from "Sullied Seas: Strategies for Combating Cyanide Fishing in Southeast
Asia and Beyond" by Charles Victor Barber, World Resources Institute,
Southeast Asian Field Projects, Biological Resources and Institutions
Program and Vaughan R. Pratt, International Marinelife Alliance.
restaurants across Hong Kong and other Asian cities, consumers pay up
to $350 per plate for some reef fish species plucked live from a tank,
steamed and, minutes later, served; their insatiable demand feeds a lucrative
live food fish trade in Southeast Asia worth at least $1 billion at retail.
In Europe and North America, hobbyists seek out exotic tropical fish sold
in pet shops, enlivening Southeast Asia's already bustling $200-million
aquarium fish export market.
Far from Hong Kong's restaurants and the pet stores of Europe and North
America, meanwhile, fishers in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the
Pacific, armed with plastic bottles containing a cyanide solution, dive
from their small boats into the sea for those precious reef fish. Breathing
from long hookah tubes attached to air compressors installed on their
boats, they dive to a depth of up to 100 feet, squirting the cyanide solution
from their bottles into coral formations, stunning and then collecting
their prey. Sometimes they have to pry apart coral heads with a crowbar
to reach stunned fish hiding in coral crevices. The rewards are high,
with some cyanide divers making more than the university professors in
But so are the risks and costs. Untrained in diving safety, many fishers
fall prey to the bends (decompression sickness). The cyanide they use
kills corals and reef invertebrates, along with many non-target fish.
Large percentages of the fish that are captured live die in transit because
of their poisoned-weakened state. Deadly in any marine environment, cyanide
fishing is particularly damaging in the biodiverse countries of the Indo-Pacific.
Cyanide fishing in the Philippines is believed to have started in the
late 1950s or early 1960s. At that time, a US researcher described in
a US Fish and Wildlife Service report how fish were stunned upon exposure
to low concentrations of sodium cyanide and how those that survived, if
transferred to clean water, recovered with no apparent ill effect. Philippine
aquarium fish collectors apparently heard about or read the report. In
1962, a Filipino entrepreneur named Earl Kennedy noticed a sharp and sudden
increase in the volume of fish he was receiving from a small island south
of Manila. He noticed something else, too: often, the fish he received
were in shock, and he eventually found out this was because cyanide was
used to catch them.
The use of cyanide contributed to the rapid growth of the Philippine aquarium
fish industry, and to its subsequent decline. In the 1960s there were
only three aquarium fish exporters in the Philippines. By the early 1980s,
35 Philippine companies engaged in fierce competition in the international
aquarium fish trade, supplying up to 80% of the tropical marine aquarium
fish sold worldwide. The boom lasted until 1984, after which the industry
suffered a slump, in part because of the anti-cyanide campaign initiated
by the non-governmental organization International Marinelife Alliance
(IMA), and also and largely because importers and aquarium owners experienced
high levels of fish mortality with aquarium fish they bought from the
In 1991, cyanide testing laboratories and enforcement mechanisms further
dampened the trade in aquarium fish in the Philippines. But damage was
already widespread. Three decades of cyanide use and other destructive
fishing practices had debilitated most Philippine reefs, precipitating
a sharp decline in the availability of desired aquarium species.
As Philippine aquarium fish stocks declined, however, new source areas
were opened. More ominously, trade in live food fish began to surge, driven
by increasing demand from increasingly wealthy Chinese consumers, particularly
in Hong Kong. Indeed, the live food fish trade has grown faster and become
more lucrative than the aquarium fish trade in recent years, triggering
a wild rush of fishers - and the spread of cyanide fishing -- to still
At first the locally available red grouper (Epinephelus akaara)
was the species of choice, but stocks of this species had become severely
depleted by the early 1970s. Soon, Hong Kong fishers were venturing further
afield to reefs in the South China Sea, bringing home new species that
grew in popularity. These included the napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus),
spotted coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus) and various other
grouper species, as well as rock lobsters. As demand for live fish soared,
fishers scoured more distant reefs, and these areas were soon over-exploited
Today, Indonesia, which together with the Philippines supplies some 85%
of the aquarium fish traded in the world market, is the primary source
where cyanide use is suspected, but cyanide fishing has also been reported
in Cambodia, the Maldives, Sabah, Thailand, Vietnam, and possibly the
Red Sea (Eritrea) and Tanzania.
