Cyanide: an easy but deadly way to catch fish

Posted on January, 29 2003

The Hong Kong, Singaporean, and Chinese penchant for live fish in restaurants is fuelling the Philippine live reef-fish trade — and encouraging the use of cyanide fishing, which not only kills coral reefs but is contributing to over-fishing.
Catching live fish using cyanide is easy.

Crush a couple of sodium cyanide tablets into a squeegee bottle of water, dive around a coral reef, find a fish you fancy, and squirt the toxic liquid into its face. The mixture stuns the fish without killing it, making it easy to catch in a net, or even by hand.

Cyanide fishing began in the 1960s in the Philippines to supply the international aquarium trade. But since the early 1980s, a much bigger business has emerged: supplying live reef fish for the restaurants of Hong Kong, Singapore, and, increasingly, mainland China.

Some 20,000 tonnes of live fish are eaten annually in the restaurants of Hong Kong, where rich sophisticates will pay big bucks to select a huge grouper fish in a tank and have it cooked for their table.

Many Hong Kong gourmands say Philippine fish have the best taste, and in the Philippines, business is booming.

A Filipino fisherman will get between 300 and 1100 pesos (US$22) for a top-price live coral trout, 5 times the price of a dead fish. This makes live reef fishing very attractive.

But the trade is encouraging the use of cyanide. With a hook and line, it can take a whole day to catch 2 decent-sized fish. With cyanide you can catch dozens.

By some estimates, fishermen have poured more than a thousand tonnes of cyanide into Philippine waters.

And it's proving devastating.

Cyanide kills coral polyps and algae, turning many coral reefs — the “rainforests of the oceans” — into marine deserts. "A square metre of reef is destroyed for every live fish caught using cyanide," says biologist Sam Mamauag of the International Marinelife Alliance (IMA) in the Philippines. What's more, the number of fish caught is massively increased using cyanide. Result: chronic overfishing that is undermining the Philippines' ability to feed itself.

“Look at the places where live reef fishing started a decade ago. They have all been fished out now,” says Joe Padilla of WWF-Philippines. “The traders and the migrant fishermen just scoop it all up and move on.”“We have cut our fish stocks by 90% in the last 50 years,” adds WWF-Philippines president Lory Tan. “What will we do in 30 years, when the fish are gone and our population will be more than 100 million?”.

The Calamianes islands in western Philippines are the current focus of the live-fishing juggernaut.

According to Padilla, the waters around these islands provide 2/3 of the Philippines’ live reef-fish exports and are one of the biggest sources for the international market. Up to a tonne of live fish is flown out of the islands each day.

Although cyanide fishing is illegal in the Philippines, cyanide is allegedly brought in surreptitiously on the private planes that whisk away boxes of live fish each morning.

In Hong Kong, Frazer McGilvray of the IMA told me “the word on the water is that cyanide is now being used more in the Coron area. You can buy it over the counter there.” Fish are not tested for cyanide before they leave for Hong Kong, and law enforcement on the seas is a farce.“

There is a very low level of apprehension for illegal fishing. Few cases are filed and there are very few convictions” — 6 in the past 6 years, says Dante Dalabajan, a lawyer from the Environmental Legal Assistance Group.

A local coastguard also said he is "not aware of any prosecutions or conviction in the courts for cyanide fishing. It’s difficult to catch them.”

The problem is not likely to be addressed from the other side either.

Mr Lee, a Hong Kong restaurateur who imports a tonne of live grouper a day from the Philippines, said that the issue of cyanide fishing doesn’t concern him. He has told his trading partners not to take cyanide-caught fish. But the fish soon excrete the cyanide so it's impossible to check, and “there is no risk to my customers,” he said.

The result is all too predictable: the Calamianes fishery is on the verge of collapse.

Catches are down and the average size of caught fish is declining — classic signs of an overfished stock, says Mamauag.

The situation is made worse because in Hong Kong they like their fish to be plate-sized. Groupers reach their preferred size only when approaching sexual maturity. As a result, most never reproduce before they are served up on restaurant tables.

So should the live reef-fish trade in the Philippines be banned completely?

That question is the heart of a pioneering “Sustainability Assessment” project being conducted by WWF. And the surprising answer is: perhaps not."If there were a ban on the live reef-fish trade, the first thing that would happen is that the fishermen would switch to the “dead fish” trade," says Nilo Brucal, policy officer for the WWF assessment. "But dead fish sell for only a fifth as much. So fishermen would take 5 times as many fish from the sea — probably using a lot more cyanide. And, since it would no longer matter whether the fish were caught live or dead, there would probably also be an upsurge in dynamite fishing."

