Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fish Dying in Kuwait - Again

In 2001, I wrote a series of scripts which aired on Kuwait Television in a series called, "Earth Visions;" an environmental documentary on the massive fish kill which took place in Kuwait Bay that year.  The estimate was 2,000 tons of dead fish - mostly meide (pomfret).  If you think dead fish around Kuwait it is bad now, I lived in Salmiya a block back from the sea and I couldn't get the smell of rotting fish out of my apartment for months.

In the article, I predicted that it would happen again (and again and again).  The causes are still there.

In 2001, before the Kuwait EPA was as big is it is today, the Government called in a team of Japanese experts to determine the cause.  I believe at that time they concluded that it was due to red tide; which makes sense because any pollution will cause algae to form; however there were several small differences (see below).  At any rate, the fish stopped dying at that time and people went back to doing what they were doing.  However, if you read in the article, at the time the Government advised people not to eat fish from the Bay for at least 2 years as a precaution. People were eating fish caught in/around the Bay within a few months.

There were a lot of  conflicting reports (as I have noticed there are now, some 16 years later).


Earth Vision 
Director:  Noora Bourisely aired on Kuwait Television (English and Arabic stations) 
September - November, 2001, with video footage of Kuwait

Long before oil was ever found on the land of Kuwait, proud, hard-working people made their livings from the clean waters at the tip of the Gulf.  Oyster beds and sea creatures abound.  Pearlers and fishermen supported their families by harvesting the sea.

Today, Kuwait is facing a monumental catastrophe.  Fish and oysters are harder to find.  The cleanliness of the waters is doubtful.

Lately, if you were not able to notice the troubled waters by walking outside and smelling rotting fish on the shorelines, you have probably noticed the decline of the population’s favorite food at the dinner table.

No matter what cross-section of Kuwait’s diverse population you are from, chances are that you have regularly enjoyed good seafood meals here until recently.

Who would have though several years ago that you would ever hear someone in a local restaurant ask, “Where is your fish from?”  Several years ago, it would have been impossible to find a front-row parking space at any of Kuwait’s fish markets.

Many Kuwaitis and expats alike to turn to the sea for their livelihood – most prominently during the summer months.  Many people here own boats.  As you pass by the marinas these days, you will notice how many boats are in port – and it is not because of bad weather.

We have been hit by a nameless, faceless environmental terrorist.  In 1990, an enemy snuck up on the northern border of Kuwait.  In 2000, a silent enemy emerged in the waters of Kuwait when meide (or mullet in English) began to die mysteriously.

Again this year, the enemy returned to exact a more dramatic and tragic consequence:
not only were meide dying, but also hamoor (or grouper), and other larger species including several sea mammals, a dolphin ad a small whale.  The enemy is still lingering on our sea borders.  Who is this enemy?  Who is to blame?  Why is he still here and why has the population seemed to have turned a blind eye towards recent events?  Will the enemy return next year or the year after to kill again?

This contamination is unprecedented in the history of Kuwait.  It is possibly the environmental catastrophe of the century.  When Iraq pumped oil directly into Gulf waters during its brutal occupation, the world condemned the act as an at of eco- terrorism.  However, the spills were contained and the following year, the fish returned as normal.  What is happening now in Kuwait is different.  The disaster and its impact is continuing and we can not be certain that whatever has killed the fish won’t return because the root of the catastrophe has not been found.

Casual attitudes may be the main culprit. People occasionally toss a soda can or plastic bag into the sea.  How can one small act be a big deal?  Destruction of natural resources begins with complacency.  Our relaxed attitudes are now keeping our children away from the beaches and islands of Kuwait.  It is keeping hamoor and zubeidi off the menu.  We al need to act together to do something now, before it becomes a problem which will take years to reverse.

What are the contributing factors?  We are looking at numerous factors, which may contribute to the problem – either singularly, or as a group.

Iraq has been a suspect by its diversion of the natural flow of water through the marshes of Shatt Al Arab.

An oil processing technique called “oil shifting” may be another factor to the fish kill. Until recently, Kuwait had not used this method.  This process pushes oil from below ground by the use of water and corrosives.  Used water is treated and sent back out to the Gulf.

Ground seepage from years of casual dumping – either in personal use of chemicals and used oil, or by companies and car shops – may take some of the blame.

