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Troubled Waters
John Tidwell, Staff Writer

Twilight. A skinny, shirtless boy squatting in a rickety skiff called a banca gently screws a blasting cap to the top of a liter bottle filled with ammonium nitrate. Near the boat a young diver bobbing in the sea points to something 30 feet away shimmering beneath the waves: fish! The first boy rears back and lobs the plastic bottle. An enormous explosion sends a column of water skyward, drenching the boys in their wildly rocking banca. Minutes later they are diving into the still-bubbling water, gathering stunned groupers, wrasses and other reef fish off the sea floor. Most days small fishing boats like this can bring home over four hundred pounds of fish in a single trip. But everyone is beginning to notice how small the fish are these days.

It’s a scene repeated daily throughout a cluster of islands in the western Philippines called the Calamianes, some 200 miles southwest of Manila. Comprised of three major islands and a constellation of tiny ones, the Calamianes were once legendary for their abundance of fish and shrimp. Scientists have identified the Philippines as one of the hottest of the Earth’s marine biodiversity hotspots, home to thousands of different ocean species. But as the fishing industry in Southeast Asia has grown in scope and efficiency, fish populations around the region are plummeting. As catch sizes dwindle, local fishermen are resorting to more drastic – and effective – ways of getting fish.

Often they turn to weapons of war: homemade fertilizer bombs that can stun every living creature in an entire reef area in minutes, or a cocktail of cyanide pellets and seawater that, once squirted into coral crannies from a squeeze-bottle, renders the most stubborn fish senseless. Small colorful fish are collected for the aquarium trade, while meatier species like leopard groupers (Plectropomus leopardus) or Napoleon humphead wrasses (Cheilinus undulatus) are flown alive to restaurants as far away as Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Violent fishing methods may maintain profits – for the moment – but scientists report they are turning the once bountiful reef ecosystems of the Calamianes, as well as other areas in Southeast Asia, into lifeless rubble. Without a complete ecosystem to sustain it, the fishery will likely vanish. Dynamite and cyanide fishing is prohibited in the Philippines, as well as in most other Southeast Asian countries, but that doesn’t stop the practice. According to CI’s Enforcement Economics Assessment report (EEA) which studied the quality of law enforcement in four countries since 2000, illegal fishing is going strong. One reason is that fishing is traditional for island villagers and they have few alternative ways to make a living. Another is that here in the Calamians and throughout the Philippines in it’s extremely difficult to detect, catch, or convict those who use these methods.

“There is this enormous demand for live fish and you have more than a hundred islands in the Calamianes giving open access to this huge marine area,” says Christopher Holtz, a Director in CI’s Indonesia and Philippines Program. “I don’t think anyone has a handle on how to actually enforce fishing regulations in these islands.”

CI-sponsored research, conducted by a local partner, the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), shows that between 1999 and 2002, only 40 arrests were made out of 223,000 reports of illegal fishing in the Calamianes. The Philippine Coast Guard is under funded, understaffed, and woefully under-equipped to enforce fishing laws, which makes it difficult to respond to reports of illegal fishing. Some rangers do not even have access to a boat to use for enforcement. Even if someone gets arrested, police have 48 hours to either find a judge – not easy in such a remote place – or free the offender. Should a judge be found, cases take months to reach the courts and prosecution often is thwarted by corruption within the law enforcement system.

In October 2003, a Fisheries Summit sponsored by CI, together with the Environmental Legal Assistance Center and Kilusan Sagip Kalikasan, was held on Coron Island, bringing local communities, environmental groups, and local government officials together to search for solutions. The meeting resulted in a commitment by municipal governments to enhance fishery management cooperation and coordination by developing and adopting an integrated municipal fishery ordinance.

This was a central recommendation of the EEA analysis of the Calamianes. One thing is obvious, a clear commitment from political leaders to deter and prosecute illegal fishing is needed. Local communities on the islands need to be solidly involved in arrests, convictions and penalties, and all the islands need to work together to stop illegal fishing – while there are still fish to save.


© Roger Steene
Underwater view of the Calamian Islands and surrounding coral reef.

© Roger Steene
The Philippines is home to thousands of different ocean species.

© Berkley White
Dynamite fishing is also a problem for Indonesian marine ecosystems. This is what is left of coral after a dynamite blast.

© Jennifer Jeffers
Various grouper species in a holding tank in Palawan, Philippines. These live fish will be shipped to Manila and then to restaurants in mainland Asia.

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