Dynamite fishing still a hazard in protected areas

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Dynamite fishing still a hazard in protected areas

September 22, 2016 - 16:44
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My head was just not grasping what I was seeing, as my gaze extended across the surface of the water where fish floated upside down and sideways, all over the place. Still not understanding what I was looking at, one of the dive guides said, “Dynamite.”

Floating dead fish—the result of illegal blast fishing in Horseshoe Bay, part of the No Take Zone of Komodo National Park

Words by Brandi Mueller

My head was just not grasping what I was seeing, as my gaze extended across the surface of the water where fish floated upside down and sideways, all over the place. Still not understanding what I was looking at, one of the dive guides said, “Dynamite.”

Dynamite fishing is an incredibly damaging way of getting fish quickly, by setting off small explosions on the reef. The fish die from the blast impact, with many rising to the surface because of inflated swim bladders, making it easy and quick to collect many fish. Unfortunately, this practice destroys the reef and causes many of the fish to rupture their swim bladders, sinking to the bottom (and cannot be collected). It is also wasteful, as only the larger fish and a few species are desirable for eating. The rest are left dead and floating, while vast portions of reefs are reduced to rubble.
I had heard about this practice, read about it in my college conservation classes, and had seen it listed as a threat to the ocean. But never before had I seen the surface of the water littered with dead fish.

Devastating impact

As divers, we scuba dive to get a brief glimpse of a world that is a large part of our planet, but at the same time, a different place from the one in which we live. But these days, it is hard to find a television program, book or magazine about the ocean without at least a succinct message about how the oceans are in danger. Overfishing, destructive fishing practices, pollution from both trash and land run-off dumping chemicals into the water, climate change—the list goes on and on.

Rarely do we see first-hand, the results of these activities. In video or film, we might see shark fins piled up on a dock, or photos of trash in the water, but it leaves one with the idea that this is happening in a faraway place. 

First-hand observation

During my trip on the Indo Siren liveaboard, our group of divers were diving Horseshoe Bay on Rinca Island. On the second day, we had just finished a fairly epic first dive. The sun had just risen over the island hills and was shining down on the wall covered in corals, sponges and dotted with crinoids. We had just ascended after a 70-minute dive, and with BCDs inflated, were floating in the clear blue water, with blue skies above us.

I was thinking about a small turtle we saw, which was munching on some coral, and the tiny amphipods we observed, which are only found in this region. It had been a really good dive. I had taken probably one hundred photos. We were happy and radiating post-dive bliss as we waited for the boat to come pick us up.

The inflatable dingy made its way to our group. As we passed up fins and climbed out of the water, I looked over at the little bay and I noticed some trash had welled up in the calm outcrop—not an uncommon sight in Indonesia, or in most places, these days. Everyone was in the back of the boat, and the dingy driver pointed down into the water where there was a yellow tang beside the boat.

It must have just happened, the fish still looked perfectly intact, like they might just spontaneously recover and swim back to their colorful reef below. But they didn’t. 

Damaging heritage sites

It amazes me that this is happening in Komodo National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a No Take Zone. This is an area where tourism brings in a massive amount of money and which requires tourists to pay a park fee to “maintain” it. And it happened with our 44m(145ft) boat nearby.

We wondered if the dynamite fishers had just done it, and when they saw our dive skiffs come around the corner, they had fled; Or if they had already collected what they wanted and just left the carnage they would not even eat behind.


As you can imagine, seeing the results of blast fishing put a bit of a cloud over us all for the rest of the day. But for me, I am glad we saw it. I think it is important to be reminded that there is still a problem. The hazard is not just to fish and reef, divers have also been injured or killed by blast fishing in other parts of the world.
 This perfect, incredible, beautiful, amazing area I had just experienced is in danger still. These practices still happen. It is easy to just not think about it, or think that “it used to happen”, when in fact, it is still happening. A solution needs to be found, or wonderful dive trips like the one I just experienced on the Indo Siren will not be something a person can experience again or share with others.

Finding solutions

Playing devil’s advocate for a moment, I know that some people who are dynamite fishing are doing it because they have a need to feed and support their families, with the money they gain from selling the fish.

Our solutions to the problem need to address how to better feed the Earth’s current population of seven billion people. To prevent blast fishing, alternatives need to be made available for fishers, awareness must be raised, and we need to make ethical fishing gear available to everyone. The Indonesian government has taken measures to curb blast fishing in Komodo, but enforcement continues to be a challenge.

I do not have the answers, but I have to admit, seeing one of my favorite fish—an emperor angelfish—dead and floating on the surface, needlessly killed and left to rot, broke my heart. 