On one hand, the Agriculture Ministry may heap praise for having responded vigorously to the threat of the red swamp crayfish as an invasive alien species which is dangerous to the country’s biodiversity and sustainable agriculture.
On the other hand, the move reveals loopholes, as the alarm bell has been rung in the long past.
In an urgent correspondence last Friday, Minister of Agriculture Nguyen Xuan Cuong asked the General Department of Vietnam Customs, the General Department of Market Surveillance, local governments across the country, and relevant agencies to join forces to prevent the crayfish from entering the country. Such an effort was taken after innumerable batches of crayfish have lately been consumed on the domestic market.
The crayfish, says the agriculture ministry, poses big risks to the country as it can survive harsh conditions, multiply quickly, compete strongly with other endemic creatures for feed, plague crops, and damage dikes among other negative impacts. Therefore, it must be completely banned in Vietnam.
Four days after the ministry’s instruction, the General Department of Market Surveillance also stepped in, demanding market monitors nationwide to take all-out efforts to ward off the trade. Head of the general department Tran Huu Linh in a dispatch on Tuesday urged surveillance bodies to mobilize all forces to tighten control over the crayfish trade, especially in provinces close to the borderline with China as the key source of supply, according to Nguoi Lao Dong.
Customs agencies and border troops have also lent a helping hand. In the past few days, such forces in the northern upland province of Lao Cai uncovered seven cases of crayfish smuggling, confiscating then destroying nearly one ton of the fish, the news site Vnexpress reports.
The illicit crayfish trade intercepted in Lao Cai, however, is just a small tip of a colossal iceberg.
It is unknown how much crayfish from China has been trafficked into the local market, but reports in local media over the past fortnight or so indicate a strong preference for the item among local consumers lately. Traders have run numerous ads promoting the crayfish, and the freshwater creature is said to be much sought after at many restaurants in major cities like Hanoi and HCMC.
Searching for the crayfish online, one will find hundreds of websites offering the item at between VND250,000 and VND350,000 a kilo, says the media outlet Ha Noi Moi. The online paper managed to contact a trader after the agriculture ministry’s ban, and was promised with a huge volume when the trade is expectedly resumed in late May.
Prior to the latest ban, many wholesale traders said each of them imported tons of the live crayfish each time given the strong demand, says Vnexpress.net. A trader in HCMC’s District 8 told the news site that when first engaging in the trade, she managed to sell hundreds of kilos a day. Another trader in Go Vap District said she ordered some 100 kilos of the crayfish from Hanoi each time and sold it quickly.
The crayfish from China is not a new occurrence though.
In the past couple of years, this species has been known to local consumers, with numerous shops across the countries offering the aquatic product.
When sales of the crayfish made headlines in early 2017, Nguyen Dinh Hoe, a senior official with the Vietnam Association for Conservation of Nature and Environment, said in the news site zing.vn that this crayfish damaged rice crops and irrigation works altogether, killed native shrimp and fish, and was a source of disease transmission for local creatures or even humans. At the time, the crayfish was also wholesaled widely at between VND180,000 and VND250,000 a kilo, mainly via websites.
There have also been instances of the crayfish being reared on an experimental basis in the country.
Nguyen Quang Huy, deputy head of the Research Institute for Aquaculture No. 1, says in Vnexpress that his institute was the only agency with the permission to raise the crayfish in Phu Tho Province in 2012, and after some time of research, the institute’s scientists came to the conclusion that the alien species must not be raised in Vietnam due to huge risks to the country’s ecosystem.
Still, in 2016, a company named Sen Hoang Giang sneakily raised the crayfish in Dong Thap Province, prompting provincial authorities to intervene by destroying all after it became known the alien creature managed to move out of the zoned area into nearby farms. An agriculture official of Dong Thap Province stressed in Tuoi Tre at the time that anyone found to illegally raise the crayfish would not only have their crop destroyed but also be subject to stiff punishment.
In fact, several regulations have been issued since 2013 to ban the trade and rearing of crayfish, including an interdisciplinary circular issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, according to the news site Vietnamnet. The ban is also reemphasized in a circular issued last year by the environment ministry.
Meanwhile, the 2015 Penal Code also allows for tough sanctions against those illegally raising alien species. Article 246 of the law states that any individual who imports and disseminates invasive alien species will be fined between VND100 million and VND1 billion, or even imprisoned for up to five years.
Many questions surface over why the crayfish has been able to enter Vietnam en masse in the recent past, despite regulations banning such commercial activities, why the border check has been so porous despite extensive media coverage on the rampant crayfish trade in the country, and why the phenomenal boom of the business has not captured attention from authorities for so long, until the local market become awash with the alien species. It is feared that this alien species may have made its way into the environment, and if so, it would be a catastrophe to the country’s agriculture sector and the ecosystem, as stated by Prof. Dang Huy Huynh, a veteran expert on natural resources, in Vnexpress.
However, it is better late than never, as authorities have come up with measures to contain the danger. According to Thanh Nien, after actions from authorities, websites selling the crayfish have refrained from the trade. Most restaurants have also remove the dish from their menus as the General Department of Market Surveillance has ordered quick inspections and tough sanctions.
At a meeting this week at the ongoing National Assembly sitting, Minister of Agriculture Nguyen Xuan Cuong reiterated the multiple dangers posed by this alien species. “Two years ago, the crayfish was reared by a Vietnamese overseas in Dong Thap. The violations have been stopped, but the old problem recurs now in the trade sector,” Cuong is quoted in Tien Phong as saying.
As the old problem now recurs, the minister calls on the business community to shun the crayfish trade, saying the petty benefit should not be pursued as it may put the country’s greater interests in harm’s way. SGT