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Fishy situation in La Brea—Ganga

Probe into trawler ‘dumping’ report...
Published: 
Friday, April 25, 2014
After days of seeing small fish washing up on the shores of La Brea beaches, residents were surprised to find this large fish on Point Sable beach during the height of fish-kill fears last month. PHOTO: RISHI RAGOONATH

State-owned Petrotrin is investigating information that a certain southern-based vessel allegedly dumped the fish which washed up on La Brea beaches last month, raising fears of a “fish kill” caused by toxins used in the Petrotrin oil spill clean-up operations. This after tests by the Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) and Environmental Management Agency (EMA) concluded that the dead fish were not poisoned by toxic substances and instead may have been caught and dumped. Petrotrin confirmed the situation yesterday after receiving reports on the issue from the various agencies. 

 

Also confirming the matter was Water Resources and Environment Minister Ganga Singh, who said yesterday: “It is reasonable to conclude, after reading the reports, that the fish which washed up on Coffee beach, La Brea, were caught and dumped and therefore serious questions—indeed, a fishy situation—have arisen.” The fish which washed ashore had sparked fears in some quarters that they may have been killed by chemicals used in the clean-up following Petrotrin’s December 2013 oil spill. Following questions on the issue by the T&T Guardian, Petrotrin on Wednesday confirmed it had received information that a trawler (name given), fitting the description of one operating out of the Otaheite port had allegedly dumped by-catch (fish) on its way back to port, offshore at Coffee beach and the Aripero River, at the time the fish washed ashore.

 

Information also had been received that the vessel did not return to port every day and that would have accounted for the periodic “fish-kill reports” by La Brea residents. Petrotrin stated that the investigation’s focus included the motive for any such dumping, whether accidental or deliberate,  and its Security Department was handling the issue. The company said: “These are very serious allegations and one should avoid speculating on motive. Suffice to say, the company condemns in the strongest manner such action if it is proven true. “Not only did it cast blame on the company for something of which we are innocent but more importantly it created a health hazard for the residents of La Brea, deprived users of the enjoyment of the affected beaches, generated unnecessary hysteria and panic among consumers of fish and adversely affected the livelihood of innocent fisherfolk. “Fisherfolk operating in the Gulf of Paria have already been impacted by low sales as a result of protest action taken by a few.”

 

Petrotrin declined comment on how far the probe had reached, who owned the vessel and what sanctions may be imposed. The company also declined to say if the vessel’s owner was doing any other work for Petrotrin or any contractor attached to Petrotrin. Asked if the vessel might be doing any other type of work and if that would be in breach of the agreement the company has with the fishing association of that area, Petrotrin replied: “The company had an agreement with the Otaheite Fisherfolk Association for payment for loss of earnings to boat-owners arising from the oil-spill incident of December 2013. Final payment in this regard is still to be processed. The last date for which payment is due was April 8.” On whether the company is probing if any vessel owner may be working in collusion with other people to create hysteria over the issue, Petrotrin declined comment, save to state: “Based on the relevant findings, the company stands ready to take the appropriate action it deems necessary.” 

 

Final IMA report soon

Institute of Marine Affairs (IMA) chairman, Professor Indar Ramnarine, says the IMA’s final report on the fish kill issue will be completed this week. He said the IMA had been probing the issue since its inception and IMA officers had gone to the area almost daily to monitor and collect samples and do analysis. The team includes researchers from IMA, UWI’s Departments of Life Sciences and Chemistry, the Veterinary School and Fisheries Division. Ramnarine said the mission had concluded that only one species, white mullet (Mugil curema), was involved in the issue. He said that in itself did not suggest it was a classic “fish kill” resulting from poisonous or chemical substances. 

Ramnarine said in the case of a classic type of “fish kill” different species of all sizes would die and wash up, since any  toxic substance would affect everything in the water in which the substance was found and not just one species or size of fish. “So this isn’t a typical fish-kill,” he added. He said the fish they tested were found to be well-muscled and not starving. The condition factor was greater than one, which suggested they had been feeding well, he added. Ovaries and testes were in a state of development but the fish were not yet breeding, he said. The peak breeding season for white mullet is June/July. Ramnarine said many parasitic nematodes were found in the fish but that did not usually kill them. 

