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Qinghai Bird flu caused by fish farms?
Tibet Justice Center[Wednesday, May 17, 2006 17:40]

By Namgyal

Almost a year after the outbreak of bird flu among the wild birds near Qinghai Lake (Tso Ngonpo) that killed tens of thousands of wild birds and Qinghai came to be associated with a deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, new cases of flu among wild birds have been reported since late April near Qinghai Lake and in Yushu county, a remote nomadic region several hundred kilometers to the south of Qinghai Lake. The outbreak in wild birds continues to fuel fears that migratory birds as carriers of the deadly avian flu could lead to global pandemic. China’s secrecy and the stonewalling of requests for information on the flu outbreak continue to fuel speculation about the role of migratory birds in the spread of flu.

Over the past year, the spread of the flu has not been correlated with the migratory routes and seasons of wild birds. Indeed, some global studies have found that migratory birds are not the cause of the current wave of bird flu outbreaks stalking large parts of the world. Rather, outbreaks have been concentrated in the factory farms of China, South East Asia and elsewhere in the world. In India, the epicenter of outbreak of bird flu took place in 18 poultry farms in and around Navapur in Maharashtra. Since the Qinghai Lake outbreak last year, outbreaks in other parts of world have occurred along major transport routes. However increasing evidence suggests that commercial poultry and its products, not migratory bird populations, are the likely vectors of avian flu.

Fish farms and wild bird flu on Qinghai Lake At present, a new theory is gaining ground that the outbreak in wild birds near Qinghai Lake may be linked to fish farms around the lake. As early as 1998, scientists cautioned that human health hazards like an influenza pandemic could arise from the practice of bringing together fish farms with farm livestock. Some researchers say that bird flu may be spread by using chicken dung as feed in fish farms, a practice now routine in Asia.

According to Le Hoang Sang, deputy director of the Ho Chi Minh City's Pasteur Institute, “Chicken excrement is one of the main carriers of the H5N1 virus, which can survive in a cool and wet environment for a month and slightly less if in water.” In January, a 9-year-old boy died from bird flu in the Mekong Delta province of Tra Vinh after he caught it while swimming in water in which the bodies of infected poultry had been thrown. BirdLife International, a global body for bird protection groups in more than 100 countries, is calling for an investigation into the possibility that the fish in these ponds, which are fed with chicken dung, may be the means by which the new strain of avian influenza, H5N1, is being spread. It says that outbreaks of H5N1 have occurred this year at locations in China, Romania and Croatia where there are fish farms.

The above theory, if proven right, puts a serious question mark over this practice, which has been promoted actively by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). FAO have been active in the development of commercial aquaculture, particularly in Qinghai Lake, and is said to have helped establish an integrated livestock-fish farm near the lake in the early 1990s. Qinghai Lake is the largest inland lake on the Tibetan Plateau and its Bird Island attracts thousands of seasonal bird populations including cormorants, gulls and other species that feed upon the fingerlings and naked carp, a species endemic to the Lake and commercially fished.

Commercial fishing was first carried out in 1958, and since the late 1980s the agricultural potential of the Qinghai Lake area was being recognized and development encouraged, resulting in a rapidly growing livestock industry. Due to abundance and good quality of water near Qinghai Lake, attempts at introduction of exotic fish species are being made. Fish farming was encouraged, both in the lake and in surrounding reservoirs, supported by local fish feed manufacturing facilities. Only an independent investigation into the cause of flu among wild birds will tell whether the increased development of fisheries in and around the Qinghai Lake has caused massive deaths in the wild birds of Qinghai Lake.

*Namgyal has an MA in Sustainable International Development from the Brandeis University and has been researching and writing on Tibetan environmental issues for the past five years.
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