(CNN)Alaska has been in the throes of an unprecedented heat wave this summer, and the heat stress is killing salmon in large numbers.
- Legend has it that when oarfish rise to shallow waters, disaster is near. But scientists say there has been no reports of increased seismic activity in recent weeks
On Monday, an oarfish measuring nearly four metres from snout to tail was found tangled in a fishing net off the port of Imizu, in the north-coast prefecture of Toyama. The fish was already dead but was later taken to the nearby Uozu Aquarium to be studied.
Two more of the slender, snake-like fish were discovered in Toyama Bay nine days earlier. A record four oarfish were found in Toyama Bay in 2015 but that could be surpassed this year.
The species – characterised by long silver bodies and red fins – usually inhabit deep waters and the fish are rarely seen from the surface, although legend has it that when oarfish rise to shallow waters, disaster is near.
Even the species’ traditional Japanese name, ryugu no tukai – which translates as “messenger from the palace of the dragon king” – hints at its links to natural disasters in the past.
According to lore, the fish rise to the surface and beach themselves ahead of an impending earthquake. That ties in with scientific theories that bottom-dwelling fish may very well be susceptible to movements in seismic fault lines and act in uncharacteristic ways before an earthquake.
Hiroyuki Motomura, a professor of ichthyology at Kagoshima University, has a more mundane explanation for the recent discovery of oarfish off Toyama Prefecture.
“I have around 20 specimens of this fish in my collection so it’s not a very rare species, but I believe these fish tend to rise to the surface when their physical condition is poor, rising on water currents, which is why they are so often dead when they are found,” he said.
“The link to reports of seismic activity goes back many, many years, but there is no scientific evidence of a connection so I don’t think people need to worry.”
Nevertheless, the oarfish’s reputation as an indicator of imminent doom was enhanced after at least 10 oarfish were washed up along Japan’s northern coastline in 2010. In March 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake struck off northeast Japan, triggering a massive tsunami that killed nearly 19,000 people and destroyed the Fukushima nuclear plant.
With that anniversary looming, people on social media became jittery about the omens.
A message on Twitter claimed: “This is no doubt evidence of a precursor to an earthquake. And if it is in the Nankai Trough, it might be a huge quake.”
Experts warned a tremor in the Nankai Trough, which runs parallel to Japan’s southern coast from off Nagoya to the southern island of Kyushu, could be imminent and resulting tsunami could cause massive loss of life and destruction in coastal areas.
The most recent government predictions suggest a tsunami more than 30 metres high could be generated by a major quake.
Japanese are prepping for natural disasters by stocking up on portable radios, batteries and old tech
One Twitter user asked: “Is something happening deep in the sea?”
Another questioned: “What is going on under Toyama Bay?”
Comments on other social media sites echoed those concerns, with one post in the 5-Channel site claiming increased sightings were “a warning”.
Despite the concern, experts said it was not possible to scientifically link increased sightings of oarfish with an impending natural disaster.
Professor Shigeo Aramaki, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo, dismissed the fears of social media users as “nothing”.
“I’m not a specialist in fish, but there is no academic literature that has proven a scientific link to the behaviour of animals and seismic activity,” he said. “I see absolutely no reason for concern and I have seen no updated reports of increased seismic activity in this country in recent weeks.”
The Japanese government, however, announced a new package of response measures to a major earthquake beneath Tokyo, including additional steps to evacuate foreigners from the city.
They also call for improved delivery of information on places to take shelter, evacuation routes and medical treatment. The information will be made available in more languages via disaster information websites.
By: Gregory McCann
China takes more fish out of the world’s seas than the next five countries combined, in fleets underwritten by government agencies. In fact, China is collapsing the world’s fish stocks. The fish populations that once abounded along the country’s vast coastline have now all but vanished.
Nor is this scouring taking place only along the Chinese coastline. Today thousands of Chinese ships are trawling international waters from Guinea to Liberia and Senegal to Taiwan, Palau and Fiji and beyond to Chile and even beyond that, Chinese fishing vessels are scouring the seas for anything that swims, vastly underreporting their catches to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
No one—aside from China—knows precisely what is going on in terms of fishing around their manmade islands in the South China Sea, but reports from the general region say that fish stocks are collapsing. Even China has acknowledged that the widespread destruction of coral reefs and the poaching of sea turtles. In fact, China believes that the South China Sea is its territory – its own saltwater lake, in essence, delineated by its 1948 “nine-dash line” – and it would be foolish to imagine that anything less than what has happened to the coastline along the Chinese mainland would take place down in its newly “recovered” ancient territory.
