• How Did the Chinese Oil Spill Affect Fishing?


How Did the Chinese Oil Spill Affect Fishing?

Mar 02 2018

The unprecedented spillage of oil in the East China Sea which occurred at the beginning of this year may have had significant and potentially far-reaching ramifications for the fishing industry. While it’s common practice for all fisheries to close in the immediate aftermath of a spillage to minimise the risk of contamination, it has emerged that many fishing vessels remained in the vicinity for days after the event.

The majority of those vessels have been identified as Chinese fishing boats. The Chinese authorities were warned as soon as the collision occurred of the imminent danger, though it appears that they did not take action until almost two weeks afterwards.

Immediate lockdown

The collision occurred on the 6th January, when an Iranian oil tanker named Sanchi collided with a grain cargo ship while en route to South Korea. It was delivering 136,000 tonnes of ultra-light crude oil (sometimes known as condensate) to the Asian country, and after struggling onwards for eight days, it finally sank on January 14th.

Colourless and virtually invisible, the oil is deemed highly toxic and it’s the first time that such a high volume of this kind of chemical has contaminated a major body of water. Though it’s hoped that a significant proportion of the oil burned off in the aftermath of the collision, experts say it’s impossible to know how much remains.

The region in which the collision and the sinking of the vessel occurred is renowned for being the habitat of crabs, mackerel, squid and yellow croakers. As a result, it’s hugely popular with the Chinese fishing industry, but the country’s agricultural ministry named a zone of 30 miles’ radius away from the incident as prohibited for fishing boats.

Putting commerce before common sense?

Chinese authorities were warned of the imminent danger by experts in the field, including Professor Richard Steiner, who has helped governments deal with similar crises in the past. “You should immediately close all fisheries in the region of the spill, as you do not want any contaminated fishery products entering the consumer market,” said Professor Steiner to the Chinese government in an email.

“They responded to my other suggestions but not directly to this one,” he told the BBC. Indeed, according to Chinese media, it was 10 days after the crash before vessels were dispatched to contain the spillage and evacuate fishing vessels. That was two full days after the ship had sank, as well. Because of this sluggish response, it’s believed that as many as 13 fishing vessels were still operating within a 60-mile radius of the sinking site.

While it’s imperative to carry out coastal monitoring to detect damage caused by fuel oil, lighter oils such as condensate can have more insidious effects on marine life. Therefore there is a real danger that the catches of those 13 vessels could contain heavily contaminated produce. When contacted by the BBC, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN did not respond to a query as to whether the contaminated seafood could already have reached shelves.  

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