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Live tropical reef fish each in their own plastic container await export.
Photo: Genevieve Johnson

June 6, 2001
"The Tragedy of the Live Fish Trade: Part I"
  Real Audio

This is Roger Payne talking to you from the Odyssey in Papua New Guinea. One of the most destructive fishing practices ever developed is the use of explosives to stun fish-the trouble is that the impact of the explosion kills everything else in the vicinity of the target fish. On tropical reefs this means the coral, the starfish, the clams, the snails the nudibranchs-even the worms. But as destructive as it is, it is nothing alongside another fishing technique now far more widespread and which is devastating the world's reefs. This is cyanide fishing, in which a diver squirts cyanide into reef crevices, thus temporarily stunning whatever fish are present. The fish float to the surface and are easily scooped up in a net. Placed in small, plastic, holding containers, a small percentage of them eventually recover. However, so lucrative is this trade that a small percentage is enough to pay handsomely.

Live reef fish are harvested for two reasons:

    1.) As food to be served in high-priced European, American and Asian restaurants, and
    2.) To make it possible for aquarium owners in those same prosperous lands to impress their guests and clients with their pretty but artificial displays of tropical reef fish. Such displays are causing the utter destruction of coral reef environments half a world away

The destruction comes about because cyanide interacts with the most fundamental processes of metabolism, and kills all living things-plants as well as animals. Which means that everything that had the misfortune to be present when the cyanide was being applied also dies. This includes, most particularly, the corals; they are very sensitive to cyanide. They first exude mucous, apparently in an effort to purge themselves of the poison, but they die shortly thereafter. Coral heads are slow growing and big ones may be hundreds of years old. So even if we were able to stop cyanide fishing at once, it would not be until the year 2300 that our descendants would start to see coral heads the size of those that are being killed off by the hundreds of millions now.

The thing that is so devastating about cyanide fishing is what a vast area of reef a single person can destroy in a short time. Back in 1978 I had a curious brush with this kind of fishing, only it was Clorox fishing not cyanide fishing. I was working in Hawaii. One of the people assisting our project was a diver who had had various jobs around Hawaii. He had once even worked for a Navy program training dolphins to kill enemy frogmen… well, anyway, hopefully it would be enemy frogmen that got killed, though if the dolphin got confused maybe it would end up being a friendly frogmen, or even, perhaps, someone who worked for nobody's Navy-but all that's beside the point. When I met this fellow he no longer worked for the Navy, he had left, simply because he'd found a job that paid better.

Sometime after that he found a new source of income-fishing for reef fish that were a popular delicacy with Japanese people living in, and visiting Hawaii. He said he could have sold "any amount". The technique he used involved diving down onto the reef with a squeeze bottle filled with chlorine bleach, and when he saw a small school of the desired fish shooing them into some cavity in the coral and squirting a bit of chlorine bleach in after them. He'd wait a few minutes, then pick up the dazed and dying fish as they appeared at the entrance. He realized he was probably killing the reef because he had seen cavities in which he could remember having caught fish, but he had found that were now dead coral skeletons with no fish in them. He told me he had to keep moving around Hawaii in order to encounter healthy populations of fish "because they need undisturbed coral to live in." When I met him he had been doing this kind of fishing full time for several years and had just about completed a full circle of the big island. As incredible as it may seem this one man along with a handful of his fellow Clorox fishermen who sold fish to the same market, had apparently, unabetted, wiped out large sections of the entire reef around the big island of Hawaii (about 300 miles of reef). He has since left Hawaii. He found a job that paid better in Florida. "No problems."

In the Philippines there are an estimated 3,000 cyanide fishermen. Each one kills about 50 coral heads each day, and works about 225 days a year, the total coral heads thus killed in a year is about 34 million. But that's for just one year, and the technique was introduced in the 1950s. The total number of coral heads killed since then is closer to a billion (and that's just the Philippines). The pressure of the live, reef-fish trade has resulted in such shocking destruction of Philippine coral reefs, that even though that country has dominated the live fish trade until recently, its reefs are now so degraded they can no longer supply the demand. So the lead has passed to Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and parts of Micronesia, where, in every case, live fish capture is based on cyanide fishing-meaning that soon their reefs too will have been killed by this incredibly wasteful practice. Perhaps a clearer way to look at this scenario is that the area with the most fabled biodiversity in the oceans, the reefs of the Philippines, proved capable of supplying the world aquarium trade for only a few decades. Now that cyanide fishing has destroyed those reefs, the trade (still growing by leaps and bounds) is moving into other pristine reef areas throughout the world and destroying them in exactly the same way.

I will have more to say about this next time, but for now, so ends this day.

(c) 2001 Roger Payne

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