George Woodman’s first experience of fish bombing in Sabah—a Malaysian state in the northern part of the island of Borneo—was in 1994 during an underwater survey of the area’s renowned coral reefs.
“It’s not so much something you hear, but something you feel,” said Woodman, a founding member of the Hong Kong-based non-governmental organization Stop Fish Bombing!.
“At a range of a few kilometres, a fish bomb going off feels like you’ve been kicked in the chest by a horse,” he said.
Over the course of the four-month survey carried out by divers, his team experienced this extremely destructive fishing practice a few times a week.
Also known as blast or dynamite fishing, fish bombing is one of the most destructive forms of fishing because it indiscriminately kills any animal in the blast area—from fish eggs and plankton to whales and dolphins—and devastates corals.
Fish bombing = reef bombing
Fish bombing is an escalating threat to coral reefs, and to the people who depend on them for their livelihoods. It destroys fish habitats among reefs already threatened by overfishing and climate change.
“Blast fishing is an extremely short-sighted fishing method because it destroys the coral reef on which fisherfolk depend,” said Jerker Tamelander, head of the Coral Reef Unit at UN Environment.
“It is also extremely dangerous to the fisherfolk themselves because bombs can explode prematurely,” he said.
Not only do the bombs kill all marine life around them, repeated bombings shatter the dead sub-structure of the coral and create dead zones that destroy biodiversity and ecosystems by removing the main life support system for many species.
The practice is illegal worldwide, but it persists due to the challenges of detecting, responding and catching the perpetrators.
In Sabah, action is urgently needed: “Blast fishing in the past years has badly affected the marine ecosystems,” said Terence Lim of Sabah and a founding member of Stop Fish Bombing!. “If this is left unchecked we will not only lose the ability to produce wild fish stock but it will dramatically effect the tourism industry which now generates the second highest revenue for Sabah.”
Stopping the bombs
Stop Fish Bombing! has collaborated with Californian tech company ShotSpotter to adapt their gunshot location technology to detect fish bombs underwater.
“Fortunately, we now have the technology to detect and locate fish bombs as they happen, and publish this information on tablets and phones for access by everyone,” said Woodman.
The use of this acoustic sensing and location technology, combined with existing and emerging surveillance and monitoring systems, offers the possibility of building an effective global detection system and thus an opportunity to suppress or even eradicate fish bombing within a short time.
This project was registered as a voluntary commitment by the State Government of Sabah as part of a Community of Ocean Action (CoA) formed following the United Nations Oceans Conference in 2017.
“I’m delighted to be involved as part of a team of dedicated scientists, engineers, media professionals, conservationists, politicians and others who have put their efforts into developing solutions,” said Woodman.
Unfortunately, techniques for restoring reefs are still in their infancy, and are not cost-effective alternatives, so prevention is the only reasonable option.
“Fish bombing is the poster child of destructive fishing. Everyone understands that it’s illegal and that it needs to stop: this is the first step on the way to stopping it,” he adds.
Helping communities help themselves
Change is possible through soft measures such as community development, and hard measures such as enforcement.
Getting communities involved in enforcement has proved effective in maximizing reach and minimizing cost. It also provides high-quality data to allow people in marine protected areas affected by blast fishing to objectively assess the issues and ways to solve them.
Failing to address fish bombing ultimately exacerbates poverty, and turns an environmental problem into a security risk, because food supplies dwindle, and a disempowered rural population with expertise in home-made explosives pose a risk to future security.
Piloting the solution
The project has already led to a collaboration between Stop Fish Bombing!, the Anti Fish Bombing Committee of Sabah government and other local partners including Sabah Environment Trust, WWF Malaysia, ReefCheck Malaysia, and DHI Malaysia to develop a new policy document to help Sabah Government deliver actions supporting Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
“The 2020 deadline specified by Goal 14 for eradication of destructive fishing is an incentive for us all,” said Woodman.
The project has also led to discussions with the United States government on developing law-enforcement capacity to stop fish bombing in Sabah and the region, by combining spatial data to identify fish bomb locations with surveillance data such as radar positions.
Tamelander added: “Initiatives such as this one in Malaysia that allow us to identify where the blasts are most prevalent, and then work with local communities to prevent blast fishing from occurring in the first place are critical in solving this problem.”