Poisoned waters: Cyanide fishing, though not common anymore, is still being practiced

Using cyanide in catching fish is not a Filipino discovery but an American ingenuity.

By Henrylito D. Tacio

If you love eating lapu-lapu (grouper), mameng (humphead wrasse), and other fishes residing in the coral reefs, you better watch out. Those kinds of fish may be tasty but they may not be healthy to eat at all. The reason: they may be loaded with cyanide.

“Cyanide fishing may not be as rampant as in the 1970s and 1980s, it is still being done in the Philippines,” said Dr. Alan T. White, who used to be the chief of party of the Coastal Resource Management Project in Central Visayas. Currently, he works part time on selected Asian marine conservation projects for Nature Conservancy and as independent consultant.

Even during the time of the pandemic, fishermen still practice cyanide fishing. 

For aquarium and food

Dr. White assumes that the catch from cyanide fishing would end up in restaurants. “I believe that most cyanide used presently is for food fish and it is difficult to know how widespread its use is,” pointed out Dr. White, who founded the Cebu-based Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation, Inc.

Vince Cinches, of the marine wildlife watch of the Philippines policy campaign advisor of the World Animal Protection, thinks so, too. “(Cyanide fishing is) still happening, as it is associated with Aquarium and Live Reef Fish for Food Trade,” he said, adding that the practice is “spread throughout the country.”

According to Dr. White, cyanide fishing “is still a major problem in Palawan and other areas where the live food fish trade is important.”

Cyanide fishing used to be rampant in the three municipalities of the Calamianes Group of Islands in Palawan. According to a study, there were 316 fishermen in Coron who were engaged in cyanide fishing in 1999, 328 in 2000, 340 in 2001, and 353 in 2002.

The same study showed 113 cyanide fishermen in Busuanga in 1999, 121 in 2000, 130 in 2001 and 139 in 2002. In Culion, there were 153 fishermen who were engaged in cyanide fishing in 1999, 158 in 2000, 163 in 2001 and 168 in 2002.

There are also many fishermen in Quezon Province who are engaged in cyanide fishing as the province is “one of the sources of marine aquarium fish,” Cinches reported. “Dati sa Batangas, but most of them are shifting to hand nets instead of using cyanide to catch fish.”

An extensive study, “An Overview of Destructive Fishing in the Philippines,” listed cyanide fishing as one of the illegal fishing methods being practiced in the country. Other destructive fishing practices (DFPs) cited in the study were dynamite fishing and muro-ami.

The authors reviewed available scientific literature reporting the DFPs in the country from 1979 to 2022. Cyanide fishing, along with the two others, “were prevalent and remained a lingering problem in the Philippines from the 1930s up to this date.”

Ornamental fishes.JPG

Ornamental fishes: Colorful and peculiar fishes are kept in aquariums for decorating the houses or offices. (Henrylito Tacio)

Not a Filipino ingenuity

Cyanide is found naturally in plants like cassava and sorghum. However, there are two types: organic (called nitrites) and inorganic (salts of hydrocyanic acid, a volatile weak acid). Both are highly toxic. The lethal sodium cyanide was first widely used in the extraction of gold and silver.

Using cyanide in catching fish is not a Filipino discovery but an American ingenuity. A certain Bridges first used sodium cyanide to stun and capture tropical fish in 1958 in Illinois. And it happened that a Filipino aquarium fish collector learned about it.

When he returned to the Philippines, he employed the practice. It spread throughout the country in no time. Earl Kennedy, an American exporter from the Philippines, was surprised by a sudden increase in aquarium fish from Lubang Island off Batangas.

“When local collectors started using cyanide, we didn’t realize at once that was happening,” Kennedy said. “We were happy that there was so much supply for everybody, and there was an export boom. But after a while, we smelled something fishy. Then we found out that the collectors were using cyanide.”

Aquarium trade

In the 1960s, the Philippines was one of the suppliers of the international aquarium trade. Most of the ornamental fishes were exported to the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

The Philippines is home to 70% of the world’s ornamental fish. The 7,107 islands are home to an estimated 2,000 species of fish. In comparison, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has only 1,500 species of fish.

The Philippines is a major player in the ornamental fish industry being one of the largest exporters of marine ornamental fish species in the world. “No other country can match the diversity of colorful species desired by the marine aquarist,” said Peter Rubec of the International Marinelife Alliance (IMA).

Food trade

But since the early 1980s, a much bigger business has emerged: supplying live reef fish for the restaurants. The demand for live fish from the reefs in restaurants in Beijing, southern China, Hong Kong, and other countries where Chinese abound has made the practice prevalent not only in the Philippines but other Asian countries as well.

The reason for its popularity among poverty-stricken fishermen: higher income. Dr. Michael Fabinyi, a researcher with Australia’s James Cook University who studied the live reef fish trade in Palawan province for several years, cites the case of leopard coral grouper.

