Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos courtesy of SeaWeb
Catching live fish using cyanide is easy.
All you have to do is crush a couple of sodium cyanide tablets into a squeeze bottle of water, dive into the sea where coral reefs abound, look around for the fish that caught your attention, and then squirt the toxic liquid into its face. The mixture stuns the fish without killing it, making it easier to catch in a net or even by hand.
Although there is already a law banning cyanide fishing in the country, it is still very much around.
“Cyanide fishing may not be as rampant as in the 1970s and 1980s, it is still being done in the Philippines,” said Dr. Alan White, who used to be the chief of party of the Coastal Resource Management Project in Central Visayas.
Pramod Ganapathiraju, in last year’s evaluation of the Fisheries Monitoring Council and Surveillance report for the Philippines, wrote that destructive fisheries practices, including cyanide fishing for aquarium and live reef fish trade, is still “widespread.” The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said the country loses P68.5 billion yearly to illegal fishing.
Philippine Daily Inquirer reported last year that three fishermen were arrested after being caught fishing using sodium cyanide in the waters of Patnanungan in Quezon Province. The suspects were arrested for violating the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 as amended by Republic Act 10654.
Live reef fish trade
Since the late 1970s, the poison has been used to capture larger live reef fish (primarily grouper species) for sale to specialty restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Asian cities with large Chinese populations.
“Selected and plucked live from a restaurant tank, some species can fetch up to $300 per plate, and are an essential status symbol for major celebrations and business occasions,” the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute (WRI) said. “As the East Asian economy boomed over the past several decades, live reef food fish became a business worth some $1 billion annually.”
When the business was booming, some 20,000 tons of live fish were eaten annually in the restaurants of Hong Kong alone. Most of those fish came all the way from the Philippines. According to many Hong Kong gourmands, live fish taken from Philippine waters “have the best taste.”
For Filipino fishermen, it means big bucks for them. The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) said a fisherman can earn a huge income between P300 and P1,100 for a top-price live coral trout, five times the price of a dead fish. “This makes live reef fishing very attractive,” WWF says.
Live fish trade may be a boon to Filipino fishermen, but it is a bane to the environment. By some estimates, fishermen may have poured more than a thousand tons of cyanide into Philippine waters.
Coral reefs annihilation
Cyanide fishing is harmful. “It is a deadly poison not only to people and fish, but also to other marine animals like corals,” deplored Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, a fishery scientist with the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).
When people talk of corals, they usually think of those structures in the shallow waters of the seas. But these are actually remnants of fragile creatures called polyps, tiny animals that absorb calcium carbonate from seawater and excrete limestone, from which reefs are made.
The ornate, visually stunning structures are vital for the health of surrounding waters. They host microscopic organisms on which larger creatures feed and provide shelter for a variety of marine life like fish, lobsters, octopi, eels, and turtles.
Fishermen use cyanide illegally to catch fish that hide in coral reefs. A study commissioned by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in 1982 established that two applications of cyanide on coral reefs four months apart caused high coral polyp mortality.
“Unlike blast fishing, which reduces corals into rubble,” explains marine scientist Vaughan R. Pratt, “cyanide fishing keeps coral intact, but dead.”
Fifty percent of the fish exposed to sodium cyanide die in the reef. The ones caught and later recovered are transferred to clean water, but they are doomed to die within weeks or months because of the damage caused by poison to their internal organs.
Worse, only 10% of the fish that get poisoned are of commercial value. A Hong Kong restaurateur who imports a ton of live grouper a day from the Philippines told WWF that the issue of cyanide fishing doesn’t concern him. However, he told his trading partners not to buy cyanide-caught fish. But the fish soon excrete the cyanide, so it’s impossible to check, and “there is no risk to my customers,” he said.
Humans as collateral
Corals, fish, and other marine creatures are not the only collateral.
