Fish and Steel

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



Tipping the Scales

21 February is World Pangolin Day, and anyone who follows this blog knows I have a soft spot for the scaly anteater that is being rapidly hunted into extinction.

The ongoing decimation of the slow and strange pangolin is a grim illustration of the long-lasting impact greed and lack of political willpower can have on fellow inhabitants on the planet.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine, mostly in China and Vietnam. I found a site which promises to be a “complete guide to proven herbal remedies.” Note the word ‘proven’.

It lists pangolin scales as being composed of “stearic acid, cholesterol, N-butyl tricosylamide, cyclo (L-seryl-L-tyrosyl), cyclo (D-seryl-L-tyrosyl), and other 18 kinds of microelements” and “16 types of free amino acids.”

This makes it sound like pangolin scales have a chemical composition uniquely suited to medicinal uses. It does not highlight that pangolin scales, along with rhino horn and goat hooves and human fingernails, all have the same basic composition, and are all made of keratin.

I have no doubt that practitioners and adherents of traditional medicines believe in what they are doing with pangolin scales, and by extension, the consumption of pangolin flesh, especially that of unborn pangolins.

However, the same web site volunteers that most practitioners have been substituting buffalo horn for ‘medicinal’ rhino horn since the 1990s due to poaching and legal issues.

Rhino horn.

Rhino horn.

So if one kind of horn can simply be substituted for another, from entirely different animals, why not just substitute human nail cuttings for pangolin scales?

In the end, they all have approximately the same medicinal value beyond that of a placebo, namely, none.

Traditional medicines were born in a time of fewer humans and more animals. Harvesting these animals from the wild until they are all gone is a ridiculous, illegal and shameful undertaking for all concerned, from those who poach to those who consume.

An African tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) climbs a tree. Source: British Museum

An African tree pangolin climbs a tree.
Source: British Museum

The various species of critically endangered pangolins (and the rhino, and the elephant, and all the other iconic and lesser known animals being hunted to extinction) have a place in the world, but it’s not in a sack, being traded for every-increasing amounts of money to satisfy our own greed for better health or more income.

So on this World Pangolin Day, whip up a Happy Pangolin cocktail, celebrate the pangolins and other animals staying right where they belong, and celebrate all those people who are working hard to achieve that goal, maybe make a donation, and most importantly, maybe have a conversation with someone else about not supporting the illegal trade of any animal or plant.

Save Pangolins

IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group

Tikki Hywood Trust (Africa)

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Project Pangolin

Pangorarium (Facebook) – keep up with events and newsWorldPangolinDay2015-640x669

Road Works

We’re back from our trip to Vietnam, and I’ll be posting a few pieces from that visit.

For starters, I thought I’d put up this photo of the largest, cleanest, newest road I encountered in Vietnam (or almost anywhere else, for that matter).

Three lanes in each direction, lined with broad sidewalks and trees, with a fully landscaped median strip, it ran for several miles between nowhere and nowhere on the central coast outside Quy Nhon. It was utterly devoid of traffic – with the exception of our little bus and the guy up ahead of us on a loaded-up scooter.DSC02635

But since it’s harvest season and rice is out on the roadsides to dry, this super-sized six lane thoroughfare didn’t go unused – outside the small village where it began, it was used for rice drying.

A blurry shot taken from the bus…but there's the farmer's scooter and the large grain rake for turning the rice, which takes a day or two to dry.

A blurry shot taken from the bus…but there’s the farmer’s scooter and the large grain rake for turning the rice, which takes a day or two to dry.

Each square of rice represents the harvest of one small field, cut and threshed mostly by hand. The rice husks are used by some to fire small ovens.

Women separating rice from chaff near a gas station parking lot.

Women separating rice from chaff near a gas station parking lot.

Drivers make a careful arc around the rice, even on very busy streets.

What a cooperative approach to road use.

Rice drying in another coastal village.

Rice drying in another coastal village.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War (VI)

Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand, during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft. Source: USAF / Wikipedia

Defoliant spray run, part of Operation Ranch Hand,
during the Vietnam War by UC-123B Provider aircraft.
Source: USAF / Wikipedia

Mix equal parts of the broad-leaf herbicides 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) and 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and you’ve got yourself a batch of what’s commonly known as Agent Orange, the defoliant made famous during the Vietnam War. Herbicidal warfare was used first in Malaysia in the 1950s against communist insurgents. Based on this earlier implementation, with the approval of President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam, the United States began using it in 1961 against communist insurgents there.

The use of various chemicals in warfare was first declared as outside the boundaries of acceptable conduct in 1925 under the Gas Protocol, then under the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) of 1978,  and again on April 29, 1993 under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was established to ensure that the closure of chemical agent production facilities is monitored, and that stockpiles are destroyed.

Chemical weapons are relatively cheap, easy to mix (if you don’t count the potential hazardous effects on those doing the mixing), quick and lethal to use. Still, many states have been compliant with the CWC. Some, of course, have not. Or at least, not until it suited them.

Syrian chemical weapons. Source:

Syrian chemical weapons

Even when the chemicals are no longer in use, though, they tend to leave a long legacy in the form of damage to the victims who survived any initial attacks, as well as those who come into contact with the chemicals at any stage of their implementation and (sometimes) their disposal.

In the case of Agent Orange, U.S. war veterans of the era still suffering the effects of exposure. Among Vietnamese victims, chemical warfare hasn’t abated, with effects still evident in the grandchildren of those exposed.

Much of the environment that was sprayed in Vietnam four decades ago still hasn’t recovered. Many areas remain barren, or much reduced in biodiversity and fertility. Reforestation projects are underway to redress some of the damage done, but invasive weeds, the loss of tree seeds to renew the original habitat, as well as the devastation of regional fauna make the task a challenging one.

April 29: It’s the annual Day of Remembrance for All Victims of Chemical Warfare.

Of Whisky and Frogs

We have a radio station programmed into our media player, a quirky French station called Swing FM, ‘la radio du Hot-Club de Limoges’. They play a round-robin mix of jazz, swing, gospel, boogie and blues, almost all of it American and much of it pre-1955. I had it playing yesterday and this great whisky song came up, just right for this blog:

I grew up listening to this kind of music, and I’d never heard this sweet tune or singer. If I have, I don’t recall, which is almost the same as not knowing in the first place. The American tune took the roundabout path to me, an American, via a French swing station that has its own perspective of what constitutes a worthy playlist.

It made me think of the recent announcement of a new kind of flying frog in Vietnam – Helen’s Flying Frog, to be exact. Rhacophorus helenae.

Helen's Flying FrogPhoto source:  Jodi J L Rowley/Australian Museum

Helen’s Flying Frog
Photo source: Jodi J L Rowley/Australian Museum

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s eye to recognize something within its own habitat. Australian researcher Jodi Rawley found a sweet hidden gem in the low-lying evergreen forest just outside Ho Chi Minh City. From what I gather, being a flying frog is nothing special, as frogs go. Over half of the 4,800 known frog species have evolved some mechanism for gliding over some distance. Still, this frog had not yet been identified as a separate species, in spite of its proximity to around 8 million people – of whom at least a few must be forest biologists or amateur herpetologists. And yet there was Rhacophorus helenae, just standing around on a log, unique and unnamed.

Need I even add that few specimens of the frog have been found, that researchers are searching in other similar terrains for other populations, and that the frog will likely be declared endangered? Or that we can only discover gems if the habitat is still intact? Or that this habitat is rapidly disappearing? Of course not. Any more than I need to mention how much I would miss Swing FM if it were to go off the airwaves.

Journal of Herpetology