There's also the problem of policing the ban.

“Banning would just drive the whole business underground,” adds Brucal. “The fish would be collected at sea by smugglers and taken to Hong Kong in fast boats. We’d have even less chance of controlling the trade than we do now.”

Questions about what will work politically, socially, and economically as well as environmentally are all being taken into consideration in WWF's Sustainability Assessment. The idea is to look beyond the confines of a strict environmental investigation — the limit of current Environmental Impact Assessments — to explore wider social and developmental dimensions.

Crucially, it will be used to provide a series of possible options, rather than a prescriptive “scientific” answer.

Sustainability assessments should also open up other avenues for debate.

Maybe it would be better, for instance, to take control of the reefs out of the hands of public bodies altogether, and give them to local communities themselves. They know better than anyone what is happening in their areas.

Give them the power to keep outsiders away, and they might have a clearer interest in protecting their own natural resource for future generations.

But sustainability assessments can't provide a pat answer. For example, fish are no respecters of community boundaries. Who, for instance, would give up their fishing areas as no-take zones to help the recovery of other communities’ fish?

Even so, WWF believes that Sustainability Assessments is a useful tool to help identify relevant and effective ways for protecting the world's natural resources for future generations. Many believe they will eventually replace Environmental Impact Assessments — which have become tainted by misuse and often take no account of the wishes or long-term futures of the peoples whose lives will be affected.

“Eventually we hope governments will adopt Sustainability Assessments as a tool in both economic planning and trade negotiations — at the WTO for instance,” says Padilla.

Joselito Bernardo from the Philippines National Economic and Development Authority agrees: “I want to see Sustainability Assessments used in government for determining overall policies, such as on trade, as well as assessing individual projects. I think they are much better than Environmental Impact Assessments.”

And for the live reef-fish trade?

Here, progress is being made.

WWF has presented the results of the Sustainability Assessment study to local government officials, fishermen, and traders in the Calamianes, as well as to the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development. As a result of this, a Live Fish Forum will be held in late February to formulate guidelines to manage the trade.

Hopefully the fishermen and traders, politicians and policemen, mayors and marine biologists, aquarium owners and, yes, even the fish-eaters of Hong Kong, will find some common ground, recognize the dilemmas, and make some hard choices.

* Fred Pearce is a freelance writer

Further information:

WWF's work on the live reef-fish trade

WWF is working to ensure that the live reef-fish trade does not harm the environment on a number of fronts.
  • In addition to Sustainability Assessments, WWF is working to obtain regulation of international trade to ensure sustainability. In the recent CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) COP12 meeting, WWF argued for inclusion of the humphead wrasse, the most valuable reef fish in the live fish trade, in Appendix II of CITES. Such a listing would have worked to ensure that the international trade is sustainable, and could have complemented Sustainability Assessments. Although the proposal was narrowly defeated, the majority of CITES Parties did agree that it qualifies for CITES listing and regulation.
  • WWF Hong Kong has produced a number of reports on the live reef-fish trade, from analysis of the trade to the attitude of consumers, and is working on raising awareness of the issue so that consumers avoid vulnerable species such as humphead wrasse and giant grouper; avoid sexually immature fish; and change to substitutes such as farmed reef fish or freshwater fish.
  • In addition to the Sustainability Assessment project, WWF-Philippines has an on-going enforcement programme. Called Bantay Dagat, the programme trains and deputizes members of the local community, mostly fishermen, to assist local governments and other organizations to patrol marine areas and arrest illegal fishermen.

WWF's work on Sustainability Assessments

WWF's Sustainability Assessment project started in January 2001 and will end in December 2003.

Implemented in partnership with a range of organizations worldwide, the project has activities in the Philippines, Brazil, the US, Norway, Latin America, and the EU. It is funded by 10 European governments and one US foundation.

The overall vision for the project is to reform trade policy decision-making processes and their outcomes in favour of sustainable and equitable development, by creating the context for, and catalysing effective stakeholder-oriented sustainability assessments in key countries/regions, in conjunction with targeted advocacy for meaningful implementation of these assessments.
Cyanide fishing in coral reef, the Philippines.
© WWF / Jürgen Freund
Live reef fish for sale in restaurant, Hong Kong.
© WWF / Jürgen Freund
Traditional dish made from live fish, but in this case a farmed fish, Hong Kong.
© WWF / Joe Padilla