World News

In the Philippines, Dynamite Fishing Decimates Entire Ocean Food Chains

Posted June 15, 2018 3:52 p.m. EDT

BOHOL, Philippines — Nothing beats dynamite fishing for sheer efficiency.

A fisherman in this scattering of islands in the central Philippines balanced on a narrow outrigger boat and launched a bottle bomb into the sea with the ease of a quarterback. It exploded in a violent burst, rocking the bottom of our boat and filling the air with an acrid smell. Fish bobbed onto the surface, dead or gasping their last breaths.

Under the water, coral shattered into rubble.

The blast ruptured the internal organs of reef fish, fractured their spines or tore at their flesh with coral shrapnel. From microscopic plankton to sea horses, anemones and sharks, little survives inside the 30- to 100-foot radius of an explosion.

With 10,500 square miles of coral reef, the Philippines is a global center for marine biodiversity, which the country has struggled to protect in the face of human activity and institutional inaction. But as the effects of climate change on oceans become more acute, stopping dynamite and other illegal fishing has taken on a new urgency.

According to the initial findings of a survey of Philippine coral reefs conducted from 2015 to 2017 and published in the Philippine Journal of Science, there are no longer any reefs in excellent condition, and 90 percent were classified as either poor or fair. A 2017 report by the United Nations predicts that all 29 World Heritage coral reefs, including one in the Philippines, will die by 2100 unless carbon emissions are drastically reduced.

“It is a bit dismal,” said Porfirio Alino, a research professor specializing in corals at the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.

The effects of climate change — warming waters and acidification that cause coral bleaching and push some reefs to death — are difficult to address. But if the stresses caused by human activity can be stopped, Alino explained, coral reefs have a better chance of surviving.

Dynamite fishing destroys both the food chain and the corals where the fish nest and grow. It kills the entire food chain, including plankton, fish both large and small, and the juveniles that do not grow old enough to spawn. Without healthy corals, the ecosystem and the fish that live within it begin to die off.

New York Times journalists embedded with dynamite fishermen in Bohol who gave exclusive access on the condition that we not use their names or the names of the islands where they live, for fear of being arrested.

With a rubber hose attached to an air pump wedged between his teeth, and no other gear aside from a single homemade flipper and a pair of goggles, one of the fishermen sank 30 feet into the water after the bomb went off. He lurched along the ocean floor, collecting stunned and dead fish among the crevices and broken coral.

Twenty minutes later he surfaced, heaving for breath, with five high-value reef fish and 12 pounds of scad and sardines. It was a small catch. The men on the boat saved a few handfuls for their families, and sold the rest to a local trader. The two men split the earnings, about $10, between them.

The fisherman says it is the only job he knows that earns this kind of money. For legal net fishermen, 6 pounds of fish is a good day. Often, they come back with nothing. With dynamite fishing he can come back with 20 pounds and sometimes as much as 45 pounds, if he lucks out with a large jack or grouper. Back on the island, one of the men lit a gas burner under a pan and used his bare hand to stir a splash of kerosene into white beads of solid ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer has been illegal in the Philippines since 2002, but the men buy sacks of it from dealers on a neighboring island.

The other man honed a kitchen knife against a stone, sliced off an inchlong fuse, wrapped it in a piece of aluminum and strapped on a match as a detonator. They scooped some sand from the ground, funneled it into the bottom of a used glass vinegar bottle and packed the bottle with explosives.

The fuse, he explained, gives him 4 seconds to throw the bomb before it explodes. A poorly made bomb or a distracted fisherman could prove fatal. Men on the islands have been left blind, deaf or maimed, and death has become part of the fishermen’s lore. Just this year, they said, a man from a neighboring island was killed, his arm and most of the upper half of his body blackened by the explosion.

In 2014, the European Union issued a yellow card to the Philippines warning that it would be banned from exporting to the bloc unless its fishing activities were better regulated. In response, the Philippines produced a new fisheries code that called for stricter measures against illegal methods and commercial overfishing. In 2015, the yellow card was lifted.

“Our law is harsh, painful and swift,” said Eduardo Gongona, director of the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. “We have no pity on illegal fishers and illegal fishing.”

Gloria Ramos, vice president of Oceana Philippines, a nongovernmental organization for ocean conservation, agreed that the new laws were strong but said they were not being properly implemented because of the influence the commercial fishing industry has over government officials.

Despite signs that Philippine fisheries are collapsing, Ramos said, “there is no sense of urgency.”

Gongona said that groups like Oceana were overstating the problem to get more funding, and that any reduction in the numbers of wild-caught fish could be made up for by increasing the output of commercial fish farms. On one of the islands of Bohol, Jaime Abenido, a grizzled 68-year-old handline fisherman who does not use dynamite, said that 30 years ago, he could go out to sea and fill his boat with fish “until it started to sink.” Today there are far fewer fish, he says, and the ones that remain are tiny. He listed half a dozen species he has not seen in decades.

Nevertheless, Abenido said he does not believe that fish are in danger of running out.

Despite the evidence, it’s common for Filipinos to deny the urgency of the problem, said Jimely Flores, senior marine scientist for Oceana.

“It’s quite hard to believe what the scientists are saying,” Flores said. “They don’t really feel that much impact until it’s really very bad.”

But to her the problem is already apparent.

“It’s happening,” Flores said. “In some dynamited areas, if you dive you don’t see any fish at all.”

Researchers have warned that if current trends continue, the global supply of fish could be dramatically reduced in coming decades.

In the Philippines, stocks have declined precipitously. According to a report by the Philippine national statistics board, the average daily catch in 1970 was 45 pounds. By 2000, that had dropped to 4.5 pounds. In those years, declining fish stocks pushed more people into illegal fishing.

In the office of Roberto Rosales, the local coordinator for coastal resources management for the town of Bien Unido in Bohol, is a mural depicting an officer standing on the edge of a boat, a machine gun clasped menacingly in his hands.

Illegal fishing has decreased from the lawless heyday of the 1990s and 2000s, and at first Rosales tried to deny that illegal fishing continued under his watch. He admitted, however, that the town has only four slow boats to patrol 130,000 acres of sea.

“It’s so very far,” he said.

Even if illegal fishermen are known to officials, it’s difficult to charge them unless they are caught in the act.

“We catch an illegal fisherman and they say, ‘This is our last year because our daughter is in college,'” Rosales said. “It’s really not enough. We have to address the needs of 17,000 fisher folks, and we cannot do it.”

Developing more sustainable fishing practices as well as other economic opportunities would help people transition out of destructive fishing, Alino said. Countries and corporations that emit high levels of carbon could also provide more support.

Back on the water, I asked the dynamite fisherman if he thought he was the reason there were fewer fish. He shook his head. His parents used this method before him, he said, and there are still fish in the sea.

What would happen, I asked, if the scientists were right, and the oceans did run out of fish? He contemplated the possibility for a moment. Patay, he answered. The fishermen would be dead.

But he doesn’t believe that will happen. The fish will never run out, he said. It was a statement more of denial than hope.