In other words, this once ultra-rich fishery will soon turn into a wasteland, if it isn’t already. It’s not like the Chinese coast guard will allow foreign vessels to get too close.
These aren’t simply enterprising, hard-working fishermen who are willing to travel far to earn a paycheck. This is a state-sponsored activity. In a nutshell, what we have here is state-sponsored poaching of the high seas and even into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of sovereign nations, which has been causing scuffles to break out on the waves between foreign coastguards and Chinese poaching vessels. The thinking seems to be get it before it’s gone, or if we don’t catch it, someone else will, so poach it fast and get out of there.
It’s not difficult to imagine that this sort of thinking and action leads to a highly negative feedback cycle in which the oceans are rapidly overfished with state support and soon virtually emptied out. You get a desolate modern Chinese coast, except spread across the whole world. In fact, in a part of the South China Sea still under the control of the Philippines, Chinese fishermen have been seen deliberately destroying coral reefs.
This type of selfish thinking is going to lead to ecological catastrophe on a global scale in our oceans and seas. Who is going to do something about it? The WTO recently backed down on a stricter ruling regarding government fishing subsidies, and in response China’s state-funded Huanghai Shipbuilding Co. quickly built seven more tuna vessels. The United States and Canada might be able to keep Chinese vessels out of their EEZs, but how about West African nations? Chinese captains and boat owners like to target notoriously corrupt countries—many of which are located in West Africa—where they can easily make payoffs to corrupt officials. Traditional artisanal fishermen with small boats and nets cannot compete with state-sponsored Chinese poachers active in their homeland’s waters.
While China has publicly vowed to reform its foreign fishing habits, and while some countries such as the Bahamas are pushing back against Chinese fishing in their coastal waters (the Chinese are in the Caribbean too), the overall trend is towards escalated overfishing. The situation has gotten so bad, so fast, that some start-ups are thinking that “lab fish” grown in laboratories might be the solution.
And fishing “outposts” in foreign countries can have strategic and military implications as well, becoming bases and possible extensions of the military installations in the South China Sea.
We see this in happening already in Vanuatu where Chinese is building military installations (they deny it, saying they are only fishing), and also in Fiji where Chinese spy vessels are docking while hundreds of Chinese fishing boats are clearing tuna out of Fijian waters and everything else that swims.
With major military outposts in the South China Sea and now new ones sprouting up in small South Pacific nations, and with rented islands in the Maldives, 99-year leases on the Cambodian coast, debt-trap acquisitions in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, it would seem that China has everything except the North Atlantic. It’s difficult to imagine that this is all a grand coincidence and not part of a secret strategy to get a stranglehold on the world’s seas, empty them out easily by backing up fishing vessels with “coast guard” ships from rented ports and artificial islands, and overfish it all until everything is gone. That certainly seems to be the direction we’re heading in, plan or no plan.
For millennia the high seas were like gargantuan, boundless protected areas simply because refrigerated, long-distance fishing vessels didn’t exist. There would be no point in sailing a week out into the middle of the Pacific when everything would rot by the time you got back to port. But that’s all changed now, of course, and in addition to out-of-control overfishing, largely by the Chinese but also substantially the Taiwanese, ocean-going vessels also dump massive amounts of plastic and other waste into the high seas.
In fact, it is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the worlds’ oceans. Who is going to be out there to patrol all of this? And this article didn’t even touch on the forced labor and outright slavery that constitutes the dreadful working conditions many “fishermen” find themselves tricked or coerced into.
Is there any solution? It’s hard for me to imagine it. Perhaps countries need to take a tougher stand and, like Indonesia, blow up foreign fishing vessels and make a public display of it in order send a strong signal to foreign poaching fleets. My guess is that only drastic measures will work.
Earlier this year while on an evening flight from Kuala Lumpur to Taipei I looked out the window down at the South China Sea and I had to blink, remove my glasses, rub my eyes, and take another look. Which city was this that we were flying over? Wasn’t this supposed to be a large body of water? A sea? There were so many lighted fishing boats (probably going for squid) down below that it looked as if we were passing over a sprawling city. So many fuzzy white lights down below that for a while I felt as if we were in a spacecraft flying over the Milky Way.
Is that the future of our oceans? Every inch of them being fished out every minute of the day, industrial-scale, non-stop? I don’t know for sure which country those fishing vessels hailed from, but if I had to make a guess, I know where I’d put my money.
Gregory McCann is the Project Coordinator for Habitat ID and the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor. You can support his conservation projects in Cambodia and Sumatra here.