CYANIDE, DYNAMITE & LIVE FISH in SE ASIA
Dr Steve Oakley
soakley at tualang.unimas.my
Mon Dec 9 06:17:44 EST 1996
I have just caught up with the thread on Cyanide and Dynamite and
the live fish trade. I have just returned from a South East Asia regional
workshop on just that. Some of the observations and information are
relevant to anyone who cares about the state of our coral reefs. Please let
me share my thoughts and observations and since this is wide ranging please
reply to the whole list (coral-list or Fish ecology) unless your comment is
directed only to me personally.
The workshop on aquaculture of coral fishes and sustainable reef fisheries
was held in Kota Kinabalu and ended on Saturday 7th Dec. Representatives
were there from fisheries, aquaculture, conservation and the live fish
trade. The organisers and sponsors did a great job and for that I thank them.
Some of the important points that came out of talks, discussion and workshop
sessions were as follows, these are my impression only and I do not want
to represent anyone else. I hope that there is someone out there who thinks
this is wrong, more positive news would be nice.
1 Overfishing is the problem
There is severe overfishing for groupers and humphead wrasse from the
maldives to west pacific islands, from hongkong down to the Australian
border. There are few reefs in the Philipines and Indonesia that have
viable populations of Humphead wrasse (Mauri Wrasse, Napoleon wrasse),
while grouper can only be caught in very deep water. In many areas both are
locally extinct, on the accessible reefs from local overfishing and on
remote reefs from the livefish trade. Spawning populations of groupers and
wrasse are at great risk, they can be wiped out very quickly. They are
being wiped out in Micronesia and even in Australia they are under threat.
The reefs are under heavy pressure from hook and line and catches have
declined. If the conventional fishing is difficult, for instant
gratification many fishers use Dynamite (actually fertiliser with an
explosive cap plus a fuse). They generally know how destructive this is but
it also gives them good catches... for a while!
The live fish trade for food fish uses cyanide as a stunning agent and the
fishers use it only when there is a mechanism to get the fish to market.
There is also some use of cyanide for food fish to supply the local market.
However the fishers know how poisonous this is so for food they generally
stick to the less destructive dynamite. Cyanide for live fish is usually
used in squeezy bottle quantities but it definitely kills the surrounding
corals, there are many reefs which have not been dyanamited so are
structurally intact but are completely dead.
Cyanide is also occasionally used for food fish (not Live) in 45gallon oil
drum quantities, and spread across the whole reef.
There is a social aspect to cyanide use as well as the fisheries aspect,
there are many decompression accidents and crippled divers, 60m plus on air
by poor young untrained philipinos often using compressors lubricated with
engine oil not silicone. Silicone oil is expensive!! Plus the risk of
cyanide poisoning from the daily handling!!
2 Aquaculture is a solution but not yet
some species of grouper can be cultured in good numbers but not the most
popular, estimates range from 3-10 years to close the cycle. There has been
lots of work but survival rates below 8% and disease and other problems occur.
Wild fry are caught in large numbers to supply fish farms and this is a
problem but without the aquaculture there will be even greater pressure on
the wild. And at least aquaculture doesn't use cyanide!
There is hope in the form of new capture techniques to catch the fry at
younger ages at which point their natural mortaility is so high that removal
from the population to aquaculture would be much less significant.
The humphead wrasse Cheilinus undulatus is the most prefered species
There is serious ovefishing, it is most popular fish for live fish trade in
Singapore & Hongkong, lips sell for $60 per plate, fish sells for $60-90
per kg tastes superb so I've been told
The species is now apparently included in the iucn red data book as
vulnerable and apparently is being considered for cites, (can anyone
They spawn in aggregations at fixed locations so are very vulnerable then.
They are big fish, with a sex change from female to male, sexually mature
to female at 11kg doesn't get to male before 20kg (approx =75cm).
None in the phillipines are sexually mature very few reefs in indonesia have
mature females & few males, overfished in micronesia, maldives, thailand
and sri Lanka.
Regulations exist in most places but enforcement is very difficult. Malaysia
has banned both cyanide and dynamite but cannot enforce it unless the police
find the caps in the boat. Indonesia has banned the capture and export of
Chelinius but cannot enforce it. Philippines has set up cyanide detection
labs and that seems to be working to some extent. They are a solution for
any airflown or port exported fish, There apparently is some good progress
towards a better test for cyanide.
