IT’S illegal in most countries, including Malaysia. Yet fish bombing or fish blasting, a form of destructive fishing that uses home-made explosives mixed in a bottle, continues to be practiced. In the waters off Sabah, up to 15 blasts can be heard per hour and most worrying is that there’s no sign of slowing down despite the death-related consequences.
According to Reef Check, the world’s largest international coral reef monitoring programme involving volunteer recreational divers and marine scientists, many reefs in Sabah have less than 25 per cent of their reef structure intact, while some have interconnecting series of bomb blast craters. And on those bombed reefs, fish diversity have been reduced to less than half and actual numbers of benthic living fish species were reduced to less than 10 per cent of their original numbers.
The results of another study revealed that fish bombing has caused the destruction of more than 80 per cent of coral reef cover in some places. A single bomb can destroy a five-metre diameter of coral reef and kill reef fish within a 15m radius. Meanwhile, a survey conducted in 1998 showed that 3.75 per cent of coral reefs in Sabah were being destroyed each year. And should this practice not abate, whatever is left of Sabah’s coral reefs will all disappear before 2020.
The fishermen who engage in this method of fishing are attracted by the short-term gain. The lower yield from traditional fishing methods have made most turn to blast fishing despite the dangers they’re exposed to. After all, it’s a simple enough approach: when their home-made dynamite explodes, it causes shock waves which in turn kill or stun fish. The fish will subsequently float to the surface or sink to the bottom, enabling the blast fishers to collect some of them. Although many blast fishers are aware that their activities are destroying fish habitat, they’re not as aware of the fact that this very activity actually threatens their own livelihood. Many know that their reefs have deteriorated but most convince themselves that there are better reefs further afield.
BLAST FISHING DEFINED
The bombs are most often home-made, concocted from a simple mix of fertiliser, acid and a blast fuse. A tiny homemade fertiliser bomb weighing one kilogramme can kill or weaken fish in a 15 to 25 metre radius. The stunned or dying fish would then be collected either by hand or with the use of nets. This method of fishing results in craters of varying sizes on the coral reef, along with fractured, damaged and dislodged coral fragments. Furthermore, the debris left behind can potentially cause underwater avalanches and erosion, thereby causing more damage to the surrounding healthy reefs.
This indiscriminate method of fishing also kills everything else in the blast zone. However, a large portion of the kill is often dumped back into the sea because they are of no value due to species, size or age. These effects have long term economic and natural implications related to the overall reduction in fish numbers, increase in parasitic invertebrates such as urchins and crown-of-thorns starfish and the slow rate at which coral reefs recover and regrow.
IMPACT ON THE REEFS
Blast fishing, according to Reef Check Malaysia (RCM), results in extensive structural damage to the reef. A typical bombed reef, for example, will have rubble littered where the reef once was, and an interconnected series of bomb blast craters each measuring three to four metres in diameter. Bombed reefs located on slopes often result in an avalanche of smashed coral at the bottom. Porites bommies, outcrops of coral on a reef, which took thousands of years to reach three to four metres in diameter can be reduced to small chunks of rubble as a result of a single blast.
The reefs will take several decades to recover. Meanwhile, the dead coral and rubble will not provide a stable environment for coral larvae to settle on, thus delaying the growth of a healthy marine eco-system.
The decline of the fish population is another grave impact. A study by Oakley et al demonstrated that fish diversity on bombed reef was reduced to less than half while actual numbers of benthic living fish species were reduced to less than 10 per cent. Fish size and population structures are drastically changed by blasts. Other invertebrate populations such as Diadema urchins and crown of thorns starfish will increase with the absence of natural predators and competition.
ECONOMIC IMPACT OF FISH BOMBING
In order to try and quantify the scale of the problem, RCM began gathering data in May 2011 on fish bombing in Sabah,where most fish bombing actually takes place. In a period of 12 months alone, RCM received 111 reports on fish bombing activities, citing a total of 193 bomb blasts witnessed or heard. Some reported a single bomb blast while others notified of multiple bomb blasts in one incident. The rate of blast fishing can be up to five per hour at frequently bombed areas.
