Algae and Toxins, Not Steel Mill Waste, Blamed for Vietnamese Fish Kill

Algae and Toxins, Not Steel Mill Waste, Blamed for Vietnamese Fish Kill Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Vo Tuan Nhan speaks during a press briefing over an environmental crisis concerning mass fish deaths in central Vietnam on April 27, 2016.

Vietnamese authorities failed to find evidence that links a huge steel plant with a massive fish kill, but they have yet to identify a cause for the catastrophe, the nation’s deputy environment minister said on Wednesday.

“Up until now, our investigation and evidence collection has not yet found any evidence to conclude there is an association between Formosa and the other plants in Vung Ang and the mass fish deaths,” said Natural Resources and Environment  Deputy Minister Vo Tuan Nhan.

“Based on data collected and analyzed by science and government agencies, we have not found any environmental data that exceeds the acceptable standards,” he added.

Huge numbers of fish have washed ashore in Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua Thien-Hue provinces along the central coast of Vietnam. The dead fish washing up on beaches along the country's central coast include rare species that live far offshore in deep water.

Initially, the kill-off was thought to be caused by industrial effluent that came from a mile-long waste water pipeline that runs from a multi-million-dollar steel plant the Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Corporation operates in the Vung Ang Industrial Zone.

Nahn’s remarks came after a meeting with representatives of seven ministries, the four affected provinces and scientists. Nhan took no questions from the media.

Red tide or toxins

While authorities have yet to discover a cause, Nanh said the main suspected culprits are a red tide and toxins generated by people.

“There are two main reasons that may have led to the mass fish deaths,” Nhan said. “The first is due to the effects of a chemical toxin generated by people on land or sea, and the second is due to an unusual environmental phenomenon combined with peoples’ influence that causes a red tide.”

Red tides are naturally occurring, but there is evidence that they are on the rise as they are being fueled by global warming and runoff from fertilizers and other phosphates.

Scientists call the red tide harmful algae bloom because not all of them are red and don’t depend on the tide. The algae linked to red tides contain a toxin that affects the nervous and digestive systems of animals. In the Pacific the Alexandrium catenella algae is the most common cause of harmful algae blooms.

He didn’t detail what toxins might have caused the fish to die.

“This is a very complicated disaster that has happened in many places in the world, and we need time to find out the cause in a scientific manner,” he said.  “There are cases in other countries that are similar to what happened here, and they took many years to find the cause.”

National anxiety

The fish kill comes as anxiety among Vietnamese over China’s influence is rising. While the Formosa plant is Taiwanese, many Vietnamese do not draw a clear distinction between Taiwan and mainland China.

The fish kill comes as Beijing’s push to claim nearly all of the South China Sea has stirred a nationalistic backlash in Vietnam.

China is Vietnam’s largest trade partner and Vietnam’s annual trade deficit with China is nearly $24 billion, the Economist reported.  Factories in Vietnam—many owned by multinational firms—depend on Chinese inputs and Chinese companies likely hold a vast share of Vietnam’s engineering and procurement contracts for infrastructure and industrial projects.

When Beijing moved an oil drilling platform into a disputed part of the South China Sea, riots that killed one Chinese and injured 90 broke out at the site of the Formosa plant.

Vietnamese activists called for protests on May 1, telling reporters in a conference call on Wednesday that more than 90 percent of the industrial projects in Vietnam in recent years are operated by the Chinese or depend on investment from China.

The activists are demanding that the politburo and the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam prosecute Formosa, review all Chinese projects in Vietnam and send all Chinese workers home.

“All Chinese projects in Vietnam are bad,” said one activist. “Chinese workers took our jobs; built their villages on our land; invaded our country. They intend to harm our country, but the politburo and the communist party still listen to them and subjugate Vietnam to their demands.”

Reported and translated by Viet Ha for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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