New Internationalist

Dead In The Water

Issue 325

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Fish / DEATH

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Anouk Ride examines the poisonous effects
of the billion-dollar trade in tropical fish.

In South East Asia and the South Pacific, divers armed with squirt bottles chase brightly coloured fish into coral and spurt cyanide into the holes where they hide. A few moments later, dazed fish start to emerge. Up to 90 per cent of these fish are overcome by the clouds of cyanide and they die or are permanently injured. The rest are sold to dealers who take them to live-fish restaurants and tropical aquariums. 'It is like cocaine,' says one Hong Kong fish-seller. 'You can get $300 for a single Napoleon wrasse fish. With fleets from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Philippines carrying drums of cyanide, this is big business. Huge money is involved, attracting some bad people.'

The cyanide which makes it possible to deliver live fish to traders also leaves dead coral in its wake. An active cyanide-user doses 50 coral heads a day, 225 days a year.

As the first country to start using cyanide, the Philippines now have vast areas of devastated coral reefs. Three thousand fishers squirt tens of millions of coral heads a year.

Destruction of coral has reduced fish habitat and stocks so drastically that many small-scale Filipino fishers have seen their daily catch drop by half. The use of cyanide also causes human deaths - locals who eat fish brought home in bags that once held cyanide, fishers who swim through clouds of poison and those with poor diving equipment who get the bends. Even the fish which survive long enough to reach an aquarium often die soon afterwards. Some pet shops do not feed their cyanide-caught tropical fish because their stomachs, liver and intestines are too damaged to cope with food.

To stop the trade, activists suggest that consumers ask questions about where tropical fish come from and that customs agencies test imported fish for cyanide. Education of fishers about the dangers of cyanide is also making a difference. Some Filipino villages that have organized to protect their reefs from further cyanide fishing have found that young corals colonize after a few years and more fish return to the area - creating pockets of vitality and colour amongst the dead white reefs.

Source: Carl Safina, Song for a Blue Ocean: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas (Henry Holt, 1999).


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