 

He said samples were also taken to look for bacteria and other micro-organisms. “But to date, we have not identified any bacteria that would have killed the fish, so it’s highly unlikely there was a bacterial cause of death. “We also examined the stomach contents and so far seen nothing that would have killed them either,” he added. However, Ramnarine said, researchers found external marks on the fish. He said: “Also the fish were killed suddenly. It appears to have an external cause and it is possible the fish might have been dumped, This is the direction to which the conclusions are leading. “We are now focusing on the external marks found on fish to determine what caused this.” Ramnarine said researchers in the Department of Life Sciences were also analysing the stomach contents of the female bottlenose dolphin which washed ashore more recently at Vessigny.

 

We don’t dump— vessel owner 

Raffick Khan, owner of the fishing trawler Falcon, said yesterday  his vessel had not dumped any fish off Coffee beach, La Brea. Khan made the comment as he updated the T&T Guardian on the state of the fisherfolk community in the wake of the Petrotrin oil spill and the washing up of dead fish at La Brea. His family owns the majority of the 80-plus vessels operating out of the Otaheite port. Khan said fisherfolk had not received the “all-clear” from the IMA or EMA to return to catching fish or to sell fish to the public and that was causing a problem with sales, since the public was unaware of the situation and was not buying fish. 

 

He said that situation had been affecting fishermen since last December when the oil spill occurred. He, however, maintained fishermen were not dumping their catch. He said Petrotrin had been compensating fisherfolk for not fishing and fishermen were only fishing two days a week instead of five. Khan, however, said Petrotrin had given the all-clear to fisherfolk to return to work, but the company had not asked fishermen about any dumping. He said the fisherfolk had also not heard any results pertaining to tests on the fish which washed up in La Brea. He also noted that a large dolphin had washed up last week. Denying any by-catch was dumped, he said the dolphin was not by-catch. Khan said fisherfolk have been working with Fishermen and Friends of the Sea activist Gary Aboud “65 per cent” since Aboud “researched things,” and they had asked him to find out how many drums of the chemical Corexit had been used in Petrotrin’s oil spill clean-up and over what area of water this had been used. Khan accused Petrotrin’s seismic testing, which Aboud has protested, for affecting fishing stocks Khan also announced that fishermen were preparing for a protest march tomorrow in La Brea, alongside other groups.

 

EMA: No poison in fish

Environmental Management Authority (EMA) chairman Dr Allan Bachan said its April 7 statement noted that the results of toxicology and other tests on the fish did not validate claims that the fish were poisoned. The EMA’s preliminary finding was that cause of death was not due to the chemical Corexit used to clean beaches after the oil spill. Bachan said the fish were feeding well and were all of one species and in a localised area. He could not say if fishermen could return to work full time, until scrutiny was concluded next week.

 

An EMA report on the situation, which the T&T Guardian obtained a copy of, indicated the EMA had requested that samples be analysed by Cariri, the Aquatic Animal Health Diagnostic lab and UWI’s Veterinary school.  In points similar to the IMA’s findings, it stated that if the fish were ailing for some time they would have had empty intestines and been “starved-looking”. The noteworthy point, according to the report, was that all samples had increased activity of Melano Macrophage Aggregates (MMAs), “symptomatic with conditions of environmental stress, bio-markers for water quality in terms of both deoxygenation and istragenic chemical pollution.” The document stated that it could also be attributed to fish caught in nets and stress attributed to capture. The document said based on lab tests, petro-chemical toxins were not the cause of death and it was unlikely there was a correlation to the December 2013 oil spill or dispersants used for that, due to the specific, small area affected. The EMA report stated that another scenario that could not be ruled out was that the fish were caught and dumped at the site. “It should be noted that these fish so caught, would be symptomatic with conditions of environmental stress and as such will have high levels of MMAs due to deoxygenation,” the report stated. The EMA suggested circular lesions on the heads of the fish needed to be investigated and “this could be gillnet marks or a physiological condition.”