Blast fishing, a rather peculiar method of fishing that entails the use of explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection, is bothering environmentalists, who say that the act portends grave danger to the surrounding ecosystem.
Apart from destroying the underlying habitat that supports the fish, the explosion from fish bombing or dynamite fishing – as the act is also referred to – has been described as an escalating threat to coral reefs, and to the people who depend on them for their livelihoods.
“It destroys fish habitats among reefs already threatened by overfishing and climate change. Blast fishing is an extremely short-sighted fishing method because it destroys the coral reef on which fisherfolk depend,” said Jerker Tamelander, head of the Coral Reef Unit at UN Environment.
“It is also extremely dangerous to the fisherfolk themselves because bombs can explode prematurely,” he said.
Not only do the bombs kill all marine life around them, repeated bombings shatter the dead sub-structure of the coral and create dead zones that destroy biodiversity and ecosystems by removing the main life support system for many species, according to the UN body.
It adds that the practice is illegal worldwide, but it persists due to the challenges of detecting, responding and catching the perpetrators.
In Sabah, a Malaysian state in the northern part of the island of Borneo, action is said to be urgently needed there.
“Blast fishing in the past years has badly affected the marine ecosystems,” said Terence Lim of Sabah and a founding member of “Stop Fish Bombing!”, a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation “If this is left unchecked we will not only lose the ability to produce wild fish stock but it will dramatically effect the tourism industry which now generates the second highest revenue for Sabah.”
George Woodman, also a founding member of Stop Fish Bombing!, recalls that his first experience of fish bombing in Sabah was in 1994 during an underwater survey of the area’s renowned coral reefs.
“It’s not so much something you hear, but something you feel. At a range of a few kilometres, a fish bomb going off feels like you’ve been kicked in the chest by a horse,” he said.
Over the course of the four-month survey carried out by divers, his team experienced was seemed like an extremely destructive fishing practice a few times a week.
Stop Fish Bombing! has collaborated with Californian tech company ShotSpotter to adapt their gunshot location technology to detect fish bombs underwater.
“Fortunately, we now have the technology to detect and locate fish bombs as they happen and publish this information on tablets and phones for access by everyone,” said Woodman.
The use of this acoustic sensing and location technology, combined with existing and emerging surveillance and monitoring systems, offers the possibility of building an effective global detection system and thus an opportunity to suppress or even eradicate fish bombing within a short time.
This project was registered as a voluntary commitment by the State Government of Sabah as part of a Community of Ocean Action (CoA) formed following the United Nations Oceans Conference in 2017.
“I’m delighted to be involved as part of a team of dedicated scientists, engineers, media professionals, conservationists, politicians and others who have put their efforts into developing solutions,” said Woodman.
Unfortunately, techniques for restoring reefs are still in their infancy, and are not cost-effective alternatives, so prevention is the only reasonable option.
“Fish bombing is the poster child of destructive fishing. Everyone understands that it’s illegal and that it needs to stop: this is the first step on the way to stopping it,” he adds.