Since bombing is usually carried out in shallow coastal waters, it invariably destroys the coral reef below the blast area. Once destroyed, such areas will take 25 years or more to recover their biodiversity and productivity.
In 1999, research by Ismail et al estimated that by 2020, with the-then rate of fish bombing, an amount of reef equal to 130 per cent of Sabah’s reefs will be destroyed by fish bombing. Suffice to say, this is a clear indication that this is a problem that needs to be urgently addressed.
Fish bombing is a serious economic issue. According to Ismail et al, a single fish bomb is estimated to create a crater of approximately five metres in diameter, with an area of nearly 20sqm. If coral reefs are valued at RM145 billion per annum (RM36.25 per sqm as per RCM’s advocacy report “The Economic Value of Malaysia’s Reefs”), the lost economic value of a single bombed area is valued at RM711.95 — a cost far higher than the few kilogrammes of fish collected by the bomber. In terms of reef value, a total of RM118,183 was lost over the 12 month period — and that is just from reports received by RCM.
Blast fishing activity, adds RCM, is usually conducted in remote areas not often patrolled by relevant authorities. This effectively means that total enforcement is virtually impossible with the public resources available relative to the size of area where blast fishing is known to occur. Even if suspected fish bombers are caught, it isn’t easy to prosecute because of the lack of evidence. Currently, almost all blast fishing in Malaysia is reported in the northwest and south east regions of Sabah, with most of these reports coming from resort operators around the Semporna area. It’s quite likely, says RCM, that the number of reports it receives actually account for less than one per cent of the true number of bomb blasts, thereby placing a much higher cost on bombed areas to over RM11 million per annum.
REGULATIONS AND PROPOSED SOLUTIONS
Despite its dangerous nature and the risk of dismemberment and even death, blast fishing continues to be widely practiced.
It appears that short-term benefits and rapid returns are far more appealing to the financially burdened blast fishers than the results of the more traditional forms of fishing. In reality, economically, blast fishing only provides a temporary yield. For example, in southwest Sulawesi, Indonesia, the net annual income per fisherman dropped from US$6,450 (RM21,155) to less than US$550 after repetitive use of destructive fishing methods. Closer to home in Sabah, fisheries production has dropped by over 70 per cent over the last 20 years while the net income from each hectare of reef has fallen by 80 per cent.
Enforcement, says RCM, should be a vital component of coral reef management to stop fish bombing. Unfortunately, implementation of laws and regulations banning blast fishing continue to be a challenge because of the lack of resources and manpower. Hence, awareness programmes and campaigns shedding light on the long-term damage caused by blast fishing is believed to be a practical and effective approach to minimising the practice. Programmes should be geared towards local coastal communities and fishermen who practice fish bombing. Alternative livelihood skills can also be taught to fishermen.
Implementing a blast detection system could also prove to be very helpful to enforcers. The ability to pin-point the exact time and location of a bomb blast will be more efficient, requiring fewer resources and manpower. In Cebu, Philippines, collaboration between village communities and authorities to provide information and patrol surrounding waters have also proven to be very fruitful and as such, should be used as a case study and implemented, concludes RCM.
Healthy reef at Police Gate Reef in Mantanani. Pictures by Helen Brunt.
Corals damaged by fish bombing. They are usually in smaller pieces due to the impact from the blast, compared with damage by other causes (trawling, anchor, storm etc). Picture taken in Mantanani, Sabah.
Difference between fish caught by bombing and traditional method. The two fishes on the left are bombed fish (note that their internal organs are damaged while the internal organs are still intact in the two fish on the right).
Dead fish at bottom of the sea, killed by a fish bomb.
Impact from blast in Batuara Reef, Semporna. Pictures by Firdaus Akmal