Turmoil in the Sea: Blast Fishing Destroys Coral Reefs

Contact Andrea Lu at [email protected]

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All you need is some fertilizer, kerosene, and an empty booze bottle-that's enough to kill one of the world's most fragile and endangered ecosystems.

Such is the threat that coral reefs face today, especially in Southeast Asia. Blast fishing, a common practice used by fishermen, has increased in popularity and consequently has left behind a trail of unsalvageable rubble from destroyed reefs.

Integrative biology professor Roy Caldwell, along with co-authors of the study titled "Experimental Assessment of Coral Reef Rehabilitation Following Blast Fishing," have discovered an economical and effective way to rehabilitate reefs damaged by such destructive fishing practices.

The use of blast fishing, once referred to as dynamite flashing, has intensified as fish became more difficult to catch and as demand for reef fish began to rise.

"In an area like Indonesia, the vast majority of their protein supply comes from the sea and much of that comes from fisheries based around coral reefs. This is exactly why blast fishing became such a problem. Initially you just had subsistence fishing. People were just out there trying to catch dinner," Caldwell said.

As populations grew and markets developed for reef fishes however, people turned to more effective methods, including coating reefs with cyanide to stun fish or bombing the reefs.

"After a reef has been cyanided a few times, there's nothing else to get. All the big fish are gone. There are still small fish down inside the reef, but there's no way to get to them-except to take a bottle of ammonium nitrate and kerosene and blow up the reef," Caldwell said.

The coral pulverized from blast fishing explosions creates an inhabitable environment for coral larvae. Rubble continually moves around, and therefore when coral try to settle, they are quickly smashed and killed by the debris.

The results of the project offer a significant step toward rehabilitating marred reefs.

Currently, several techniques exist to rebuild the marine ecosystems, including transplanting live coral to damaged locations or using electric currents to create more calcium carbonate deposition, a substance that allows coral to grow.

However, these methods can be costly and thus are usually employed by the tourist industry for hotels and resorts.

"The problem is that many of the rehabilitation techniques are expensive and labor intensive. In a country with not too many financial resources this isn't just going to happen on a broad scale," Caldwell said. "So Helen and I and the other authors of the paper were trying to think of other ways that this can be done economically."

Helen Fox, the lead author of the study, was a graduate student of Caldwell and is presently working at the World Wildlife Fund as a senior conservation biologist.

The team of scientists conducted their research at Komodo National Park in Indonesia. The park's marine conservation program had reduced destructive fishing practices in the park and offered an ideal environment for the project.

The team first started by experimenting in square meter area at the park. They tested three methods: cargo netting, concrete slabs and rock piles. The cargo nets, which were installed to prevent rubble from rolling around, soon fell apart and drifted away with the currents. Of the remaining techniques, Caldwell and the scientists discovered that rock piles were most effective.

The rock piles consisted of basketball-sized rocks mined from a quarry on land which were arranged into piles or rows by divers.

The size of the test area proved to be too small and after a couple of years the rock piles began to fall apart and sediment accumulated. However, the trial did suggest to the scientists that they were on the right track, and they decided to expand the test area and create larger rock piles.

The success of the demonstration landed the team a grant from a natural conservancy to conduct their research on a larger scale on massive plots. Caldwell said the project exhibited active coral recruiting and growing, and resulted in a high percent recovery.

"From an economic stand point, you don't need to make ceramic reef structures or concrete balls. It looks like all you need is to mine some rock and dump it into piles, arrange it and it works just as well," Caldwell said.

Money is not the sole reason why blast fishing is still around, according to Michael Moore. Moore, who earned his Ph.D in integrative biology at Berkeley, is the founder of EcoReefs, a manufacturer and supplier of ceramic reefs. He believes that the lack of resolve, not money, is the source of the problem.

"If you look around in places like Indonesia and you go a few miles outside any habitable area, most of these places have been blasted because there's not effective enforcement...Even our stuff which is designed to be very specific is about the price of a car to rehabilitate a large area...It's not a cost issue, it's an issue of will," Moore said.

Moore founded EcoReefs in 2001. As part of a research on climate change, Moore took samples of coral from the Pacific. He would return to the sites the samples were extracted from only to discover them utterly devastated. He realized that once the reefs were bombed they could not regrow.

Moore started to research the various requirements that were needed for coral to grow, including the habitat and the type of substrate. Using the information he collected, he designed and developed reef structures that would foster coral growth.

Although Moore does not know how his products would compare with the rock piles proposed by Fox and Caldwell's study, he says the study is evidence of the growing concern and desire to sustain the reef ecosystems.

"What you're seeing that now there is a very serious discussion to recover coral reefs. There's very little science on this so we're trying to promote that awareness. The main issue is whether the local government is going to step in...Rehabilitation is a partial solution, but the main thing is dynamite fishing itself needs to be banned and effectively regulated," Moore said.

Yet despite the growing international attention, enforcement remains a difficult task. Reef restoration is rarely high up on a government's priority list and many governments simply do not have ample means and manpower. Patrolmen must be armed, as firefights with fisherman who use blast fishing are not unusual. A tract of ocean the size of the Bay Area might be only be policed by 10 or 15 individuals.

The December tsunami disaster has further crippled potential resources for marine conservation. Funding has become a crucial issue for reef rehabilitation following the destruction swept in by the tsunami. Money once allocated for restoration and management will most likely be diverted to relief and rebuilding efforts.

"The one thing we don't know yet is the long term effects from the pollution generated from the tsunami. An awful lot of stuff went into the ocean: chemicals, garbage, houses, roof material, cars, and I don't think we know yet what the impact is going to be," Caldwell said.

In such cases, the proposed rock pile restoration technique offers an economically viable solution for reef restoration. Other key factors to preservation involve what Moore calls "marine tenure."

"Communities need to feel a strong sense of ownership over their reefs. Most of the people doing blast fishing are coming from other communities; they go up and down the coast until they find a spot," Moore said.

Caldwell also sees that ultimately education, not rock piles, will rid blast fishing in the long run. Teaching locals to maintain the reefs and creating programs that shift the economic base to offshore fishing for nonthreatened species such as tuna will discourage the destructive fishing practices.

"You have a fisherman who's trying to feed his family, but he can't even catch enough fish for them to eat, let alone sell to make a living. The only thing he can do is to go to the next level, which is to go out and blow up the reef...That has caused a collapse of reefs throughout much of this part of the world," Caldwell said.

Despite growing awareness and new proposed solutions, Caldwell says it is unlikely reef restoration will ever catch up to existing and future damages.

"When you see areas that two years earlier had been beautiful reefs...and now there's nothing left but rubble, you almost get physically ill when you see it," Caldwell said. "I'm not quite as pessimistic as I was but I'm still not optimistic. Quite frankly, there's just an awful lot of ocean and not a lot of resources-there are areas that can be saved, but I think a lot more regions are going to be lost."


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