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The Online Magazine for Sustainable Seas
April, 1999 Vol. 2 No. 4

Cleansing Our Seas
of a Poison Tide

Cyanide fishing, a chain of poison that has devastated reefs in the Indo-Pacific region, continues to spread, but it can be stopped.

Policy Reforms Needed to Combat Cyanide Fishing
Community-based Strategies for Combating Cyanide Fishing
Cyanide fishing can be beaten






Condensed 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.

n 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 their country.

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.

A spreading menace
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 Philippines.

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 unexplored reefs.

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 as well.

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.

Chain of poison
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.

Combating cyanide fishing
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 environment.

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.

Sidebar 1

Policy 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.

A. Policy 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 government offices.

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.

B. Policy 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 procedures.

4. Strengthen consumer awareness about the impacts of cyanide fishing.

Sidebar 2

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 capture techniques.

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.

Sidebar 2

Cyanide 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 reefs:

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 efforts.

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 NGOs.



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