UCA News

Vietnamese fishermen still victims of marine disaster

Two years after the Formosa Steel toxic waste case locals wrestle with poverty, sickness due to polluted waters
Vietnamese fishermen still victims of marine disaster

Paul Nguyen Van Duong (left) and his younger brother collect fish and shellfish from their boat in Phu Loc district of Thua Thien–Hue Province in the North Central Coast region of Vietnam on April 4. (Photo provided by Peter Nguyen)

Published: April 12, 2018 05:02 AM GMT
Updated: April 12, 2018 05:02 AM GMT

It took Paul Nguyen Van Duong and three other men five days at sea to catch 60 kilograms of fish and shellfish, which they later sold at market on April 4 for a paltry 1.1 million dong (US$48).

"We can't even survive on that," the 55-year-old father of four from Phu Loc district in Thua Thien Hue province told ucanews.com.

"My wife has to work as a housemaid for a family in Hue City just to help us make ends meet," he added.

Van Duong said his crewmates have to sail 10 nautical miles offshore to fish off the coast of Vietnam's southern provinces "because our home waters no longer have many fish left."

In the past they only had to take their wooden boat 400 meters out to sea to land a decent haul of 100kg or 200kg of fish but those days are long gone after the country suffered its worst-ever ecological disaster two years ago, he said.

Now they are lucky to travel four times that distance just to catch a few fish.

Local waters "remain stagnant" since Taiwanese-owned Formosa steel plant in Ha Tinh Province was found to be illegally discharging toxic waste into the sea in April 2016, affecting the four provinces of Ha Tinh, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Thua.

The plant's waste destroyed marine life and left hundreds of thousands of people affected or jobless.

To make matters worse, so-called "Red Flag" activist groups that are allegedly working in cahoots with the government have reportedly been attacking villagers, parishioners and priests who challenge officials on environmental matters. 

By way of compensation for the 2016 incident, Formosa Steel reportedly transferred US$500 million to the Vietnamese government to provide reparations to those whose livelihoods were compromised by the disaster.

Van Duong said that one year after the waste was discovered his family was given 50 million dong (US$2,430) but that after he had paid off some debts, they found themselves back at square one.

"We had to repay 32 million dong to a moneylender we had approached to help us cover our basic needs during that period, when we couldn't work or earn money," he said.

They used the rest of the money to repair their fishing boat and resumed fishing operations last August, he said.

Damages were awarded to some 13,000 households in Thua Thien Hue, which did not suffer as much as the other provinces, but others are still waiting for any form of government aid.

"So far we haven't received any compensation," said Tran Thi Hao, a mother of three from Phong Dien district in the same province.

Local authorities say the family did not merit consideration because several members left for other regions or cities to find work after the disaster struck.

Hao, 46, who sells fish at a local market, said: "This is anchovy season but we only earn 300,000-500,000 dong [US$13.20-$22] from 4-6 days fishing at sea."

She said in the past they would earn 600,000 dong a day from fishing. Her husband and oldest son returned to the business last August hoping things would pick up again.

Fishing boats have been beached near Vinh Hien village in Thua Thien Hue Province for months if not years, leaving them in poor condition while the local waters are barren of fish after the marine disaster in 2016, locals say. (Photo provided by Peter Nguyen)


But due to their ongoing financial troubles two of their children were forced to drop out of school and work for a living in cities in the south of the country.

Hao said many local people have stopped fishing and sought jobs elsewhere. Many can't afford to return to the sea as their boats have been beached for so long, leaving them in poor condition.

Tran Dinh Thai, who used to run a fish sauce factory in Thuan An town, said his business had collapsed due to fears of contaminated fish.

"We had to close our factory because consumers refused to buy our products out of for fear that we were using fish from polluted waters," said the 54-year-old.

He said he used to produce 500 liters of fish sauce each month and employed a dozen people.

"We don't know what to do for a living," he said, adding that many people in his community have no job and are sinking into debt.

"We need fish not money," said Thai, who was given 22 million dong in compensation due to the waste spill.

He urged the government to create jobs for victims of the disaster and encourage consumers to use fish products made by local people.

"For the sake of people's health and livelihood, the government must close any plants that are found to be pumping toxic waste into the sea. If not, future generations will bear the brunt," he added.

Church marks Formosa disaster

Vinh Diocese, which covers the two worst-hit provinces of Ha Tinh and Quang Binh, has blasted the authorities and representatives of Formosa for not doing more.

They have "deliberately not announcing any detailed causes of the disaster and its effects on the sea and on human health," said two priests in a statement issued on April 2.

It was authored by Father Anthony Nguyen Van Dinh, head of the Justice and Peace Committee, and Father Joseph Phan Sy Phuong, who leads the Committee for Supporting Victims in Vinh Diocese.

The statement claimed the government has not provided solutions to restore the marine environment or help cure people who have become ill as a result of the toxic waters.    

The diocese has called on Catholics to continue their efforts "to bring justice and fairness to victims while marking the second anniversary of the disaster."

Priests have been urged to celebrate Masses and organize Eucharist adoration sessions to pray for greater environmental protection efforts on April 15, the same date that the disaster struck.

The diocese also asked local Catholics to pray for those who have been persecuted and imprisoned for fighting for victims' rights.

At least four activists have been given heavy prison sentences and two more have yet to be tried for their environmental campaigns.

The priests urged people to offer material and spiritual support to victims and relatives of the jailed activists. 

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