Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos: NOAA and Alamy
Learning a lesson from experience is hard. But it is harder and even more painful if you lose someone forever. That was what happened to Arman.
He remembered it well. He was only 24 years old when it happened. One of the four sons of a fisherman, he filed a leave of absence from his work and came home to celebrate his mother’s birthday the following day. His brothers were all married, and he is the youngest.
That night, his father asked if he could accompany him fishing in the open sea in one of the remote areas in Davao Gulf. The last time Arman did it was when he was only 19. “I want to give something to your mother on her birthday,” his father told him.
The father and son left home at around 9 in the evening. They went straight to the sea. They were in the middle of the sea when his father took something. It was dynamite. He was furious when he saw it. “Tatay, I told you it is against the law to use it,” he said.
“Just this time,” the father replied. “I want something big for your mother’s birthday.”
Before he could say anything, his father threw the dynamite into the water, but it was only in the air when it exploded. His father was badly hit and died instantly. Arman lost his left eye.
Although there is already a law banning dynamite fishing in the country, it is still very much around.
Pramod Ganapathiraju, in last year’s evaluation of the Fisheries Monitoring Council and Surveillance report for the Philippines, wrote that destructive fisheries practices, including dynamite fishing, are still “widespread.” The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said the country loses P68.5 billion annually to illegal fishing.
Dynamite fishing is among the most destructive forms of illegal fishing. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), a line agency of the Department of Agriculture (DA), said that “an average of 10,000 dynamite blasts are estimated to occur every day” in the country.
In June last year, Basilan police confiscated 200 kilograms of ammonium nitrate and components for dynamite fishing. In Bacolod City, five boxes of fish caught using dynamites were seized by BFAR personnel and officials of the Philippine Coast Guard in a fish landing port in barangay Banago.
Since World War II
Dynamite fishing is practiced not only in the Philippines but also in other parts of Southeast Asia, as well as in the Aegean Sea and coastal Africa. But the Philippines get special mention as it has been documented by Ernst Jünger in his book, Storm of Steel.
“Dynamite or blast fishing became rampant in the Philippines after the Second World War,” wrote Gregg Yan, communication officer of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). “American soldiers would sometimes lob grenades into shoals of fish, providing local fishing communities with a lucrative new means of instantly increasing their catches.”
Nothing beats dynamite fishing for sheer efficiency. But it’s an incredibly destructive practice. “These fishermen use powdered ammonium nitrate (usually from fertilizer), kerosene and small pebbles, which are packed inside a glass bottle and covered with a blasting cap,” Yan wrote. “New designs integrate long metal rods which absorb sound and act as sinkers.”
The impact underwater is devastating. “A single blast’s shockwave typically travels at about 1500 meters per second (the length of 15 football fields), killing or maiming every fish in range and often liquefying their internal organs,” Yan wrote. “The fish are then collected either by divers using hookah air compressors where an on-board engine pumps air through a garden hose, or using nets.”
“Dynamite fishing is an inhumane way of fishing,” an environmentalist wrote. “It is an effective way for fishermen to get a lot of fish fast and simple. By having the abundance of fish to sell, the fishermen slowly get out of the poverty cycle. Most local Filipino fishermen do not realize that by destroying the coral reefs, they destroy the homes of the fish, resulting in less area to fish.”
In fact, the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) considers dynamite fishing “one of the most destructive forms of fishing because it discriminately kills any animal in the blast area and devastates corals.”
A New York Times report agrees: “Dynamite fishing decimates entire ocean food chains and the corals where the fish nest and grow. Blast fishing kills the entire food chain, including plankton, fish both large and small, and the juveniles that do not grow old enough to spawn. Without healthy corals, the ecosystem and the fish that live within it begin to die off.”
The biggest threat to corals
Most researchers believe dynamite fishing is among the biggest threats to coral reef ecosystems. “Coral reefs that may have taken thousands of years to grow are reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds, obscured by wafting clouds of silt,” Yan wrote.
An estimated 10-15 percent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs. About 80-90 percent of the income of small island communities in the Philippines comes from fisheries. “Coral reef fish yields range from 20 to 25 metric tons per square kilometer per year for healthy reefs,” says Dr. Angel C. Alcala, the former environment secretary.
The Philippines is home to over 400 local species of corals, which is more than what is found in the famous Great Barrier Reef of Australia. Unfortunately, these have been slowly dying.
