Fishing with cyanide remains a common practice across the Pacific, despite being banned.
Fishing with cyanide remains a common practice across the Pacific, despite being banned. The authorities have used some creative ways to deter fishermen, but advocacy groups say a certification system is needed to stop the fish ending up on plates and in aquariums.
Juanito Baculao’s hands move quickly as he demonstrates how to make the fishing device. He drills a hole in the cap of a plastic bottle, sticks a small piece of tubing into it and fills the bottle with seawater. Then, he drops in a bit of cyanide. Bottles like this are widely used to catch fish in the waters off the Philippine island of Bilangbilangan, in the Bien Unido municipality. The devices cost only a few cents to make, but depending on the fish they catch, can easily pay for themselves many times over.
Although banned, cyanide fishing is still a common practice across the Pacific. The method involves spraying a cyanide mixture into the fish’s habitat to stun them, so they can be easily caught while still alive. They are then sold on for use in restaurants or aquariums.
Many are sold to restaurants outside Asia where customers get to pick out which fish they want to eat. Even more lucrative are ornamental fish that will later end up in aquariums in Europe or the US. For example, certain damselfish or clownfish can fetch up to 30 euros per kilogram. Cyanide fishing has been banned for years in Asia, as has fishing with dynamite. Underwater poisonous clouds and explosive devices have destroyed entire coral reefs, with the damage visible to snorkelers in the Philippines as well as off the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Despite the damage and the ban, however, the cyanide fishers still head off in their boats every morning to take part in the illegal trade. On-the-spot fines of 40 euros per person discourage few, and there are hardly any inspections. People are only seldom caught in the act.
The head of the inspection authority for the Bien Unido municipality, Roberto Rosales, says, “We have 500 square kilometres of open sea. We can’t stop illegal fishing 100 percent. Can only ensure it happens less.”
In the Philippines, breaking the laws against poison fishing can theoretically result in a prison sentence, though such a punishment is yet to be given. With cyanide fishing, the fisherman dives after the animals. Once the fish hide somewhere in the coral, the plastic bottle comes out. The poison is then sprayed into the hiding spot, paralysing the fish, which are then collected and brought to the surface. This method is less brutal than using dynamite, which is ignited in a glass bottle and kills the fish so that they float to the surface already dead, but it’s no less destructive.
The poison kills not only fish, but also algae, ensuring the death of the coral, which can’t live without algae. It sometimes takes years before a reef is habitable again- and sometimes it’s dead for good. The people in the area may also suffer. Baculao, one of 1,200 fishermen on Bilangbilangan, says that many on the island have developed abnormal types of cancer. “That’s the poison,” he says.
Whether cyanide is causing such illnesses is unknown. There are no specific scientific studies to back up Baculao’s claims. He is 55 years old, fished with cyanide for years, and remains healthy. He finally stopped not due to the fear of punishment or health risks. In 2010, the Bien Unido municipality installed a statue of Madonna 30 metres deep on the sea floor in order to urge fishermen to be more respectful in their treatment of nature. In a deeply Catholic country, it worked. The coral has recovered significantly.
Of course, simply installing a statue won’t deter everyone. There are hopes that a relatively new method of analysis could enable the authorities to determine whether cyanide has been present in an expanse of water by using a special electrode. The electrode can quickly detect if there are traces of the metabolic product thiocyanate, which fish produce after a poison attack.
According to a study from Aveiro University in Portugal, about 15 percent of coral fish in pet shops in the European Union have been caught using cyanide. Environmentalists in Europe are pushing for a certification system. “We can’t rely on phony certificates saying the fish don’t come from illegal fishing,” says Sandra Waldherr, from the advocacy group Pro Wildlife. “The animal trade should finally ensure that it’s not responsible for the deaths of coral reefs,” she adds. – DPA
PREVENTION: In 2010, the Bien Unido municipality in the Philippines installed a statue of Madonna 30 metres deep on the sea floor in order to deter fishermen from using cyanide and dynamite.
DYNAMITE FISHING: Jocel Cabansay, a Filipino fisherman holds an example of a homemade device used to catch fish with dynamite.
FOR SALE: A boy holds an example of a tropical fish for sale at a market in the Philippines.
ILLEGAL: Tropical fish for sale at a market in the Philippines caught using cyanide despite being banned.