Toxic Fish in Vietnam Idle a Local Industry and Challenge the State



Dead fish on a beach in the central province of Quang Binh, Vietnam. Pollution from a nearby steel plant is suspected in the die-off, and protests across the country are testing the government. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

NHAN TRACH, Vietnam — Since a devastating fish kill blighted the waters along 120 miles of coastline in central Vietnam, hundreds of people are believed to have fallen ill from eating poisoned fish.

Here in the fishing village of Nhan Trach, the squid that sustain the local economy have virtually disappeared. And a fishing ban has left hundreds of traps sitting unused on the beach and dozens of small fishing boats idle.

“We are so angry,” said Pham Thi Phi, 65, who operates a fishing boat in Nhan Trach with her husband and three grown sons. “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.”

While the immediate cause appears to have been toxic waste from a nearby steel mill, fury over the episode has exploded into a national issue, posing the biggest challenge to the authoritarian government since a spate of anti-Chinese riots in 2014. Protesters demanding government action have marched in major cities and coastal communities over the past six weeks, escalating what had been a regional environmental dispute into a test of government accountability.

But two months after the fish started washing up on beaches here, the government has yet to announce the cause of the disaster or identify the toxin that killed marine life and poisoned coastal residents.

The government’s failure to respond and its previous support for the Taiwan-owned steel plant at the heart of the crisis have fueled widespread suspicion of corruption and the hidden influence of foreign interests at the expense of Vietnamese livelihoods, a potent mix that challenges the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.


Ho Huu Sia, 67, who buys and dries fish in the Vietnamese village of Nhan Trach, with his wife, Nguyen Thi Tam. His daughter fell ill after eating tainted fish, and with no local catch, his livelihood is threatened. Credit Richard C. Paddock/The New York Times

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

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