Cyanide fishing is responsible for damaging coral reef habitats throughout the Indo-Pacific region and is spreading quickly as fishers respond to market demand for ornamental and edible fish.
Since the 1960s, more than a million kilograms of deadly sodium cyanide has been squirted onto coral reefs in the Philippines to stun and capture ornamental aquarium fish. More recently a growing demand for larger reef food-fish has vastly increased the incidence and spread of cyanide-fishing.
Chinese consumers in Hong Kong and other major Asian cities greatly value certain reef fish when they are plucked live from a tank, cooked, and served minutes later; the consumers pay up to $300 per plate for some species. The combined demand for aquarium and live food-fish has spread cyanide fishing throughout Indonesia and into neighboring countries such as Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, the Maldives, and Fiji. In the past year, officials in countries as far-flung as Eritrea and Tanzania have voiced suspicions that their fast-growing live-fish export industries may also be using cyanide.
In the early 1990s, the government of the Philippines, in collaboration with the International Marinelife Alliance-Philippines (IMA) launched the Cyanide-Fishing Reform Program (CFRP) to combat this destructive scourge. Combining technical and scientific approaches with policy reform, stepped up enforcement, and community-based strategies, the CFRP is the most developed program of its kind. Although imperfect – cyanide fishing is still a great problem in the Philippines – the CFRP provides important lessons for other countries where cyanide fishing is expanding and for the many governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international assistance agencies worldwide that have recently become concerned about the issue.
Key to the CFRP’s approach is the recognition that a cyanide-free, sustainable live fish trade should be the goal of policy, not a ban on live-fish exports (as some have advocated). The live-fish trade, responsibly conducted, is a potnentially sustainable, high-value, low-volume fishery that can provide livelihoods for some of the region’s poorest communities. Proper incentives for private sector producers, from the village to ultimate markets, are the key. The CRFP provides a mix of positive and negative incentives, ranging from testing of fish shipments for cyanide residues and harsh criminal penalties to training in cyanide-free capture and post-harvest techniques. Internationally, efforts such as the new U.S.-based Marine Aquarium Fish Council are striving to make the private sector importers of live reef fish active partners in promoting a cyanide-free fishing tradition and ensuring the sustainability of the trade. Needed now is a much more intensive regional approach that builds cyanide-fishing reform capacity in the many countries where cyanide-fishing is spreading, and a redoubled effort to bring the private sector brokers, importers, wholesalers and retailers in as full partners in dealing with this ominous – but solvable – threat to the rich biodiversity of Asia and the Pacific’s Reefs.
To read an article entitled, “Cleansing our seas of a poison tide,” condensed from Sullied Seas, visit OverSeas: The online magazine for sustainable seas at http://www.oneocean.org/overseas/apr99/cleansing_our_seas.html