Unknown pollutant killing marine specimens at research centre

  • Nation
  • Tuesday, 07 May 2019

A fishy end: A worker showing a dead fish found near Cemacs in Teluk Bahang, Penang.

GEORGE TOWN: Live marine specimens in a laboratory in Teluk Bahang are dying from a pollutant that “invaded” the lab via sea water.

Although scientists have yet to identify the pollutant killing their specimens, the result was the stench of hydrogen sulfide – a toxic gas released by decaying organic matter – fuming out of the sea water used in the Centre for Marine and Coastal Studies (Cemacs).

“Our sea water intake point is about 100m from the shore and the water is pumped in through an industrial-grade sand filter and a fabric filter of one micron, or a millionth of a metre.

“This is the first time Cemacs ever faced such pollution. We are at the Penang National Park and far from industrial activity or urban centres so we cannot imagine what is causing this,” said Cemacs director Datuk Prof Dr Aileen Tan.

She suspected a chemical pollutant and sent water samples to the chemistry team in Universiti Sains Malaysia yesterday for testing.

“Our biggest worry is heavy metal pollution, so we need to write it off now by running the tests,” she said.Cemacs marine biologist Abe Woo said the first specimens in their labs to succumb were the sea cucumbers.

“Over 100 of them began eviscerating two weeks ago. They are in a weakened condition now and at least one has died,” he said, adding that Cemacs keeps about 200 sea cucumbers for study.

Woo explained that when sea cucumbers feel threatened, they eject parts of their guts to scare off possible predators.

“It doesn’t kill them but it takes energy for them to regrow their intestines and when they keep eviscerating, they eventually die,” he said.He added that several sea grass specimens were also displaying symptoms of stress.

A check by The Star at Cemacs yesterday found that despite the centre’s filtration system, the sea grass were floating in tanks of cloudy white sea water.

Woo said they had eliminated wea­ther problems and the earlier inter-monsoon period was not to blame.“Although it felt hot last month, it was the usual inter-monsoon.

“In fact, we had a bit more rain than last year’s inter-monsoon. No, there is a foreign pollutant in the water that we haven’t identified yet,” he said.

Cemacs research officer Nithiyaa Nilamani said the problem peaked on May 2.

“When we came back from the Labour Day break, it smelled as if something had died in Cemacs. This is the first time such a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide has come from the sea,” she said.

Much to the scientists’ dismay, four floating fish farms about 1km from Cemacs are suffering from the same pollutant and thousands of ringgit in prized groupers are being found belly up in the cages daily.

Cemacs senior science officer Sim Yee Kwang ran a dissolved oxygen (DO) test at the farms and found the DO level at 3.32 yesterday.

“The DO level in the sea around here is usually at five to seven. The drop in oxygen is killing the groupers,” he said.

Dr Tan said last month, cultured oysters were also dying in a floating farm in Pulau Betong on the western side of Penang island.

“But we didn’t detect any smells in the sea water there. We are now trying to find out how far the pollution has spread and we will take DO samples from Teluk Bahang to North Butterworth Container Terminal on the mainland side of the Penang channel to measure the spread,” she said.

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