Coron Island, the Philippines:
The sun was setting as white-haired Teopisto Aguillar dropped a length of fishing line over the side of his canoe and watched its hooks descend into the emerald waters. Holding the line carefully between thumb and forefinger, he continued a tradition of artisanal fishing that his indigenous Tagbanwa ancestors practiced for centuries. Then the hulking shape of a large commercial fishing vessel appeared on the horizon, and with an oath, Aguillar turned his canoe toward shore. The pirates had arrived.
In a few weeks, other local fishermen working for them would scoop up almost every valuable fish in these waters to sell to both Philippine and foreign companies. They would employ destructive catch techniques that would damage or kill the corals and leave the reefs virtually bare and increasingly lifeless. Often armed, and with scant regard for protecting the resource, these outsiders are notorious for intimidating islanders and evading the local coast guard. Even when they are caught, the penalties imposed by the Philippine courts are usually light, if any are levied at all.
Bushmeat of the Sea
International fleets from Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which dominate this unsustainable live food fish trade, scour the waters of Southeast Asias reef-rich Coral Triangle for most of the year. Some use legal fishing methods, but many dont, and its often difficult to determine how a fish was caught.
The animals are shipped alive to Asian restaurants to supply a ravenous market for the very freshest seafood. With the growing gourmet appetite for live reef fish and the demand for exotic specimens to supply the aquarium trade in Europe and the United States, the Coral Triangles status as one of the Earths greatest centers for marine biodiversity is in serious jeopardy. Markets for frozen and dried fish are also damaging fish populations and their reef habitat.
Protecting marine ecosystems and promoting sustainable fishing have become major priorities for CI and its partners. Together we are launching several conservation efforts in Southeast Asia, Melanesia, and the South Pacific to address the uncontrolled, destructive exploitation of natural resources, such as the live fish trade. New information on the scope and complexity of this shadowy business is now coming to light, bringing greater urgency to our efforts to save the last great coral reefs.
According to the Asian Development Bank, the $1 billion-a-year unsustainable live fish trade began about 30 years ago in the South China Sea, expanding into neighboring Philippine, Malaysian, and Indonesian reefs as stocks became depleted. The World Wildlife Fund estimates todays trade reaches from the east coast of Africa to the Kiribati Islands in the western Pacific.
While no official numbers record the size of the trades catch, scientists estimate that some 30,000 tons of reef fishvastly more than is sustainableare taken each year. When trade barriers against China
were dropped in the 1990s, it created this enormous economic boom, explains Roger McManus, senior director of CIs Global Marine Division. Suddenly we started to see this huge demand for wildlife, both from the forests and from the seas.
Newly affluent mainland China constitutes three-quarters of this market. Live fish are an expensive status symbol at festivals and family events, and at the closing of business deals. The trades most desirable species are top reef carnivores such as snapper and grouper. Sometimes recipes call for particular parts of the fish, such as the rubbery lips of Napoleon or humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus
) or the fins of almost any shark species. Full-sized live adult grouper can fetch $75 a pound in the markets of Hong Kong and Taipei, several times the price of frozen fish.
Tricks of the Trade
These fishing methods are as ruthlessly efficient as they are ecologically devastating. Mother ships roam the seas for months, surrounded by smaller, often local boats that do the actual fishing. Spawning grounds are a favorite target, allowing vast numbers of adult fish to be taken before they have a chance to reproduce.
Traders who dock at remote islands often recruit locals to fish for them, extending loans and renting boats or other equipment at exorbitant interest rates that soon leave villagers locked into debt-bondage. These local fishermen often use hookah, a dangerous, homemade device that allows divers to breathe through a tube attached to an air compressor in the boat. If divers go too deep for too long using this primitive apparatus, they risk decompression sickness or the bends, which can cause paralysis or death.
Local village children are sometimes recruited for a notorious, illegal fishing technique called muro-ami, which sends a line of divers to depths of 3090 feet with stone weights to bang on corals and drive fish into waiting nets. Just outside Coron, a bustling fishing port on the Philippine island of Busuanga, lies a small, dusty cemetery filled with the bodies of children, some as young as six years old, who died from accidents or disease on muro-ami boats.
Other destructive techniques include the use of explosives, which stun fish for easy collection and also damage large areas of reef. Small-mesh nets can gather 90 percent of all animal life in an area. Once target fish are removed, the rest are discarded. Another popular illegal catch method is sodium cyanide, which is squirted into the reefs nooks, or directly onto coral heads. The toxin renders fish insensible and easy to catch, but it also kills large numbers of corals and other invertebrates. Researchers from the World Wildlife Fund estimate that as much as 65 tons of cyanide are sprayed on Philippine reefs each year. Fish collected this way are more likely to die in transit.
Waste is the hallmark of the live fish trade. Rough or careless handling by untrained workers often results in the death of 75 percent of a fleets catch. When a reefs market-sized fish populations are exhausted, the ships move on to a different area or another country, creating a boom-bust cycle that leaves ecological ruin in its wake. This is the marine version of hunting bushmeat, says Dr. Sylvia Earle, executive director of CIs Global Marine Division.
Restoring the Reefs
In his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, biologist Jared Diamond, a senior research fellow at CIs Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, writes that the international seafood tradelike the mining and timber industriesis driven by the demands of a growing global population. The result is overexploitation of ecosystem services, the natural resources that give us fresh water, food, and clean air.
Industries do this because its the easiest way to make fast, short-term profits, and local governments often smooth the way with policies that benefit trade over environment. The most effective method to halt further damage to some of the worlds most beautiful and biologically important reefs is by showing industries and governments that healthy marine ecosystems are good for business and people.
Following that strategy, CI is building conservation alliances throughout the Coral Triangle with local communities, governments, and the private sector. They are using a comprehensive approach that addresses not only the live fish trade but all the threats facing reefs.
What defines our approach is its holistic nature, explains Jim Cannon, deputy director of CIs Center for Conservation and Government
. If we help improve fisheries management throughout the region and establish solidly enforced protected areas, we can control the live fish trade.
For more than a decade CI has been forging partnerships in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. We focus on effective resource management and protection of reefs, and undertake specific measures to tackle the live fish trade. In the Philippines, CI has been working to establish more effective fishing laws. In central Sulawesis Togean Islands, CI is encouraging locals to stop using explosives and cyanide for fishing. Our village engagement teams in Papua New Guinea
s Milne Bay are showing islanders how a managed fishery and ecotourism can earn them a better living than working for the live fish trade.
This year, the Walton Family Foundation gave CI a three-year, $21 million gift to finance the creation of three marine biodiversity management regions, or seascapes. They include the Sulu-Sulawesi and Birds Head seascapes in Asias Coral Triangle. Seascapes
help locals establish new or larger marine protected areas and monitor regional fishing. A $12.5 million grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation will help CI researchers understand the role predators such as groupers play on the reefs, and what happens when they disappear.
While progress is being made, the core issue of the live fish tradeunsustainable, unregulated, and destructive catch methodsare still commonly found in other major marine fisheries around the globe. While exploiting the highest-value seafood species beyond their capacity is profitable in the short term, it has brought many marine fisheries to the brink of ecological and economic disaster.
That was the hard lesson learned in Newfoundland and New England in the 1990s. More than 40,000 fishing industry workers lost their livelihoods when the regional Atlantic cod fishery collapsed. Once considered the most productive on the planet, the cod populations as they existed on the offshore banks have yet to recover. In the Pacific, tuna populations have dipped by 80 percent in the past 30 years. Unless the pillage of Asias coral reefs is halted, the same fate suffered by U.S. and Canadian fishers awaits tens of thousands more around the globe.