There are reports that young men who have been paralyzed by the diving sickness called the bends. “Accidental deaths or paralysis due to the ‘bends’ are widespread and fishermen say the frequency of such accidents is increasing as they find themselves forced to go deeper and stay down longer to get fish after depleting the stocks in shallow waters,” said the Nature Conservancy report, Environmental, Economic and Social Implications of Live Coral Reef Food Fishery in Asia and Western Pacific.
In 1993, a coastal community in the country reported that 30 of its 200 divers got the bends, and ten died as a result. “Cyanide fishing is universally outlawed but still a significant problem,” said Dr. Elizabeth Wood, marine resource management and biodiversity conservation consultant of Britain’s Marine Conservation Society.
Cyanide is found naturally in plants like cassava and sorghum. However, there are two types: organic (called nitrites) and inorganic (salts of hydrocyanic acid, a volatile weak acid). Both are highly toxic. The lethal sodium cyanide was first widely used in the extraction of gold and silver.
Ornamental fish trade
Actually, cyanide fishing is not a Filipino discovery but an American ingenuity. A certain Bridge first used sodium cyanide to stun and capture tropical fish in 1958 in Illinois. A Filipino aquarium fish collector picked up the practice.
By 1962, Earl Kennedy, an American exporter from the Philippines, was surprised by a sudden increase in aquarium fish from Lubang Island off Batangas.
“When local collectors started using cyanide, we didn’t realize at once that was happening,” Kennedy said. “We were happy that there was so much supply for everybody, and there was an export boom. But after a while, we smelled something fishy. Then we found out that the collectors were using cyanide.”
The practice spread throughout the country in no time. The reef fish were collected for the fish aquarium trade and exported to the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France.
Ornamental fish trade is globally valued at $15 billion and growing by 14% annually, an Inquirer report said. “Around 2,000 species are traded yearly with 65% coming from Asia,” said the paper, “Status of Ornamental Fish Industry in the Philippines: Prospects for Development,” which was published in The Philippine Journal of Fisheries.
The Philippines is a major player in the ornamental fish industry, being one of the largest exporters of marine ornamental fish species in the world. “No other country can match the diversity of colorful species desired by the marine aquarist,” said Peter Rubec of the International Marinelife Alliance (IMA)
Some of these fish, however, are still collected via cyanide fishing.
“Internet chat boards are rife with comments about cyanide-caught aquarium fish developing cancer within a year of being purchased,” WRI reports. “And many aquarium owners are willing to pay a premium for ‘net-caught’ ornamental fish as they have a longer life expectancy.”
Although cyanide fishing is already illegal in the country, the ornamental fish and live reef fish trade are still booming.
“In the early 1960s, there were only three companies exporting aquarium fish from the Philippines and export of live food fish did not yet exist,” reports One Ocean Organization. “By the 1990s, there were some 45 aquarium fish exporters in the country and 8 companies exporting live food-fish.”
Concrete action vs. cyanide fishing
Whether for food or for aquariums, cyanide fishing should be stopped. “(Cyanide fishing) is illegal, so people should just stop doing it,” says Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, director of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines. “There may be short term gains now but we have to really think about the serious repercussions for the future generation. Remember this: no reef, no fish.”
But there is some good news. The Philippines is taking some concrete action against the problem. This is done through the Cyanide Fishing Reform Program, a unique partnership between the government and the local non-governmental organization IMA.
The program has trained thousands of fishermen to use alternatives to cyanide, such as fine-mesh barrier nets draped over a reef section to catch aquariums for the re-sized fish and hook-and-line techniques to catch larger fish for the restaurant trade.
The government has also stepped up enforcement of anti-cyanide fishing laws by establishing a network of cyanide detection laboratories operated by IMA that randomly sample fish exports at shipment points throughout the country and monitor all aspects of the trade.
There is also a public awareness campaign in the media and public schools which help educate Filipinos about the value of coral reefs and the threats posed by cyanide and other destructive fishing practices.
“Cyanide fishing has not ceased in the Philippines, but it has certainly been reduced as a result of these efforts,” WRI claims.