Fish and Steel

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The image of thousands of fish washing up on a shore is almost never a metaphor for lucky circumstance. It’s almost always a sign that something, somewhere, has gone very wrong.

Back in April, fishermen in four central Vietnamese provinces, mostly outside the main tourist centers, started finding fish washed ashore. Fishing suddenly became easier than ever with countless fish drifting into the nets. Unfortunately, eating the catch was making people sick.

And then the deep sea fish started washing up. And then a small whale. Whatever was killing fish in off the coast of central Vietnam, it was spreading far offshore.

3D scan of Spinyhead Sculpin (Dasycottus setiger).  Source: Mark Riccio, Stacy Farina, and Willy Bemis/Open Science Framework (OSF)

3D scan of Spinyhead Sculpin (Dasycottus setiger).
Source: Mark Riccio, Stacy Farina, and Willy Bemis/Open Science Framework (OSF)

Suspicion fell on a sewage pipe flush carried out on a steel plant by run by the Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group. A sewage pipe connecting the plant to the ocean was discovered two years ago by divers, but it wasn’t until the Formosa allegedly cleaned this pipe, using 300 tons of imported chemicals described as “extremely toxic” by experts, that the massive fish die-off began.

Even three miles off shore, fishermen are finding entire areas of dead fish and squid. Dead fish are washing ashore by the ton.

Formosa company spokesperson Chou Chunfan didn’t help matters by telling an interview that “the discharge of wastewater will affect the environment to some extent, and it is obvious that the sea will have less fish. Before acquiring the land, (Formosa) already advised local fishermen to change their jobs. Despite our early recommendation, local fishermen kept on fishing in this area. Many times in life, people have to make a choice: either to catch and sell fish, or to develop the steel industry. We cannot have both.”

Formosa has gained a reputation around the world for its disdain when it comes to environmental standards, yet it continues to build factories in numerous countries, including the United States and Cambodia. It has paid millions in fines, but the sums are far too minor to be of any real punitive significance for Taiwan’s largest industrial conglomerate.

3D scan of Sligjaw Wrasse (Epibulus insidiator). Source: Adam P. Summers & Joshua Drew/OSF

3D scan of Sligjaw Wrasse (Epibulus insidiator).
Source: Adam P. Summers & Joshua Drew/OSF

The Vietnamese government has publicly recognized the environmental disaster but refuses to make any direct accusations.

Now the situation has spiralled beyond a regional issue into a much larger confrontation between protesters angry about government corruption and a possible high-level cover-ups. Protesters have attacked mainland Chinese workers employed by the Taiwanese company – a continuation of attacks over the past couple of years against numerous Chinese-owned factories.

Beyond the disastrous environmental and human consequences of this story, it caught my eye because, well, I visited the central coast of Vietnam a couple of years ago. I went to the types of small fishing villages that are being devastated by the Formosa spill. There is little there in the way of business – except for fish.

Fishing is what people do, fish is what people eat, the coastline is the livelihood and life of the area.

3D scan of Black Combtooth Blenny (Ecsenius namiyei) Source: Adam P. Summers/OSF

3D scan of Black Combtooth Blenny (Ecsenius namiyei)
Source: Adam P. Summers/OSF

It’s not clear to me where the choice between catching fish and developing the steel industry (as outlined by the Formosa spokesman, who has since been fired) was ever one to be made by inhabitants affected by the Formosa steel plant. The Vietnamese government belatedly told residents not to eat the toxic fish from their catch, and offered compensation in the form of bags of rice and 50,000 dong (approximately $2.20).

It’s not clear to me how mainland Chinese laborers imported for the steel plant, who were attacked and four of whom were killed during anti-Chinese protests when the steel plant was being built in 2013, are really responsible for the effects of a sweetheart deal between a Taiwanese conglomerate and the Vietnamese government.

Anyway, even if the local fishermen had been given a choice between fish and steel, shouldn’t they have been employed by the factory if they had, like their government, chosen steel over fishing?

Meanwhile, a large stretch the coastline of Vietnam is poisoned, and the dead fish washing ashore signify what some are calling Vietnam’s Chernobyl moment.

I’ll be interested to see how well the economics of this deal really work out for both the Communist Vietnamese government and the company that seem to operate on the notion that we can live without marine life as long as we still have steel.

3D scan of Hogchoker (Trianectes maculatus). Source: Kevin Conway & Adam P. Summers/OSF

3D scan of Hogchoker (Trianectes maculatus).
Source: Kevin Conway & Adam P. Summers/OSF

 

 

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