Dark water: coastal China on the brink (part one)

Ports are being deserted, schools closed and jobs lost as pollution ravages Jiangsu and Shandong. In the first of two reports, the Southern Metropolis Daily describes the death of the local fishing industry.

The seas are dying. China’s coastline has become a massive dumping ground. The fish are vanishing; the water is becoming filthier by the day and the air is almost impossible to breathe. Areas that were once bustling and prosperous are now uninhabitable. The seaside towns of the east China provinces of Jiangsu and Shandong are being deserted. Ocean pollution ends up on our dinner tables through the salt we use, which is produced in coastal plants. The sea is becoming a danger zone. 

In July last year, Xu Fahai stocked up his fish farm on the Bohai Gulf with 600,000 young fish. This was the third time that Xu, 53, had ever had to restock the Zhaoyuan Bohai Fish Farm in Shandong province. He had previously added another 800,000 fish and over 36 million sea crabs. 

“The sea is not as full as it used to be,” says Xu, “there are no big fish left. Nowadays people even eat small fry and fish eggs. If we carry on like this, what will our children and grandchildren eat?” Xu’s livelihood depends on the sea, and it served him well in the past. He built up a good business, amassing tens of millions of yuan in assets. But now the Bohai Gulf – once known as “Heaven’s Fishery” – is almost bare. 

At Yangjiao fishing port in Shouguang, Shandong province, hundreds of fishing boats can be seen moored in a tributary of the Xiaoqing River, their Chinese flags blowing in the salty sea breeze. The town was once the Bohai Sea’s number-one fishing port. Wang Dayou, a local fisherman, takes a break from bashing a rivet with a heavy iron hammer to explain: “The fish market has almost closed down. If there aren’t any fish, what’s the point in having a market?” 

Shouguang lies west across the Laizhou Bay from Zhaoyuan, where Xu Fahai restocked his fish farm. Might the fish swim over to Shouguang? Wang is not optimistic. “Will they even get a chance to grow?” he wonders out loud. If they do manage to grow, Xu claims they will bring in over 37 million yuan (around US$5.3 million) for local fishermen. 

In June 2007 the provincial Maritime Fisheries Bureau confirmed there was severe pollution off the coast of Shandong. Laizhou Bay, Jiaozhou Bay, the southern Bohai Gulf and the mouth of the Yellow River were all highly polluted, the report said. The major pollutants were inorganic nitrates, lime phosphates and oil products. Coastal areas of the Bohai Gulf and Laizhou Bay were especially polluted, as were the mouths of the Yellow River, Xiaoqing River, and Zhangweixin River. Coastal plants that emit pollution into the sea are also pollution hotspots. This is why fishermen are worried the fish will not reach full size. 

Black water 

The village of Shuigou, in Wudi county, Shandong, is located at the mouth of the Zhangweixin River. More than 2,000 people in Shuigou rely on the sea for a living. “Before 1995, you could drink the water straight from the river,” deputy head of the village committee, Hou Baoyou, says. “Now even the crops reject it. If ducks or geese touch it, they die.” Fish from the sea lose their scales “at a touch”, says Hou. “When we fish them up in our nets, they are already dead.” Villagers fishing in the sea find their nets are almost too heavy to pull up. But they are not laden with fish; the nets are caked in black oil and rubbish. The white nets turn black as soon as they are cast. 

There are two clam beds in the county, each around 70 kilometres long. These were the largest, best-preserved clam beds in the world and a major breeding ground and winter habitat for migratory birds. They were also an important research centre for watching changes in the Yellow River, the coastline and local wetlands. But pollution has stopped the clams from growing and the beds are dead in all but name.  

The Xiaobotou water monitoring station in Wudi tested the mouth of the Zhangweixin River and found a chemical oxygen demand (COD) of 159 milligrams per litre. This indicates severe pollution: for many years there has been too little oxygen in the water for aquatic life to survive. According to the State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA), most of the pollution in the Zhangweixin River comes from urban areas in the provinces of Henan, Hebei and Shandong. Eighty-two percent of the pollution comes from outside Shandong province. The rest comes from the two Shandong cities of Linqing and Dezhou. 

In the summer of 2006, Hou Baoyou took a group of about a dozen villagers to Xinji, near Huanghua in Hebei province, a town on the upper reaches of the Zhangweixin River. The group asked for the sluice gate at Xinji to be closed to help prevent polluted water from flowing down into Wudi county. Locals in Xinji called the police and a fight nearly broke out. The sluice gate remained open. “After that, all I could do to fish was to take my fleet of 18 fishing boats down to Lianyungang or Yancheng, in Jiangsu province,” says Hou. 

