Wednesday, May 12

Cutting the fuse of fish bombing


TO most of us, patience is the hallmark of a successful fisherman.

That’s because our notion of fishermen is that they would stay on or near the water – watch and listen. Patiently.

But forbearance is no one-size-fits-all suit. It would be far-fetched to expect all fishermen to be up to par in the ‘patience’ stakes. Some are more expectant than patient – and even destructive in plucking sustenance from the river and the sea.

Instead of bait and net, they use bomb to fish. This ravaging technique is called fish bombing and though illegal in Malaysia, it is still being done in some parts of the country.

Fish bombing involves the use of explosives – normally home-made with simple artificial chemicals derived from fertilisers mixed with kerosene in a bottle.

When the fuse is lit and the bottle thrown into the water, the explosion causes shockwaves which stun or kill fish. The stricken fish will float to the surface or sink to the bottom, so the “bombers” can collect them easily.

Using bombs to fish is extreme, to say the very least. There are good reasons to ban the practice. Whenever explosives are used – in whatever situations – there is bound to be damage. In the case of fish bombing, destruction to the eco-system, especially habitats of marine life and coral reefs, can be severe – and even irreparable.

Studies have shown sites bombed a decade ago are still more dead than alive. Subic Bay in the Philippines was once a thriving reef but is now barren and bereft of teeming marine life such as crustaceans, clams and sea turtles, not to mention fish, that used to feed and shelter among the corals.

One could argue these are just fisheries but there is a human cost involved as well. Bomb fishers can suffer severe injuries and even lose their lives. Reports of them getting their hands blown off or killed are not uncommon.

What’s really regrettable is that people who do not fish-bomb are also playing a price as continued fish bombing causes their traditional fishing grounds to become unbearing and stark.

Economically, benefits from fish bombing are temporary at best. Studies have shown the net annual income per fish in Southwest Sulewasi, Indonesia, has declined from US$6,450 to less than US$550 after repeated use of ruinous fishing methods.

In Sabah, fishing with explosives has reportedly taken a heavy toll with fisheries production dropping by over 70 per cent over the past two decades. The net income from each hectare of reef has also fallen some 80 per cent.

While there are no specific data to show the impact of fish bombing in Sarawak, the destructive practice has raised enough concerns for the Marine Fisheries Department to set up a task force to reel in the “bombers” in Miri-Suai waters.

The decision was reached at a meeting between the Miri fishing community and the enforcement agencies following a “fish bombing scare” in Miri waters from foreign fishermen.

The Department has received a rash complaints on the negative effect of fish bombing and has stepped up action to nail the culprits. It is a timely move.

The question often asked is why is fish bombing still around despite being outlawed?

There are two basic reasons. Poor catch is one. It forces some fishermen to abandon traditional fishing methods and turn to fish bombing.

The other reason is that fish bombing is not only easier but also more profitable. Toss a bomb into the water, blast the fish to kingdom come and

harvest the spoils. As a marine inspector notes, it all boils down to greed.

To categorise bomb fishers as mostly from the hardcore poor is not entirely accurate. On the contrary, those running dynamite fishing cooperatives enjoy living the high life.

Of course, fishermen alone cannot be blamed for the rampancy of fish bombing as there are other economic forces at work.

Hotels and restaurants, targetting overseas tourist markets, are constantly demanding fresh seafood. Fish markets in some countries readily splurge on fresh fish.

This serves as an incentive to further encourage the use of fish bombing as a quick and lucrative way to supply fish. As demand rises, so must supply in tandem. And fish bombing appears able to fill that need.

What is ironic though is that while destructive fishing is often condemned, businesses that fund it often come out smelling like a rose – seldom like a dead fish.

Fish bombing is still alive because there is too little money or desire to enforce environmental laws.

Stricter enforcement is the only effective way to curb the practice. Understandably, this requires resources but surely, the authorities cannot close an eye to whole eco-systems and fishing grounds being abused and destroyed by fishing with explosives. More oversight is in order.

As an after-thought, it seems people are destined to fish. The Earth’s surface is, after all, three-fourths water and one-fourth land.

Perhaps, we are supposed to spend threefold the amount of time fishing as, say, washing the car – albeit it’s safe to conclude fish bombing is never part of the hallowed equation.