Seafood industry in Vietnam faces threat from pollution
The seafood industry in Vietnam is under threat from an increasing amount of industrial pollution in the Mekong Delta and its tributaries, which poses environmental and food safety risks to the country’s freshwater fish farming sector.
The major species produced in the delta region, in the country’s south, is pangasius, which is grown in specially constructed ponds on the banks of the rivers Hau and Tien, while tilapia – also a big part of the country’s seafood sector – is reared in floating cages in the rivers themselves.
However, Vietnam is developing at a breakneck pace and industrial parks are springing up in the area, with new factories located alongside the rivers discharging their effluent into the delta waterways, often without treating it beforehand.
As a result, the Hau and Tien, the two major distributaries of the Mekong River, which empty directly into the South China Sea, are becoming “poisoned,” according to Vietnamese media reports.
Although the water in the pangasius ponds on the riverbanks is specially treated and tested before being pumped into the ponds, the seafood industry still faces a threat from the pollution in the rivers, according to news reports from Vietnam.
Pangasius are processed close to the growing areas. Plants from Can Tho City in Thot Not District all the way to Chau Doc City of An Giang Province are located directly on the riverbanks, alongside animal and fish feed facilities. River water used in the processing plants is treated and tested, but there is potential for contamination beforehand.
According to Tuoi Tre (Youth) reporters who traveled along the Hau and Tien rivers recently, the air is even too polluted to breathe in places. Not only is the odor unpleasant, but the river waters are blackened and full of trash, they said.
A factory manufacturing steel from scrap metal in Cho Moi Town, An Giang Province, has been named as the biggest polluter. In May 2013 it was fined VND162 million (USD 7,265, EUR 6,504) for environmental offenses and forced to suspend operations, but has since switched to night0time working and carried on production.
Some wastewater treatment systems have been built in response to pressure from local authorities, but are not being fully utilized or cannot cope with the volume of wastewater being discharged. One planned facility has not yet even been commissioned, according to news reports.
Nguyen Ngoc Dien, deputy head of the board which manages all industrial parks in Hau Giang, said every company at Song Hau Industrial Park had its own wastewater treatment system, but these operations are inadequate.
“Some of the systems still discharge untreated or poorly treated wastewater into the nearby canals,” he said.
Seafood companies aren’t just victims of polluted rivers, but in some cases are also culprits, Dien said. For example, Hau Giang environmental police found a secret underground pipeline beneath the Nam Song Hau Seafood Co. building which was used to dump the company’s untreated wastewater into the nearby Cai Dau River, which empties into the Hau River.
In Can Tho Province, 223 factories in five industrial parks are located along the Hau River. Earlier this year, a wastewater treatment plant with a capacity of 6,000 cubic meters per day came into operation to serve three of the five industrial parks.
However, Huynh Tan Loi, the plant’s director, said only 18 businesses in those industrial parks have contracted to have their dirty water treated at his facility, meaning the wastewater treatment plant is operating at only 50 percent of its capacity.
Businesses do not want to work with the wastewater treatment plant because of the extra cost or because of the difficulty of connecting their pipelines to the plant, Loi said.
“It is worth noting that the real amount of wastewater these businesses treat at my plant is only half the figure they declare to the authorities,” he said.
Loi’s revelation matches a recent report by Can Tho police, who said some businesses use sophisticated means to bypass wastewater treatment laws. The police reported many businesses only activate their wastewater treatment systems when inspectors visit. At other times, they treat little or none of their dirty water, often flushing it into local waterways via secret wastewater discharge systems.
In all cases, most of the tainted water flows straight to rivers such as the Hau, endangering fish survival there.
River water used in processing plants and pangasius ponds is regularly tested to ensure it is of the standard required by ASC, GlobalGAP and VietGAP certification, and the pangasius products of reputable companies are fully tested to meet international standards before they leave the factory.
However, research by the journalists from Thanh Nien should act as a wake-up call for the Vietnamese authorities. Although the freshwater fish industry appears to be coping so far with the industrial contamination, there is no guarantee that this will continue, particularly as more and larger factories are built.
As Vietnam continues its rapid industrial growth, the Vietnamese government faces a choice: is it prepared to sacrifice a major part of its seafood industry in favor of heavy industry? Or will it take a stand in favor of sensible regulations and stricter enforcement that will encourage new industrial development while protecting the country’s existing – and successful – freshwater fish farming sector?