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Environment

Protests erupt in Vietnam after mass fish deaths

Flickr/Sardinhas

Would you rather: starve to death or eat poisoned fish?

This is the choice people living along the coastline in Vietnam are faced with every day. And the hundreds that have chosen to eat have fallen ill from consuming poisoned fish.

Recently, officials began investigating why so many fish are dying in areas where people depend on them as a source of food and income.

Millions of fish — including rare species — have been found dead on beaches along the country’s central coastal provinces: Ha Tinh, Quang Tri, Quang Binh and Hue. The problem began when farmed fish began dying in mass numbers and were later found dead, washed up on the shore.

The toxic fish are not only a problem for people, but also the livestock that the people care for. The fish are unable to be eaten by all parties, and therefore, many are left starving, including animals.

This problem has become an environmental disaster that needs to be solved. The problem is, officials claim to be unsure what is causing the fish to die.

One immediate cause might be the toxic waste released into the water from a nearby steel mill, but no one is sure. The people are not taking this lightly, though. Major protests have broken out demanding government action.

“We are so angry,” Pham Thi Phi, a fishing boat operator in Nhan Trach, told The New York Times. “If we knew who put the poison in the ocean, we would like to kill them. We really need to have an answer from the government on whether the ocean is totally clean and the fish are safe to eat.”

It has been two months since the fish began to wash up on shore and the government has yet to come any closer to announcing a solution or a cause for the disaster. This has sparked widespread speculation of corruption and hidden interests, according to the article.

“Quite simply, in Vietnam, human life is less important than the political life of the government and government institutions,” Nguyen Thi Bich Nga, an activist in Ho Chi Minh City, said. “In this way, we can explain all that is unusual in this country.”

What began as a protest against toxic fish has grown into a question of how the government functions.

“It seems the government tries to cover up for the culprit,” the Rev. Anthony Nam, a Catholic priest and protest leader in Nghe An, said. “We will protest until the government says what caused the spill.”

Many activists blame Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group for the dying fish, but Formoas denies any claims by stating that they invested more than $45 million in a safer waste-treatment system to avoid problems like this. There are also laws in place to prevent dumping waste into the oceans.

The United Nations Environment Program noted in a recent report that while legislation governing the treatment of industrial waste exists in Vietnam, it needs to be better enforced.

“There is a huge gap between words and implementation,” Le Dang Doanh, an economist and former government adviser, told the Wall Street Journal.

The people are also concerned about their governing system and have taken to social media.

The hashtag #ichoosefish has become a hub of information regarding the protests and it calls on the government to take action. Environmental activists in the US have gathered more than 138,000 signatures in a petition to the White House asking President Obama to discuss the issue during his visit to Vietnam this month.

If the situation remains static, Vietnam could lose billions of dollars from seafood exports and tourism due to the dying fish. And beyond the economics, people should be able to eat fish whenever they damn please.