Aquaculture of Chelinius is not yet possible, the first report of spawning
in captivity was this year at the fisheries dept in Indonesia. They had a
0.01% survival by day 15, the eggs and larvae are very small and therefore
difficult to rear in hatchery conditions. There is a strong incentive for
the hatchery which develops the techniques so there is a lot of interest.
Aquaculture for less valuable species was well established and hopefully can
be introduced at the community level as a source of food and a cash crop to
take some of the pressure from the coral reef ecosystems.
3 Banning the trade is not the solution
The more expensive the fish the greater the showoff value and thus
banned fish would just make more money for the middle man because they would
just be smuggled. It is not possible to control the export and regulating
of the import is impossible in HongKong until there is a test for cyanide
caught fish. Once there is such a test, some of the the fish will be
smuggled and the HK fisheries dept will loose it's information on the scale
of the problem. 40% of the fish only pass through Hong Kong on the way to
Mainland China, and we cannot realistically expect the rich cantonese to
stop eating their favorite foods.
I don't think I heard any comment that we should ban the live fish
trade, the fishers need it to make a living. And if their reefs are given
a chance to recover then they can catch the prefered fish on hand lines at
which point the fishery becomes sustainable. The fishers need to catch less
because they get paid more. The Australian GBR example is evidence for
sustainability. The trade is very valuable but is strictly controlled and
all capture is done on hook and line.
4 Aquarium fish
Banning Aquarium fish is not the solution, becaude it is not the problem.
On a devastated, dynamited cyanide killed reef aquarium fish can still be
caught, admittedly only the plankton or algal feeders. The fishermen need to
eat and if they cannot sell the butterfly's & angels then they will cook
them! Further, most aquarium fish are caught without cyanide. Cyanide
caught fish die 4-6 weeks after capture and the aquarium industry and many
concerned aid agencies have worked hard to educate collectors. Some
villages which catch aquarium fish are active conservationists, It's their
livelyhood. This trade can be made sustainable it only requires education
so don't anyone suggest that it is wrong until they can suggest an
alternative form of income.
5 Marine reserves
Marine reserves are part of the solution, they can provide larvae and adults
to heavil;y fished areas and there need to be many more than there are.
Big & small are both needed but unfortunately policing and enforcement are
not easy and the only method that really seeems to work is when the villages
that use the resource are also the reserve protectors. They need the
ownership of the fishing rights and with it the responsibility of
conservation, the tragedy of the commons has demonstrated that only too well.
6 Outside Help
Outsiders supporting reefs, education, enforcement are all part of the
solution but the biggest problem is poverty combined with no ownership of
the resource. How does a remote village stop a life fish transport vessel
from using cyanide on it's reefs. Especially when the LFT pays more than
the villagers have seen. That's more pairs of shoes, more T shirts, a
second hand engine. These are hard to resist and once some of the village
have accepted then it doesn't matter what the rest do, the LFT will catch
all the fish it wants and then move on leaving behind a dying reef.
So what is the solution:
S1 Yes to more international awareness, more eduction and more support
from those who have to those who don't.
S2 We also need to find alternative income for these marginalised
fishers so that their reefs can recover, here I think we need to promote
aquaculture at the community level.
S3 The other pressing need is for governments to release enforcement of
fishing laws to the resource users.
S4 And we need to urgently protect and preserve as much of the regions
reefs as possible especially where the regulations can be enforced.
S5 and of course we need research because what is known is only the tip
of the iceberg.
As I said the observations are mine, the organisers hope to have the
proceedings out early next year.
More details on the live fish trade is available from Carol Fox, Nature
Conservancy, 1116 Smith St Honolulu, HI 96817
Contact Rooney Buising for details of the proceedings at
biusing at ppps.po.my
Rooney Biusing Fisheries Research Center, 89400 Likas, Kota Kinabalu,
Tel : 088-717077 (h),425677 (o) 425890 (fax
Dr. Steve Oakley, Shell Prof. of environmental Science, Institute of
Biodiversity & Environmental Conservation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak,
94300 Kota Samarahan, Sarawak, Malaysia soakley at tualang.unimas.my Fax 082
671903 Tel 082 671000 x 254 or 260
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