In the port of Yanwei, Lianyungang, fisherman Shan Haibing sits in a small house and chats to the local fishing bosses. “We’re still not catching anything,” he says. “Even if the fish come, we can’t catch them.” The small room smells of sweat and the sea. Four of the men are playing cards; the rest are drinking beer. The Yellow Sea is only a few metres from their building. Over 100 iron-hulled boats are moored in the narrow bay. A string of firecrackers lets off a rapid-fire burst of noise and a solitary boat heads out to sea. 

“What are you going out there for? You’re not going to catch anything!” Shan swigs his beer and yells towards the ocean. Although fishing has stopped, there are always a few brave ships heading out into the forbidding waters. “They’ll be lucky to catch a few tiny shrimp,” says Shan. 

The situation at Yanwei port is about as bad as in Shuigou. Five rivers, including the Guan River, Shu River and Yellow River all reach the sea here. Looking southwest during the summer wet season, river after river can be seen extending for tens of kilometres before joining the ocean. 

“It’s filthy,” Shan complains. “Most of the dirty water from Henan, Shandong, Anhui and Jiangsu flows past here and out to sea. In the past, one boat could bring in a 450,000 yuan income [around US$64,000]. Now that’s down to a few thousand. There are no fish or larger prawns to be caught, just a few small shrimp.” 

A man only identified by his surname, Chen, runs a small shop in Yanwei, where he shares nostalgic memories with his customers. “We used to send six or seven trucks full of seafood up to the port of Tianjin every day. From there, the catch would be sent on ships to Korea and Japan.” Ten years ago around this time of year he would have been getting calls from these countries placing orders. “We used to catch crabs and prawns mostly. A ship could catch around 350 to 400 kilograms a day.” Prawns were sold for between 1.4 to 1.6 yuan (US$0.19 to US$0.22) per kilogram. The price then went up to between four and six yuan, before rising to over 10 yuan. The prices have now reached several hundred yuan, but there is a severe lack of produce. Last year the prawn harvest for the whole of Yanwei port was less than 100 kilograms. 

The retreat from the coast 

The fishermen of Shuigou village are washing the dirty water from their legs for the last time and preparing to leave the sea behind. 

“I’ll probably go and do manual labour,” says Hou Baoyou, “the sea is too unreliable.” Once-vibrant fishing villages are being deserted as the trend of moving away from the coast spreads. Nowadays, seafood buyers from other regions are nowhere to be seen in Shuigou. Thousands of workers used to arrive from other parts of China, now the locals themselves are leaving for the town. 

The same thing is happening in Yanwei, hundreds of kilometres south. Local resident Wang Wenbin drives past Yanwei Middle School and looks towards the main entrance. His son was a pupil there, but he will not be going back next term, says Wang. The main teaching building has already been demolished; the rest of the grounds lie empty. The Yellow Sea is not far from the abandoned school; sometimes stormy, sometimes smooth as glass. The smell of the sea permeates the reed marshes; seabirds squawk and flap overhead. 

In 2007, many of the pupils at the school began to suffer dizziness. Some students – including Wang’s son – ended up in hospital. It was diagnosed that the children had been breathing toxic gases. 

That summer the school informed pupil they were being transferred to Guanxi Farm School, over 10 kilometres away. “I heard that the people who live here are going to be moved to a new residential compound,” says Wang. If they didn’t move, he says, the smell would be unbearable. Yanwei, once a busy town and home to over 10,000 people, may be about to disappear. 

Residents along the coast of northern Jiangsu province face the same worries. Zhou Wenchong, from Duigou village in Guannan county, has been sending mobile phone text messages to people from outside the area. They read: “What are we to do? Must we abandon our homes?” One night he couldn’t sleep and sent the message six times. 

If these coastal communities continue to disintegrate, an uninhabited zone will run along the coast from northern Jiangsu to Shandong. In the narrow coastal strip that runs for over 100 kilometres between Yancheng and Lianyungang, there may be nothing left but seagulls, reeds and sand. 

This article first appeared in the Southern Metropolis Daily. It was planned by Yu Chen and coordinated by Yu Chen and Nan Xianghong. The authors were Yu Chen, Lu Bin, Yang Chuanmin, Long Zhi, Li Jun and Han Fudong. It is translated and reproduced here with permission.

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