Is toxic waste being dumped in Kuwait?  Is the problem possibly from tankers in the Gulf?

Microbes are most likely not the main cause of the fish kill because birds that have fed off the dead fish have not been affected.

Raw sewage has been periodically dumped into the water.  If you have ever been in a boat  close to Kuwait’s shores  in the summer, you will know that the sewage is there. If you  live within close proximity to any of the numerous sewage outlets, you will know that sewage is a problem.  Rounding Ras Salmiya in a boat on a hot summers night will make you wonder why nothing  is being done.

Are we swimming in a stew of waste and chemical by-products?  Many countries in other parts of the world have long-understood that water is a resource to be cherished.

What is happening with the fish in Kuwait?  Is it safe to eat fish yet?  What we know is that we still don’t know.  Explanations still vary.  Reports given to the public have been vague and general and lately, almost everyone you speak to has another report – often conflicting with what you’ve already heard.  Most people are still waiting for answers, but nothing is being provided.  We may not ever know for sure what killed the fish this year and we won’t be able to know if the fish will die again next year, or in the years to come.

Some of the population has started to eat fish again, thinking that it is safe, but is it really?  How do we know for sure that it is safe if there have not been any definitive answers to how the fish kill began?  If the reason behind the fish kill is not conclusive, then how can the problem be rectified so it won’t happen again?  What if the cause is infectious?  What if it is of danger to humans?

In August, we were told not to eat fish for 2 months, then later for 2 years.  Is it safe yet? The 2-month time frame has not yet elapsed, and obviously not the 2 year frame. Our love of seafood and the willingness to readily buy it and consume it may be putting us in danger.

The ecology of Kuwait’s Bay is fragile.  Many people don’t take into consideration how gentle this ecology is or how it can be affected by many variables.  We have to look at each variable to determine the answers – not just because of this year’s fish kill, but to keep it from happening in the future.  Once an underwater environment is changed, several things may happen in a domino effect.  Plankton will die.  Floor- dwelling creatures will die.  Small fish will die.  Larger fish will die.  Human life and activity will be affected.  Conservation of our marine ecology must start at the lowest level.

Reduction of oxygen in the bay

Several experts believe that a combination of the high temperature, high salinity (salt content in the water), and low oxygen concentrations in the bay may have been the cause of the fish kill.

What would cause a lowered oxygen in the water?  A high concentration of inorganic nutrients in Kuwait is most likely to blame.  It is likely that the nutrient from sewage, in combination with several nutrients released at the acqua culture site in Kuwait’s bay are major sources.  The sediment found in Kuwait bay (sienna) might also be an important source of inorganic nutrients if the water conditions are such that the sediment becomes mixed.


While searching for answers to the cause of the mystery, a name has often been coming up:  Streptococcus iniae.  Quietly, this killer is known to cause “mad fish disease.”

On October First, the Supreme Council for Environment concluded that this particular strain of bacteria was to blame for the dead fish in Kuwait Bay.

What is Streptococcus iniae?  Streptococcus iniae is a marine bacteria which was first observed in 1972 as a cause of disease among freshwater dolphins (pink dolphins) of the Amazon.  Until recently, findings of the bacteria in salt water have been rare.

The most familiar form of the Strep bacteria is  Streptococcus, group A, commonly known to cause “strep throat”, and impetigo (a skin rash).  Both are contagious. Streptococcus, group B  (group B strep) is a bacterium that causes life-threatening infections in newborn infants. Group B strep can also cause serious diseases in pregnant women, the elderly, and adults with other illnesses.

How does the marine strain, Streptococcus Iniae bacteria affect fish and what is “Mad Fish Disease”?  The bacteria causes the fish’s eyes to bulge and it will swim erratically (in circles or making dramatic moves) before dying.

How does this bacteria affect humans? The Streptococcus iniae, bacteria occurs in different strains, and until recently most did not cause symptoms in humans.  The first recognized case of infection in humans occurred in Texas in 1991 and a second in Ottowa, Canada in 1994.  In humans, the disease causes skin infections, fever, shaking, and in at least one case, meningitis.  During the time frame of 1995 through 1996, several people in Canada  were stricken with the “Mad Fish Disease” contracted from infected fish, which caused meningitis- like symptoms.  .

