Fuel Spill Threatens Marshalls Fish Farm

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Aquaculture project geared towards export market

By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, September 9, 2013) – A fuel spill washed over fish-farming cages in Majuro earlier last week, causing some fish to die and forcing the workers to engage in a hasty cleanup effort.

"There was oil all over the water," said Rongelap Mayor James Matayoshi, who is overseeing the fish-farming project that has underwater cages located to the west of Majuro’s main commercial dock in Delap. Fortunately, said Matayoshi, the fish, Pacific threadfin, stay at the bottom of the cages and only come up to feed, so most were not affected. "Some small ones died," he said.

The fish farm harvested its first batch of fish for export to Hawaii late last month and is now expanding with the construction of a land-based hatchery and nursery that will feed baby fish into sea cages for growing to export size.

The head of the Marshall Islands Environmental Protection Authority said commercial fishing vessels using Majuro as a tuna-transshipment point are putting the fish farm and reef fishing in danger.

Matayoshi said they didn’t know which vessel the fuel came from, and EPA general manager Lowell Alik confirmed the difficulty of preventing such spills, which he said occur with alarming frequency.

"It’s hard to prevent these fuel spills because they know that nothing will be done," Alik said Thursday.

"When we cite them for violating (pollution rules), they won’t pay the fine or cooperate," he said. "When we take the case to the Attorney General’s Office, nothing happens."

This is the reason that EPA is pushing to get its own lawyer so that it can independently procecutor these pollution violations and is also working out an agreement with Majuro Mayor Mudge Samuel to improve lagoon monitoring and enforcement. "Mayor Mudge is not happy with pollution in the lagoon," he said. "It’s happening every other week because vessels know nothing will happen to them."

"They don’t care," said Alik of the fishing vessels that use the lagoon for tuna transshipment. "They are just here to make money. We’re here to protect the fish for all in Marshall Islands, not just the fishing industry. Many Majuro residents rely on fish in the lagoon."

Lagoon pollution fines are often $10,000 but Alik said the ship companies complain that this is too much. "It’s peanuts for them, but to clean up a spill costs a lot of money for a crew of workers, the equipment, absorbent pads," he said.

Alik said he believes the vessels have become sophisticated in avoiding detection by dumping fuel mixed with engine oil and sewage into the lagoon at night or when it is raining. Instead of pumping it out through a hose, which is easily checked by EPA staff, they are dumping it out in containers, Alik said.

Some of the shipping agents and companies tell Alik that if they fine these fishing vessels they won’t come back. "They tell us it’s bad for business," he said. "But what about bad for the environment?"

Local fishermen depend on the Majuro lagoon for fishing and local development projects like the fish farm will be hurt by fuel spills, he said.

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