As early as the 1970s, the East-West Center in Hawaii reported that more than half of the country’s reefs were “in advanced states of destruction.” It added that only about 25% were considered to be “in good condition” while only 5% were “in excellent condition.”
In 2007, Reef Check, an international organization assessing the health of reefs in 82 countries, stated that only five percent of the country’s coral reefs were in “excellent condition.” These are the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park in Palawan, Apo Island in Negros Oriental, Apo Reef in Puerto Galera, Mindoro, and Verde Island Passage off Batangas.
Large blasted areas are very slow to recover because corals have difficulty establishing on loose or sandy substrate. “The damaged coral reefs from blast fishing led to instant declines in fish species wealth and quantity,” Wikipedia explains.
“Explosives used in blast fishing not only kill fish but also destroy coral skeletons, creating unbalanced coral rubble,” the free encyclopedia continues. “The elimination of the fish also eliminates the resilience of the coral reefs to climate change, further hindering their recovery.”
The effects of climate change on coral reefs – warming waters and acidification, which causes bleaching – are difficult to address. But if the stresses are caused by human activities like dynamite fishing, coral reefs have a better chance of surviving.
Several studies have shown that single blasts cause reefs to recover over 5-10 years, while widespread blasting, as often practiced, “transforms these biodiverse ecosystems into continuous unstable rubble.”
Annihilation of biodiversity
It’s not only coral reefs that are annihilated. Also, suffering loss are endangered species that live in the deep sea. A few years back, the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported of a massacre of about 22 rare dwarf sperm whales and 21 dolphins off Siargao Island. “The whales, apparently 22 of them, were killed by dynamite fishing,” Gianni Boy Grifoni, a Swiss-Italian marine biologist, was quoted as saying.
And then there is the human cost. In September this year, two fishermen were killed, and two others were wounded as a result of illegal dynamite fishing. One fisherman ignited an improvised dynamite that suddenly exploded on his hand.
“Dynamite fishing is prohibited in the Philippines, but many Filipino fishers still use homemade bombs,” Yan wrote. “Some fishermen lose limbs and sometimes even the sight in one or both eyes due to bombs exploding prematurely.”
But despite all these, fishermen are still doing it, and the government seems to have had little success in stemming the practice. The reason is that some fishermen use some tricks so they cannot be caught by authorities. Among these are the following:
· Blasting artificial reefs (ARs) which have become effective fish aggregating devices. In most instances, ARs – which are designed to increase fish population in the degraded coastal areas – are blasted beyond repair;
· Piggybacking on the operation of commercial fishermen. By tailing the big boys of the industry who use sophisticated equipment, the explosive experts are able to track down schools of fish which they blast away before the other side could even cast their cumbersome net; and
· Employing local residents to gather the blasted fish. In areas protected by authorities, the blast fishers explode and run, leaving the task of collecting the dead fish to trusted local contacts. This arrangement enables them to minimize brushes with law enforcers.
As early as 1954, the government recognized dynamite fishing as a destructive form of catching fish from the open seas. “Fish is basically an essential food of our people and therefore the government should strive to preserve the fish resources of our country,” said Executive Order No. 40 of 1954, which was signed by President Ramon Magsaysay.
In 2012, the BFAR declared an “all-out war” against dynamite fishing and other illegal fishing practices.
Actually, it is the implementation of Republic Act No. 4003. Article 3, Section 12 states: “The use of dynamite or other explosives for the stupefying, disabling, killing or taking of fish or other aquatic animals, or under water for any purpose except in the execution of bona fide engineering work and the destruction of wrecks or obstructions to navigation; or the gathering by any means of the fishes or other aquatic animals stupefied, disabled or killed by the action of dynamite or other explosives shall be unlawful.”
On the other hand, “the possession and/or finding, of dynamite, blasting caps, and other explosives in any fishing boat shall constitute a presumption that the said dynamite and/or blasting caps and explosives are being used for fishing purposes” and “that the possession or discovery in any fishing boat of fish caught or killed by the use of dynamite or other explosives under expert testimony shall constitute a presumption that the owner if present in the fishing boat or the fishing crew have been fishing with dynamite or other explosives.”
When asked why dynamite fishing ceased to exist, Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero, former director of the Philippine Council for Marine and Aquatic Research and Development, cites poverty, recklessness, and lack of education on environmental protection as the reasons. “Fast money, too,” he adds.