“From approximately 50 cents per kilo in the late ’80s when the trade began,” he explained, “the price of leopard coral grouper has risen gradually and consistently. In 2011, a good-sized leopard coral grouper in good condition fetched a price of between P700 and P1,000 per kilo for fishermen.”

“The total retail value of the live reef food fish was around $350 million per year from 1997 to 2001,” said Dr. Andrew Bruckner, an American coral reef ecologist who works closely with government and nongovernment groups in the United States. “By 2002, it increased to about $486 million for Hong Kong and $810 million for the entire trade. Individual fish can sell for up to $180 per kilogram, depending on species, taste, texture, availability and time of year.”

Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, a marine science professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the live fish trade is valued at about $1 billion. About 150,000 metric tons of live reef fish are traded annually, she pointed out.

Live food trade.JPG

Live food trade: Fish are not the only marine creatures but crabs as well. They are kept alive until the moment they are cooked in a restaurant or hotel. (Henrylito Tacio)

Destructive to corals 

Catching live fish using cyanide is really not difficult. All the fisherman has to do is crush a couple of sodium cyanide tablets into a squeeze bottle of water, dive into the sea where coral reefs abound, look around for the fish that catch his fancy, and then squirt the toxic liquid into its face. As a result, the fish is stunned by the mixture but without killing it, thus making it easier to catch in a net or even by hand.

It may be easier to catch reef fishes using cyanide, but there is a price to pay. “Cyanide is a deadly poison not only to people and fish, but also to other marine animals like corals,” says Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero, an academician with the National Academy of Science and Technology.

Corals consist of small, colonial, plankton-eating invertebrate animals called polyps, which are anemone-like. Although corals are mistaken for non-living, they are live animals. They provide shelter for a variety of marine life like fish, lobsters, octopi, eels, and turtles.

To catch elusive fish hiding in coral reefs, fishermen use cyanide, which is illegal. A study commissioned by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) in 1982 established that two applications of cyanide on coral reefs four months apart caused high coral polyp mortality. 

Annihilated coral reefs

“Unlike blast fishing, which reduces corals into rubble,” deplores marine scientist Vaughan R. Pratt, “cyanide keeps coral structures intact, but dead.”

The Philippines has around 26,000 square kilometers of coral reef area, the second largest in Southeast Asia. Some 500 species of stony corals are known to occur, 12 of which are considered endemic.

Today, poor coral cover is found in 40 percent of the country’s reefs, while areas with excellent cover have steadily declined to less than 5 percent from 2000 to 2004. “Despite considerable improvements in coral reef management, the country’s coral reefs remain under threat,” said Dr. Theresa Mundita S. Lim, when she was still the head of the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Fifty percent of the fish exposed to sodium cyanide die in the reef. The ones caught and later recovered are transferred to clean water, but they are doomed to die within weeks or months because of the damage caused by the poison to their internal organs.

Researchers estimate that more than a million kilograms of cyanide have been squirted onto Philippine reefs alone over the last half century.

“(Cyanide fishing) is illegal, so people should just stop doing it,” says Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, director of the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines. “There may be short term gains now but we have to really think about the serious repercussions for the future generation. Remember this: no reef, no fish.”

Accidental deaths

Corals, fish and other marine creatures are not the only collateral. There are reports that young men who have been paralyzed by the diving sickness called the bends.

“Accidental deaths or paralysis due to the ‘bends’ are widespread and fishermen say the frequency of such accidents is increasing as they find themselves forced to go deeper and stay down longer to get fish after depleting the stocks in shallow waters,” said the Nature Conservancy report, Environmental, Economic and Social Implications of Live Coral Reef Food Fishery in Asia and Western Pacific.

In 1993, a coastal community in the country reported that 30 of its 200 divers got the bends, and 10 died as a result. “Cyanide fishing is universally outlawed but still a significant problem,” said Dr. Elizabeth Wood, marine resource management and biodiversity conservation consultant of Britain’s Marine Conservation Society.

It must be stopped

Cinches suggested a strong enforcement of Section 88 of Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998. The law stated: “It shall be unlawful for any person to catch, take or gather or cause to be caught, taken or gathered, fish or any fishery species in the Philippines with the use of… poisonous substance such as sodium cyanide in the Philippine fishery areas, which will kill, stupefy, disable or render unconscious fish or fishery species.”

“There is also a need to employ best regulated alternatives such as hand nets,” Cinches added. “Consumers need to start asking for traceability papers in restaurants so they know where their fish comes from.”

Meanwhile, the Philippine government has stepped up enforcement of anti-cyanide fishing laws by establishing a network of cyanide detection laboratories, operated by IMA, that randomly sample fish exports at shipment points throughout the country and monitor all aspects of the trade.

There is also a public awareness campaign in the media and public schools which help educate Filipinos about the value of coral reefs and the threats posed by cyanide and other destructive fishing practices.

“Cyanide fishing has not ceased in the Philippines, but it has certainly been reduced as a result of these efforts,” said the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute.

Photos by Henrylito Tacio

Read more about farming and gardening at agriculture.com.ph