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After tsunami, some Asian diners fear what their fish ate

By Associated Press
Published January 21, 2005

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Top hotels in several Asian capitals have stopped ordering sea bass and sole from waters off their tsunami-ravaged coastlines to ease diners' concerns about fish feasting on corpses.

Some have turned to suppliers in Australia, while others are buying fish from Indonesian islands off the Pacific Ocean that were untouched by disaster, dealing another blow to fishermen whose livelihoods were shattered by the giant waves.

Health officials say fears of fish are unwarranted and insist there is no evidence of a risk posed by eating fish from the Indian Ocean, where at least 157,000 people died in Asia and Africa. But, in a region that suffered through bird flu and other recent food scares, several top restaurants and their suppliers are unwilling to take chances.

Markus Schneider, a manager at Jakarta's Mandarin Oriental, said the hotel's first reaction to the Dec. 26 disaster was to collect donations for victims. Then, the hotel focused on seafood dishes at its three restaurants.

"We went straight to our suppliers to make sure their supplies didn't come from Sumatra," he said. Many did, including the shrimp for an Italian risotto, the antipasto's calamari and the sea bass filets served over sauteed greens.

Tens of thousands died on Sumatra island after the magnitude 9 temblor and tsunami that followed.

Some of the hotel's fish was already imported, but all orders that had come from Indonesia were switched to Australia. That increases costs by about 15 percent, a figure that doesn't worry hotels that cater to business travelers and tourists.

International health agencies, including the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, say the fears are unfounded.

"The fish myth is making the rounds all over the place," said Harsaran Pandey, a WHO spokeswoman. "The fears are not scientifically based."

There is no evidence that fish in tsunami-hit areas are feeding off corpses or that it would cause a health risk if they were, Pandey said. And Pandey said there also is no evidence of higher mercury levels or other toxins in the Indian Ocean since the tsunami, noting that most of what washed away were villages and beach front properties rather than industries.

Villagers across tsunami-hit coastlines in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere have reported losing their appetite for fish, sparking nutritional concerns that their diets would lack sufficient protein, Pandey said.

Thai health officials have gone to great lengths to show a wary public they have nothing to fear. Officials have conducted regular tests on seawater and fish from affected areas, and in the battered coastal province of Phang-Nga, health ministry officials cut open the bellies of tuna, sea bass and other fish caught in the Andaman Sea to show there were no human remains inside.

U.S. to start withdrawal

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - The U.S. military - the largest group helping tsunami survivors - will immediately start withdrawing troops from the relief efforts to feed and house more than 1-million refugees, the U.S. Pacific commander said Thursday.

Aid organizations responded to the announcement by Adm. Thomas Fargo by pledging to shoulder a greater share of the burden to aid tsunami survivors.

Fargo noted that the humanitarian missions in countries affected by the tsunami have moved "toward rehabilitation and reconstruction." The admiral suggested the withdrawal of the 15,000 American troops would be completed within 60 days, apparently meeting requests by Indonesian officials that foreign troops leave Aceh province on Sumatra island by the end of March.

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