A nearly invisible oil spill threatens some of Asia’s richest fisheries


 A fiery collision that sank an Iranian tanker in the East China Sea a month ago has resulted in an environmental threat that experts say is unlike any before: an almost invisible type of petroleum has begun to contaminate some of the most important fishing grounds in Asia, from China to Japan and beyond.

It is the largest oil spill in decades, but the disaster has unfolded outside the glare of international attention that big spills have previously attracted. That is because of its remote location on the high seas and also the type of petroleum involved: condensate, a toxic, liquid byproduct of natural gas production.

Unlike the crude oil in disasters like the Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon, condensate does not clump into black globules that can be easily spotted or produce heart-wrenching images of animals mired in muck. There’s no visible slick that can be pumped out. Experts say the only real solution is to let it evaporate or dissolve. Absorbed into the water, it will remain toxic for a time, though it will also disperse more quickly into the ocean than crude oil.

Up to 111,000 metric tons of condensate has poured into the ocean. It has almost certainly already invaded an ecosystem that includes some of the world’s most bountiful fisheries off Zhoushan, the archipelago that rises where the Yangtze River flows into the East China Sea.

The area produced 5 million tons of seafood of up to four dozen species for China last year, according to Greenpeace, including crab, squid, yellow croaker, mackerel and a local favorite, hairtail. If projections are correct, the toxins could soon make their way into equally abundant Japanese fisheries.

Exposure to condensate is extremely unhealthy to humans and potentially fatal. The effects of eating fish contaminated with it remain essentially untested, but experts strongly advise against doing so.

For China, the disaster has become a test of its ambitions as a global and regional steward of the seas. Given its proximity, China has taken the lead in investigating the disaster and monitoring the spill, but it has faced some criticism for what some see as a slow and inadequate response thus far.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Austin360 Eats

What does cream of tartar do? And other food questions answered
What does cream of tartar do? And other food questions answered

The Washington Post Food staff recently answered questions about all things edible. Here are edited excerpts from that chat. A: Yes, the easiest thing would be to freeze the juice and the zest (separately). - Joe Yonan A: Cream of tartar shows up in retro baking recipes because, as an acid, it helps activate baking soda. (Baking powder combines the...
Recipe of the Week: Meat-free polenta ‘steaks’ with mushroom gravy
Recipe of the Week: Meat-free polenta ‘steaks’ with mushroom gravy

Chicken-fried steak is one of the ultimate comfort foods, but if you’re eating less meat, it can be difficult — at first — to replicate those rich flavors without beef. ”Modern Comfort Cooking” author Lauren Grier didn’t let that stop her. Chicken-fried steak “is something I plunge into on a semi-annual basis...
Britney Spear’s ex K-Fed wants child support increase amid star’s Vegas success
Britney Spear’s ex K-Fed wants child support increase amid star’s Vegas success

After seeing how successful her four-year Las Vegas residency has been, Britney Spears’ ex-husband Kevin Federline is asking for an increase in child support. >> Read more trending news  Federline’s attorney reportedly sent the pop singer a letter recently indicating that he would like to renegotiate the $20...
Actress Nanette Fabray, Tony, Emmy-winning star of stage and screen, dead at 97
Actress Nanette Fabray, Tony, Emmy-winning star of stage and screen, dead at 97

Award-winning actress and comedian Nanette Fabray has died at the age of 97, Variety reported Friday. Fabray was known for her charm, energetic exuberance and multi-talented performances in musical theatre in the 1940’s, as well as movies and TV in the 1950’s. >> Read more trending news  She won a Tony Award for her performance...
For all the right reasons, Charlie Sexton is Austin music’s MVP
For all the right reasons, Charlie Sexton is Austin music’s MVP

In Austin, Charlie Sexton is the man who needs no introduction. Seemingly destined for stardom since his early teenage years, the 49-year-old musician cut his own path instead. Raised in blues clubs and launched into the pop-idol spotlight before he could vote, Sexton ultimately has built a life not as a marquee performer, but as a masterful force...
More Stories