The number of cyanide fishers operating in Southeast Asia and neighboring
countries is unknown. Based on Philippine estimates of about 4,000, the
number of hard-core cyanide fishers throughout the Indo-Pacific region
probably does not exceed 20,000. In short, cyanide fishing is not an ubiquitous
problem like slash-and-burn farming. Nor is poverty the root cause of
cyanide fishing, although many cyanide fishers are certainly very poor.
Cyanide links fishers to a variety of intermediaries, vessel and holding-tank
facility owners, fish exporters and importers, not to mention civilian,
police and military officials who look the other way for a cut of the
profits. There are now about 45 companies exporting aquarium fish from
the Philippines and eight firms exporting live food fish. At least 10
companies run holding tanks for live food fish in Bali, Indonesia, a major
transshipment point. Conservative estimates of the annual Asian trade
in live food fish alone range between 20,000 metric tons and 25,000 metric
tons, but the real total may be far greater. The Philippines exported
as many as six million pieces of aquarium fish in 1996, and Indonesia
is catching up quickly.
To its credit, the Philippine government has taken steps to eradicate
the use of cyanide in fishing. Since the early 1990s, the Department of
Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR) and IMA
have teamed up to develop and implement a Destructive Fishing Reform Program
(DFRP). This program has reduced cyanide fishing through a combination
of the right policies and laws, improved enforcement efforts, enhanced
public awareness, cyanide testing of live fish exports, training of cyanide
fishers in cyanide-free fish capture techniques, development of livelihood
alternatives and community-based resource management that transforms local
fishers into marine stewards and protectors.
But even while it is illegal in the Philippines to trade in fish caught
using cyanide, businesses that import live food and aquarium fish from
the country, because they are generally not subject to any pressure from
authorities to ensure that the fish they buy are cyanide-free, have little
incentive to take action on the issue.
We do not participate in fishery production, argued one large importer
of live food fish. We just finance the fishers and equip them with boats
and fishing gear, and we buy fish from them. What they do to catch the
fish is entirely up to them.
Regrettably, consumers, the one sector outside government who can most
effectively influence the industry, seem to care little about how the
fish they eat are captured. In the major markets for live food fish, most
consumers say they prefer wild-caught live fish over farm-raised fish,
even if blind "taste tests" conducted by the US-based Nature
Conservancy a few years ago have proven otherwise. And, in Hong Kong,
according to one observer, the fact that a fish species is endangered
actually seems to spur consumer demand for that species.
So what can be done?
Other sectors having an interest in maintaining healthy reefs and fish
populations should be engaged in combating cyanide fishing. Divers and
dive operators, for example, are often vocal in their support for marine
conservation. They can provide political and financial support to efforts
by government and other concerned groups to help fishing communities give
up cyanide fishing and adopt techniques, technologies and economic strategies
that would improve their livelihood while protecting their rich marine
Governments must set in place effective policies to eradicate cyanide
fishing and encourage sustainable live-reef fisheries. This means establishing
effective institutions to monitor the live reef fish trade, enforcing
laws and providing economic incentives for fishers, traders and consumers
to shift to ecologically sustainable, cyanide-free reef fisheries.
One thing must be stressed here: no policy, law or technology that does
not include fishers in the equation can adequately address the issue of
cyanide fishing. Training, community organization, income enhancement
and the establishment of community-based coastal management systems in
communities currently using cyanide or are vulnerable to its introduction
are the key strategies for fighting cyanide fishing. Partnership with
the stakeholder community is the core partnership that could put a stop
to the spreading cyanide menace.
