Albion Monitor /Commentary

Ban Fishing With Dynamite, Cyanide

by Someshwar Singh

Wreaking havoc on coral reef systems to catch fish for the aquarium trade

Appearances can be deceptive. Who would believe that the enchanting fish shimmering their way through aquariums actually represent a tale of plunder and ruin. Or that certain gourmet fish spell certain ecological disaster. Dynamite and cyanide fishing is a cancer that is spreading relentlessly in the coastal regions of South-East Asia and the Asia Pacific waters.

Coral reefs become the first casualties as they are blasted into rubble by dynamite fishing, or are left intact but dead by cyanide poisoning. Even the spectacular coral reefs of the disputed Spratley Islands have not been spared. They are today referred to as "skeleton" reefs on account of the blast-damage suffered in recent years.

Over 30 per cent of the world's coral reefs are found in South-East Asia alone. The reef flora and fauna of the Indo-Pacific region are particularly rich, abounding with about 500 coral species and 2,000 fish species. The most diverse reefs lie in the area bounded by northern Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, where a single reef may have as many as 3,000 different species. Indonesia, with over 17,000 islands, is of critical importance as the center of coral reef ecosystem biodiversity.

But these are under severe threat now. Spurred by quick bucks, fisherfolk in South-East Asia are wreaking havoc on coral reef systems to catch fish for the aquarium trade and for food. Rising demand has encouraged unscrupulous traders to use often illegally-obtained sodium cyanide, chlorine, liquid surfactant, and explosives to harvest reef fish. Even though the use of cyanide may be illegal, as it is in the Philippines, it has not really prevented fishermen and traders from using it.

Reef fish is a delicacy among the increasingly rich Asian populations with a taste for seafood

In the past, marine reef fish were harvested by hand-held butterfly- type nets that were selective and not damaging to the environment. Today, however, fisherfolk are resorting to the more effective technique of cyanide poisoning. Dissolved in quart-sized plastic containers, sodium cyanide is used to stun hard-to-catch reef fish that seek cover in coral holes and crevices. The milky fluid causes the fish to lose their equilibrium, swim in crazy loops out of their coral refuge, and become easy targets.

The use of dynamite, on the other hand, actually kills most of the impacted fish so that they are used mainly for food. The supply of explosives does not appear to be a problem with fishermen sometimes actually retrieving unexploded bombs from the Second World War.

Unfortunately, the growing international demand for reef fish has only given a spurt to these disastrous practices. The aquarium trade caters to the pet industry in North America and Europe while reef fish is a delicacy among the increasingly rich Asian populations with a taste for seafood. The current boom in live fish commerce in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other centers of Chinese prosperity has only aggravated the problem.

In the Philippines alone, cyanide divers squirt an estimated 165 tons of dissolved poison on some 33 million coral heads annually. During the first eight months of 1995, a catch of 2,530 tons of live groupers and humphead wrasses worth over $180 million were exported to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Another 2,090 tons of decorative fish worth $800,000 were shipped to Europe and North America.

In Indonesia, there has been a proliferation of cyanide in local fisheries in Irian Jaya and Sulawesi, areas that are rich in global marine biodiversity. Misuse of cyanide in local fisheries is also spreading in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, the Maldives, Solomon Islands and other Pacific coastal states.

When used inside closed protected bays, explosives kill even juveniles in the spawning grounds

The impact of destructive fishing activities extends beyond merely the health of target species. Entire reef systems in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Caribbean are endangered. The Mediterranean region, particularly Greece and Turkey, are likewise plagued by the use of explosives in fishing. In Greece, although dynamite fishing is illegal, it is difficult to crack down on the dynamite supplies trade. When used inside closed protected bays, explosives cause intense damage as they kill even juveniles in the spawning grounds. Among the Mediterranean species thus affected are the red snapper (Dentex dentex) and the sea bream (Oblada melanura).

There is obviously much at a stake, making it imperative to find a solution quickly. "Alternatives to the use of cyanide need to be promoted urgently," says Carel Drijver, Manager, Development Cooperation at The World Wildlife Federation-Netherlands. "We would like to see the market and trade in reef fish put on a sustainable path. But that cannot happen unless the extremely harmful fishing practices are changed. Without coral reefs, their spawning ground, reef fish have a bleak future."

The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) has been trying actively to reverse this threat. It has been involved in coral reef protection in the South-East Asian region, and now plans to launch a major policy initiative that will focus on the international dimension of the dynamite and cyanide fishery in Indonesia. The objective is to get fishermen to use alternative, more sustainable, fishing techniques. WWF is also coordinating its effort by pooling together its expertise from the trade monitoring offices in the region and its networks in Hong Kong and the Philippines. Partnerships have been forged in particular with the International Marinelife Alliance in the Philippines and the Nature Conservancy.

Education and awareness are the key to the problem and need to be spread not only among fishermen actually engaged in cyanide and dynamite fishing, but other connected sectors like the fisheries trade and industry. Without that, there is little hope for the dying "rainforests of the sea."

Someshwar Singh is a Press Officer at WWF-International in Gland, Switzerland

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Albion Monitor September 15, 1996 (

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