Fish bombing is a form of destructive fishing that is illegal in Malaysia. It involves the use of explosives that are normally homemade using simple artificial chemicals derived from fertilisers, packed into bottles. To activate it, the fuse is lit and the bottle dumped into the water. When the charge explodes, it causes shock waves which kill or stun fish. The fish then float to the surface or sink to the bottom. This enables the blast fishers to easily collect them.
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Whenever explosives are used, no matter in what context, there will be collateral damage. Such destructive practices are very damaging to the ecosystem as the explosions normally destroy the surrounding habitat i.e. coral reefs and other marine life.
Studies have shown that sites blasted ten years ago still show little or no signs of recovery. Fragmentation of the substrate does not provide a stable enough environment for recovery. Even if new coral recruits do start to grow, water movement will cause abrasion of newly growing corals, quickly killing them. Examples of reefs that have completely disappeared because of blast fishing are endless. Once teeming with life (such as lobsters, giant clams, shrimp and sea turtles) such reefs are now a desert.
Yes, fish bombing also has severe human impacts. Blast fishers expose themselves to severe risks of injury and even death by engaging in such behaviour, especially since they are using homemade explosives. Just walk into fishing villages where blast fishers are known to reside. Every villager would be able to relate a story to you of a person who has been injured - or even died because of premature exploding bombs.
Even those who do not practice fish bombing are affected. There are hundreds of thousands of artisanal, or small scale, fisherman who have had their traditional fishing grounds eventually become barren due to continued blast fishing activity. Some divers have reportedly gone temporarily deaf due to the underwater blast, and there is one case of a diver who went permanently deaf in one year because a fish bomb went off underwater near him.
Economically, blast fishing only has a temporary yield. For example, in Southwest Sulawesi, Indonesia, the net annual income per fish dropped from US$6,450 to less than US$550 after repetitive use of destructive fishing methods. Closer to home in Sabah, fisheries production has dropped by over 70% over the last 20 years while the net income from each hectare of reef has fallen by 80%.
Some fishermen have turned to blast fishing as they get a lower yield in fish when they use traditional methods. They resort to it to ensure that they can continue putting food on the table for their families. However, for the majority of blast fishermen, it is simply easier and they can make more money using such methods. It all boils down to greed.
Blast fishing is illegal. However, enforcement is difficult. Often, there is too little money or desire to enforce these environmental laws. Malaysians should be more than familiar with the reasons for such lax enforcement. However, there are still ways in which we can address these issues.
Examples of success stories can be used as case studies to be implemented here. In Indonesia, laws are most often enforced where external organisations help rangers and police do their jobs. In Cebu, Philippines, there have been collaborations between officials and village communities to provide information and help to patrol the surrounding waters.
It has been proven time and time again that firmer enforcement is an effective strategy in managing blast fishing. It is understandable that all these require resources. The government and the states cannot idly sit by and watch their reefs disappear. More oversight is necessary. Additional patrols can always be supported through fees charged to divers and tourists for example. Effective management of Marine Protected Areas is instrumental for its success. Excuses are aplenty when it comes to tackling these issues. Many people think that blast fishing is ingrained in tradition and therefore difficult to eradicate. But it only takes one generation to stop a practice that is rooted in tradition. Action has to be taken now, otherwise, it may just be too late.
Reef Check Malaysia has established a data collection system with the hope of being able to spot fish bombing trends. It was designed to be simple enough to report with a simple form. With this data, we will be able to pin point the "hot" areas where blast fishermen conduct their activities and also even when they are most likely to do so.
Alternatively, you can send us a text at +6011 2532 7368. The success of the system will rest on cooperation i.e. YOU! (if you're going diving anywhere in Malaysia, of course). We need all the information we can gather, and we really mean ALL. So please try to remember Reef Check Malaysia the next time you hear a "Click...BOOM!” If we do not put an end to this, the next one might just be right above our heads.