Reforms Needed to Combat Cyanide Fishing
Experience with the Philippines DFRP suggests the following priority
areas for policy reforms to combat cyanide fishing in the many countries
in the Indo-Pacific region where it is a growing threat.
reforms in live reef fish source countries
1. Establish cyanide detection test (CDT) laboratory
facilities at all major live-fish collection and transshipment points.
A simple test to determine the presence of cyanide in live fish
has been developed by IMA and BFAR and has been in use for more
than five years in the Philippines. CDT laboratories in the country
tests some 6,000 samples every year. An effective CDT testing network
is a key factor in the effort to reduce cyanide fishing. Testing
is not a panacea, but it is the best technical tool presently available
to identify cyanide-tainted fish and provide hard evidence with
which to prosecute cyanide fishers.
2. Establish a national system of data gathering and monitoring
that provides useful data for regulating the live fish trade.
In order to monitor and regulate the live fish trade, governments
need accurate and appropriate data on how many individuals of a
particular species were collected in a particular location and exported
in a given month or year, or who did the collecting and exporting.
The Philippines now collects live fish data in ways that allow the
government to keep watch over the total number of particular fish
species moving through domestic and international airports and major
international seaports, the activities of exporters, and other relevant
information. IMA collects the data through its CDT and monitoring
network and passes these on to all relevant national and provincial
3. Establish a firmer legal framework to detect and prosecute
cyanide fishing and trade in cyanide-caught fish, and ultimately
require mandatory testing and certification of all live reef fish
exports. While fishing with cyanide and other poisons is
banned in virtually every country in Southeast Asia and the Pacific,
a much firmer legal framework is needed to make these bans effective.
Once a CDT laboratory and monitoring network is established, all
prospective exporters should be required to submit to random sampling
and testing, inspection and government licensing. A mandatory certification
system is now in place in the Philippines, providing key positive
as well as negative incentives for exporters. Uncertifiable fish
become liabilities, while certified fish can command an "environmental
market premium" in markets where importing governments regulate
imports and consumers prefer fish caught without cyanide.
4. Ban or restrict the export of especially vulnerable species
such as the napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus). Pressures
on particular species may become so great that governments may want
to impose a total ban on their capture and export. For example,
over-exploitation of the napoleon wrasse, the most greatly valued
of the live food fish species, may soon reach critical levels, thus
warranting a complete ban. A ban is unlikely to stop the napoleon
wrasse trade altogether but it may reduce the total volume of catch.
5. Regulate the import, distribution and use of cyanide.
While the use of cyanide in fishing is illegal, the chemical has
many legitimate uses in industry, so its import, distribution and
use are virtually unregulated in many countries in the Indo-Pacific
region. A draft "Sodium Cyanide Act" that would strictly
regulate the import and use of cyanide was introduced in Congress
in the Philippines in late 1996. The bill, if passed, will require
all cyanide imports to be authorized in advance by the government.
Undoubtedly, this type of law is difficult to enforce, but it should
increase the price of cyanide and thus make the use of cyanide less
economically attractive to fishers.
6. Address corruption within vulnerable government units such
as fisheries, the navy, customs and police forces. Corrupt
officials must be dealt with as prescribed by law. The media can
help in this by making public instances of corruption related to
cyanide fishing. Also, an effective CDT laboratory and monitoring
network, backed up by community-based monitoring, can provide government
with a great deal of information about potential corruption problems.
7. Mount public awareness campaigns in the media and schools.
NGO and government leaders should work systematically to build public
awareness about the threat of cyanide fishing and the steps that
must be taken to stop it. Cyanide fishing is a learned behavior
that becomes a tradition over time. Taught the cyanide-free tradition
early in school, children will learn about ocean-friendly alternatives
to cyanide and their positive consequences.
reforms in countries importing live reef fish
1. Monitor imports of live fish and provide data to exporting
countries. Importing country governments should establish
data collection and storage systems to keep track of the number
by species of live fish imported and the country of origin. They
should then share those data with relevant government agencies in
source countries. This will allow countries such as the Philippines
which are already collecting detailed export data to compare import
statistics with their own export data and determine the validity
of the information.