The disease is contracted through puncture wounds from fish bones or cartilage. Human victims responded favorably to antibiotics, but health officials in Canada advised people to wear rubber gloves when handling the fish.  Should we, in Kuwait, do the same?  There have been no local warnings to the public.

Other Streptococcus iniae-related fish kill phenomena around the world have included a  fish kill in the southern Caribbean islands in 1999– the first time that the bacteria was ever found in the open ocean.  At that time, the primary deaths of fish were concentrated to a bay.  Later, fish began to die in the open sea.  Again, the sea temperature was higher than normal, allowing officials to believe that the fish suffered from a combination of stress and bacterial growth.

 Interestingly, because the causes of the 1999 fish kill in the Caribbean were not readily known, several contributing factors, similar to Kuwait’s, were scrutinized: elevated sea temperature, a northern water flow towards the islands (turning the water a slightly greenish color), poor visibility due to nutrients and particles in the water, possible dumping of hazardous chemicals and toxic waste.  Sewage dumping also increases the likelihood of bacterial growth.

1999 – Red Tide in Kuwait

In the summer of 1999, red tide was blamed for a fish kill in the northern part of the Gulf.

What Is Red Tide? Red tide is the result of a massive multiplication (or "bloom") of tiny, single celled algae called Karenia brevis, usually found in warm saltwater, but which can exist a lower temperatures. It is a natural phenomenon, apparently unrelated to manmade pollution. In high concentrations, K. brevis may create a brownish red sheen on the surface of the water; in other instances, it may look yellow green, or may not be visible at all. Some red tides have covered up to several hundred square miles of water. No one can predict when or where red tides will appear or how long they will last since they are affected by many variables such as weather and currents.

Reports of red tides have been recorded as far back as the mid 1800's.  Red tides can occur anywhere in the world and at any time.

The 1999 fish kill was different that what was/is being experienced this year.  In 1999, no where near the amount of fish died.  During this year’s kill, an estimated 2000 tonnes of fish died.

Is the Oil industry a factor through the Sea Water Injection method?

The oil processing technique, which has been used in Kuwait only during the past several years, called Sea Water Injection, has people wondering if it may be either a contributing factor, or the main reason behind the fish kill.  Sea Water Injection is used to pump oil from the ground by pushing oil from below ground by the use of sea water.The water is taken from the Sabiya power station, filtered, and sent via a 48 kilometer pipe to oil fields in northern Kuwait to inject the wells.  The Sabiya station started sending water to the fields only last year when the sea water injection started.  Many residents of Kuwait have questioned if this method of treatment has harmed the ecology, but officials continue to assert that the disposed water is waste free and clean of ha zardous materials.  The public continues to be skeptical, despite the reports to the contrary.

Officials reason that the used water has not been deposited directly into the sea, but onto land approximately three kilometers away from the sea, where sea birds drink from it.  So far, no information has shown that any of the sea birds has become ill. However, the number of migrating flamingos to the north of Kuwait seems to have diminished, as their migratory season starts this month.  None of us know if ground seepage from the dumping area to the bay has occurred.

There are plans for a 60 million KD project to re- inject water into the Burgan oil field instead of dumping it into the desert.  So far,  Kuwait Oil Company has been spending over 200 million dinars on environment-friendly operations.

Sooner or later – It reaches the sea

Regardless of your opinion of the cause of the fish kill – one thing is certain:  We must all take a closer look at our environment.  What we dump will eventually make its way into the sea.  Medical waste, sewage, chemical waste, oil and gas from boats, ground seepage from companies or manufacturing sites – all of the byproducts are eventually going to make their way in to the marine ecology and do damage. Did you know passing tankers often flush their empty hulls in Kuwait waters?  How does this make you feel?   None of us are happy with the outcome, but are we doing anything either individually or collectively to rectify what is happening in our waters?  If you see someone thrown trash into the ocean, does it affect you?  Perhaps not for the moment, but eventually when the beaches become dirty and the water unsanitary to swim in, it does affect you.  Is anyone being fined?  Penalties for those in violation of dumping must be levied.  There must be closer scrutiny of both individuals and organizations responsible  for massive  environmental damage.   All the signs are there - we need to do something.   The general consensus  is that whatever  killed the fish this year will return.   Why?   Because  no one has actually  done anything to fix it.

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