They sell seashells ...

Updated: 2011-09-04 07:54

By Han Bingbin and Zhao Ruixue (China Daily)

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They sell seashells ...

 They sell seashells ...

Bohai is paying the price for its proximity to progress. Along with it, the fishermen along its shores are also having to count the cost, and to them, it may mean that their whole livelihood is at stake. There is oil under the sea, but its exploitation has to be properly managed so that Bohai's ecosystem, too, does not suffer any more than it already has, or we will all mourn the loss of more than just a regular supply of seafood. [Provided to China Daily]

The Bohai oil spill has brought about pollution of another kind,including conspiracy theories credited to those with vested interests. Han Bingbin and Zhao Ruixue untangle the web in Changdao, Shandong.

More than a month ago, Zhao Fuguo, 61, had a nasty reality check in his Beicheng home. Fellow villagers harvesting scallops in neighboring Miaodao island came back with tales of sifting through piles of dead shellfish to salvage the ones that still lived. And then he started reading reports attributing the situation to the Penglai 19-3 field oil spill in Bohai Bay. Zhao was terrified. He had invested over 300,000 yuan ($46,980), including labor force and seed shellfish, and he had about 13,000 baskets of scallops ready for harvest this year. If the oil spill was really affecting the waters that badly, he may face a sudden, total loss. Fortunately for Zhao, his fear proved groundless. By the end of August, Zhao's scallop harvest came in as good as previous years and he quickly and successfully sold it off.

There are some fish farmers who suspect the rumors of heavy oil pollution at Changdao is the work of unscrupulous seafood dealers in Penglai trying to stop travelers going across to Changdao by exaggerating the extent of the pollution. The aim is to get the visitors to stay in Penglai for the seafood. Penglai is about a 40-minute boat ride away from the island, and is actually nearer the oil spill than Changdao.

An oyster farmer who insisted on being called "Sister Qu", 40, says it was probably these seafood sellers who started the rumor in the first place. According to Sister Qu, these rumormongers tell tourists that Changdao does not have electricity and even the water is not safe to drink.

But still, she was happy enough to see buyers snap up her oyster harvest. She had steadily harvested and sold between 500 and 1,000 kilograms a day this year, evidence that her island had not been seriously affected by the oil spill, she says.

Changdao still produces the tastiest seafood in the country, she proudly declares.

But scallop farmer Zhao, who has been in the business for more than 20 years, still has a tangible fear.

Just a week ago, he saw the water along the coast outside his sea cucumber breeding block turn red. Further out, the water was black. The alarming color changes lasted about three days, and Zhao firmly believes that it was some sort of pollution.

He has no explanation for the mystery but it brought back memories of a long period of darkness.

They sell seashells ...

Between 1997 and 2008, over 80 percent of the scallops Zhao bred died each year, some of them while they were still babies. The loss was sudden, because Zhao says he had a normal harvest just the year before, in 1996. The huge losses continued till 2008.

Zhao calls it his "12-year war of resistance". During that period, he lost between 100,000 and 200,000 yuan every year. He was only saved from financial ruin by his indoor sea cucumber farm, which brought in about 300,000 yuan a year on the average.

Many of his peers were not so fortunate and they became bankrupt. Zhao says from more than 1,000 households breeding scallops in Changdao in 1996, now there are less than 100.

At that time, experts and officials said the explanation of the large-scale deaths was the natural genetic biodegradation of seed shellfish. To Zhao, the theory apparently meant that the scallops could no longer adapt to the environment.

But then, after 2008, the situation was mysteriously reversed and the survival rate became normal again. And the farmers were still using the same seed shellfish.

"Did they suddenly stop degrading? It doesn't make sense. It could only be the water problem! Unlike sea cucumbers, scallops are more sensitive to pollution," he says.

It is no secret that the waters of the Bohai has been gradually but inexorably polluted. The water quality is getting worse, and no one knows it better than the Changdao fishermen.

Qu Shunfang, 62, Sister Qu's father, believes the pollution affecting Changdao during those dark years come from paper and chemical factories along the coast of Bohai Bay, a stretch that covers three provinces and one municipality - Shandong, Liaoning, Hebei and Tianjian.

Oil in the seawater is a normal occurrence, long before the latest oil spill. Su Benguo, 56, fishermen, says he does not know where it comes from.

According to him, he used to find asphalt-like black pellets in the stomach of a fish he calls "blackfish", or mullet. Su believes they are solidified oil sediments and fish ate them because they had nothing else to eat. And in spring last year, Su began seeing these black pellets appearing in his nets - sometimes scattered, at times covering the entire bottom.

His son, Su Maodong, 32, is a buyer who purchases seafood from the villagers and re-sells them. He had to trash more than 850 kilograms of red-banded mantis shrimps in 2008 because they were covered with oily black spots.

So how did the situation so suddenly reverse after 2008? What mysterious miracle was at work?

Zhao Fuguo believes it was the result of the government becoming more aware of the pollution problem and its stepped-up measures in controlling the chemical and waste emission and effluence along the coast.

But some things will never be the same. The environmental cost of progress has taken its toll. While the fish-farming is enjoying a second chance at life, the number of natural fish species in Bohai is already seriously decimated.

Qu Shunfang, who switched from fishing to fish-farming about 10 years ago, says there is a lot less fish in the sea now. As he speaks, his eye light up as he fondly remembers all the different fishes he could catch in the 1970s - ribbonfish, mackerel, flounder, yellow croaker and anglerfish.

These were all common, but are now rarely seen or caught. For those still in the business, the reduced catch is a vivid reminder of an alarming situation.

Su Maodong used to harvest several thousand kilograms of jellyfish in one trip. These days, he counts himself lucky if he nets in a few. In the past, with just five fishing boats, he could easily harvest around 2,500 kilograms of red-banded mantis shrimps a day, but now even with 20 ships, he can barely catch 500 kilograms.

Another Changdao fisherman Du Huimin, 64, grew especially nostalgic while talking about prawns. He remembers catching thousands at a time, large ones that weighed 14 to a kilogram. Now he counts it a good day if he even sees one or two.

Du says it's an even luckier day if he sees sharks and whales, creatures that used to frequent Bohai on their migration route. He remembers at least 40 varieties of fish in these waters, but says at least half have disappeared.

Like the other fishermen, he laments the shrinking catch, and tells us he has to cast 20 nets before he can fill a boat while in the past, two nets down and he can head home.

"Bohai Bay is a resting place where fishes come from the south to mate and lay eggs. But when groups and groups of fishes keep dying here, then the fishes will not return," he says.

"Maybe in another 10 years, all the fishes and shrimps will die out."

That is a sad last word from a dejected fisherman, but it should also be a loud clarion call for us to protect our natural resources, and to act now, before it is too late and all the fishing boats in Changdao turn into relics of a better age.

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