2. Phase in a legal requirement that all live reef fish imports
be certified as cyanide-free. When live fish exporting countries
require cyanide-free certification for all exports, importing countries
should reciprocate by requiring all live fish importers to provide
certification from the source-country governments that the fish
they are importing have been certified as cyanide-free. Additionally,
importing countries should gradually phase in a prohibition on non-certified
live fish imports and, at the same time, work with exporting countries
to develop testing and certification procedures, laws and technical
capacities. It is important to note that the testing of live fish
imports on their arrival in importing countries is not an effective
strategy and is likely to be counter-productive. Cyanide metabolizes
out of fish relatively rapidly, and tests conducted at import destinations
are likely to be negative for cyanide regardless of whether the
fish was caught with cyanide or not.
3. Provide donor assistance to live fish exporting countries
to help them combat cyanide fishing. Live fish importing
countries that are providers of development assistance, such as
the United States, Canada, Japan, and European Union countries,
should offer financial and technical assistance to exporting countries
for the development of Destructive Fishing Reform Programs and certification
4. Strengthen consumer awareness about the impacts of cyanide
Community-based Strategies for
Combating Cyanide Fishing
1. Train fishers in cyanide-free fishing technologies.
When fishers are presented with effective cyanide-free technologies
for capturing live food and aquarium fish and made more aware about
the legal, health and ecological risks associated with cyanide fishing,
many choose to convert to cyanide-free techniques. In the Philippines,
IMA has trained more than 2,000 fishers in cyanide-free live fish
2. Enhance local income from live fish trade and other sources.
When fishers can get more money for cyanide-free live fish, they
are extremely enthusiastic about converting to cyanide-free techniques.
Few fishing communities subsist wholly on the live fish trade. They
pursue a "portfolio" of economic strategies combining
live fish, fresh and dried fish, agriculture, wage labor and other
activities. To be effective, livelihood enhancement strategies should
target all of these activities and introduce new ones that can generate
more income-earning opportunities for the fishers.
3. Strengthen community-based management of local fisheries
and reefs. Partnerships with fishing communities must go
beyond training and income enhancement. Sustainable coastal management
requires the participation and support of the local communities
that directly earn their living from the sea. Cyanide fishing, blast
fishing, coral mining, mangrove destruction and many other sources
of coastal degradation can only be slowed if communities on the
front line become central players in protection efforts and beneficiaries
of sustainable management.
4. Build the capacity of local communities to serve as front-line
agents in anti-cyanide monitoring and enforcement. A destructive
fishing reform program needs to enlist local communities as partners
in specific tasks of monitoring and enforcement. With minimal training,
local fishers can serve as members of an "early warning network"
tasked to alert officials when cyanide fishing operators appear
in an area. Local community groups cannot be expected to directly
confront well-organized - and often well-armed - cyanide fishing
vessels, but they can perform important norm-setting and self-policing
activities within the community.
fishing can be beaten
Four unique characteristics of cyanide fishing provide hope that
the spread of this deadly chain of poison can be broken or at least
significantly reduced faster than some of the other threats to coral
1. Cyanide fishing is generally focused on isolated reefs far from
the effects of coastal habitat conversion and sedimentation. It
thus makes for a relatively localized and discrete target for control
2. Cyanide fishing is a fairly new technique and is thus not yet
deeply embedded in local cultures and economies.
3. Cyanide fishing targets a very specific and "high-end"
market, with some food species selling for as much as $180 per kg
and some aquarium species fetching $350 per individual. Consumers
and their suppliers are therefore a fairly limited group and can
easily be identified.
4. The actions needed to address the cyanide fishing problem are
clear and not too complicated. Governments need only to put the
right incentives in place and develop partnerships among fishing
communities, exporters and importers of live fish, scientists, and