Pollution of the Fisheries in the Gulf of Suez and the Socio-Economic Impacts
The Gulf of Suez is a long, narrow, relatively shallow, waterway with a length of 250 km, width
20-50 km and a flat bottom less than 100 m below the surface. Considerable evaporation takes place from the sea resulting in high levels of salinity, from 40 to 43 ppm.
Most of the Gulf is located in the Egyptian province of Suez, an area with a population in excess of 325.000 according to the census of 1986. Most people live in the one city, Suez, located at the southern entrance to the canal. The most important economic activities in the region revolve around the petroleum, petrochemical and fertilizer industries.
Open water, seabed, and coral reef fishing take place in the Gulf. In 1984 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) assessed the fisheries resources of the area and the contribution they make to the local economy. Adjusting the figures in line with 1991 average prices, their results indicate that the available resources may exceed 17,600 tons, capable of realizing 43 million Egyptian pounds. Although the fishing industry is small in an international
context, it has the potential for significant employment and revenue generation within the area. This potential is being eroded due to the degradation of the environment caused by pollution associated with industrial and urban development. In particular the seabed and coral reef fisheries have a limited renewal capability and are particularly sensitive to the prevailing environmental conditions.
Sources of Environmental Degradation
In the last few years, there has been a huge expansion in the petroleum and petrochemical
industries as well as growth of population, urban projects and associated maritime traffic.
The continuous increase in activities connected with oil exploration, extraction, refining and transport has resulted in an equivalent increase of oil pollution along the Gulf, its inland waters and beaches.
Annual oil production now exceeds 15 million tons and takes place over an area of 8,000 sq. km.
Regretfully oil pollution incidents are the routine consequences of normal operating procedures.
Oil tankers and other ships constitute another significant source of oil pollution and the southern
entrance to the Gulf is presently used as a waiting area for ships before they enter the canal. These two chronic sources of pollution constitute a considerable hazard to the local fisheries
Oil pollution affects both the physical properties of the water and the biological life within it. Oil on the water surface reduces the exchange of gases contributing to reduced levels of dissolved oxygen, and promotes the absorption of solar energy that increases water temperature and reduces the solubility of oxygen. Some of the components of oil are soluble in water, such as phenyls, and are directly toxic to marine life. These chemicals may cause physiological damage to fish and lead to premature mortality. Even at low concentrations the fish may absorb hydrocarbons from the water so that the meat becomes ‘tainted’ and unfit for human consumption.
Wastes from the Fertilizer Industry
It is estimated that the fertilizer industry discharges up to 10,000 liters of wastewater each day, water contaminated with high levels of phosphates and other chemicals. An increase in phosphate
concentrations may lead to an excessive growth of algae and seaweed, an ‘algal bloom’. Rather than being of positive benefit, the excess vegetation dies and bacteria consume vital oxygen as the plant material is decomposed. Reduced oxygen levels may cause increased fish mortality, particularly in shallow enclosed bays.
Disposal of Sewage
Discharge of sewage to the Gulf of Suez is estimated at 80,000 cubic meters per day. The effluent
consists of domestic waste water as well as waste water used for washing streets, workshops, petrol stations, certain factories and waste from ships waiting to pass along the Canal. This waste water is a complex mixture. It contains organic matter and dissolved chemicals such as
nitrates and phosphates, as well as toxic components. Although treatment of sewage will definitely reduce its impacts on the water environment, purification processes will not get rid of the dissolved materials and the disposal of wastewater is likely to be a continual source of environmental problems.
Dredging has taken place in order to provide for the expansion of ports, industrial and tourist facilities, and for beach protection. The hidden consequences however involve a change in the characteristics of the seabed which reduces its capacity as a fisheries resource, and the creation of problems such as increased turbidity and siltation, which affects fish respiration and smothers benthic organisms.
The number of fishing units and their capacity were determined several years ago. Fisheries production may now have decreased due to increased levels of pollution but the catch-capacity has not been correspondingly reduced. This means that the number of fishing units and their catch capacity may be well in excess of the fisheries potentiality, a matter which will lead the to over-exploitation of this vital natural resource.
Pollution from the above-mentioned sources will undoubtedly continue to cause quantitative and
qualitative changes in the living organisms (plankton, fish and other marine species) as well as
to other physical environmental components (salts, oxygen, water temperature). This will result in a myriad of negative effects that will reduce the capacity of the natural resource base to provide a
sustainable future for the inhabitants of the area.
It is important to understand that a healthy fishery can only be maintained if the whole ecosystem
remains in a good condition. Damage to or loss of habitat for juvenile stages, or to the organisms that are their food supply are equally detrimental to the population as factors that directly affect the adult fish.
Sustainable use of these important local resources requires reduction in current pollution inputs and a reassessment of the exploitation level. These matters are being addressed by PERSGA in its role as a regional environmental protection agency through activities and projects funded by the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, (GEF).