Researcher Stirs Up Fisheries Conference

The rare appearance of Chi­nese researchers in a Cambodian public forum lent some unexpected drama to a regional conference on fisheries Tuesday, as a US researcher demanded an apology for alleged harassment during a research trip to China.

Ecologist Tyson Roberts of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has accused the Chinese government of “killing the Me­kong” with plans to build a series of large hydropower dams and a navigation channel on the river. He believes both projects could spell disaster for the fisheries of Cambodia and Vietnam.

The second day of the conference, sponsored by environmental groups in Thailand and Cam­bodia, started with a presentation by a Chinese researcher arguing that the Chinese section of the Mekong, known as the Lancang, was “safe for fish” and was be­coming cleaner over the past decade due to forest replanting and the closing of polluting plants.

Roberts implied that he had seen signs of chemical pollution in the Lancang. He later said he had seen many ailing fish during his trip to Yunnan province last August. “The Chinese rivers are really sick, and China is in a total state of denial,” he said.

Roberts, a bulky man who towered over the researchers, sat down to lunch with the Chinese, who told him they heard he had been arrested for breaking fisheries laws during his trip. He responded by calling Chinese police “fascist pigs.” He then drew up a hasty letter demanding an apology from the Chinese government.

Roberts said he had been interrogated and followed by Chinese police for three days before they forced him to sign a confession stating that he broke fishery laws,  a copy of which he said they would not show him. “I expected them to kill me,” he said.

Yunnan University researcher Chen Lihui accepted the letter and said she was unfamiliar with the details of the case.

Earlier, Chen Lihui had presented a paper suggesting that a plan to build nine Chinese dams on the Lancang would have a minimal effect on fisheries downstream. Only about 16 percent of the river’s water volume comes from China, so the dams would not have a significant effect on water levels, she said. Most river sediment also comes from Laos or farther downstream, she said.

Roberts contended that the dams are large enough to have a serious impact. He said they would block nutrients carried in sediments and reduce the rainy-season floods that nourish the Tonle Sap.

Not addressed by the Chinese delegation Tuesday were plans to blast a navigation channel in the Mekong. Cambodian officials worry that the channel might increase pollution from shipping and industry. Blasting the channel would require destroying rapids that many fish use as spawning grounds.

Environmental activists from Thailand expressed doubt that the channel would be extended all the way down to Cambodia, past the massive Khone Falls near the Cambodia-Laos border. But they said some fish species important to Cambodia may migrate upstream of the falls to spawn. Blasting rapids may also deprive much of the river of much-needed dissolved oxygen, said Dave Hubbel of the NGO Terra.

But Roberts said he heard Chinese officials speak of extending the channel all the way to the South China Sea at an environmental conference he attended in China in January 2002. The Chinese invited him to speak there, despite the problems he had only four months earlier, Roberts said.

 

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