, no answer.

The two emails that were answered met with similar responses. The Division of Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, sent a curt reply, “We regret not being in a position to assist you in this regard.” An officer at UNEP MAP wrote, “Kindly be informed that at this stage we are not in a position to make any formal communication on this matter.”

After a week and a half, one thing was very clear to me. The UN was blatantly ignoring their legal responsibilities. Their inaction threatened the ecosystems of the eastern Mediterranean.

But another thing was unclear, what were my responsibilities to the story? I was, after all, in Texas, nowhere close to the Mediterranean or the Suez.

I called my friend from grad school Tom, who is a much more talented and experienced science journalist, for advice. I suggested he might know a young brave journalist who could take this story. Or maybe he wanted to use it as a project in a journalism class? Get some students to go to Egypt and interview Suez Canal engineers? Check out the digging?

Tom suggested I pitch the story myself, “You found it.”

“But I haven’t had much luck with pitches lately,” I begged off. “Plus, I’ve got a science fair project to oversee, a hisory project on Juliette Low to help with, a test on cellular respiration, and I’m planning a bar mitzvah, I don’t have time to go to Egypt. I can’t write a story about the demise of the Mediterranean.”

Tom reminded me of Jay. Of Jay’s tenacity, of his adventurous spirit, of the way he never ever saw himself as a victim even when obstacles were put in his way. Jay would step up and write the article. Tom didn’t know Heather. But as he talked, I knew she would believe in me when I didn’t want to. Those two thoughts fit together like puzzle pieces.

I screwed up my courage, and I wrote the best pitch I could. Then I pitched the story to the biggest place I could think of, the New York Times. And a day later they said, no guarantees, but we’d like 1000 words on the Suez expansion.

“Clear the decks,” advised Tom. So I did, and I wrote the best story I could.

An hour before the copy went to print, I interviewed a fish scientist named Dor Edelist who has worked on the shifting in fish species because of the invasives that have come through the canal. As many as 83% of fish hauls are now invasives. He tells me about an alien threadfish that upended the native bream in just four years. But Edelist adds that the threadfish is actually good to eat. “The canal will have negative consequences, but it will have benefits too.”

Edelist says that the fish species in the eastern Mediterranean are “the wrong species for the wrong environment.” Five million years ago the Mediterranean was dry. Then a break in the land at Gibralter opened up a channel, letting in cold Atlantic water, and all the animals adapted to live in it. The creatures that made it to the eastern Mediterranean weren’t really suited for the warmer climate and low productivity there. A hundred and fifty years ago, when Egypt cut a channel to the Red Sea, invading tropical animals found welcoming waters and weak competitors.

“Perhaps the reason why the invasion is happening. If the ecosystem of the eastern Mediterranean would have been more diverse, it would have been more resilient. Many of my colleagues will kill me for saying this: If you had to choose an area of the world where–and it’s hard to say this, because this is my backyard and I love this sea–but if you had to choose an area where this invasion would happen, if I look at it from a global perspective, I am ok with it.”

He continues. “Of the 10 most prominent species in the catch, three species in the top five are also in the top five in southern India. Our sea looks more like Kerala in southern India than it does in the western Mediterranean, or than the eastern Mediterranean 100 years ago.”

Edelist says that the invasives have increased biodiversity in the Mediterranean. There are now 500 species of fish, whereas there used to be 400.

Suddenly, I’m having doubts about my story. Biodiversity is the holy grail of ecosystem stability. If the canal increases biodiversity, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t more better?

Yes, except when it’s not. The reason that eastern Mediterranean is unique and worth protecting is exactly because it is home to the wrong fish in the wrong environment. Those fish, and all the other organisms around them, have had five million years to figure out how to survive together. As a result, the eastern Mediterranean is its own community, one like none other, and that’s led to some cool results. It’s hotspot for algal biodiversity, for example. An area the size of a parking space can contain over 120 different seaweed species. That doesn’t happen in the Red Sea.

The reason there are three treaties that protect the health of Mediterranean ecosystems is because as a community we’ve decided they are important. If we decide to change our mind, that these ecosystems aren’t really that unique, that the eastern Mediterranean should really be more like the Indian ocean, that needs to be done collectively as well. It’s not a decision that one biologist, one construction project, or even one country gets to make. It’s not a decision that should be made in just one year, when the ecosystem that’s in place has had five million years to stabilize.

And its certainly not one that should happen because no one was looking. If we are going to do this, we need to do it with our eyes open.

Just a week after I pitched it, the story of the Suez expansion and its environmental impacts is out in the world, where it needs to be, and where, perhaps, it will do some good.

It’s dedicated to the two spirits who pushed me to do what is right.

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