Revealed: Horrific fishing method destroys all marine life in the country

02Jan 2016
Correpondent
The Guardian
Revealed: Horrific fishing method destroys all marine life in the country

The report, which was unveiled by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Units, said Tanzania was the only country in Africa where fishermen widely used homemade bombs to kill hundreds of fish in seconds.

MCS operation preparing confiscated gears for destroying

It said blast fishing, as it is called, not only destroys large numbers of fish directly, but also indirectly destroys the coral reef and a rich array of marine animals which depend on it.
Experts believe that in Tanzania blast fishing occurs at unprecedented rates, in part because a boom in mining and construction has made it easier for people to acquire dynamite. Bottle bombs made with kerosene and fertilizer are also used.
“It’s pretty obvious it’s on the rise again,” says Tim Davenport, country director of the Washington DC-based Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Tanzania programme.
Commenting on the report yesterday, a fisheries expert from the University of Dar es Salaam, who preferred anonymity, said blast fishing was the worst practice as it destroyed coral reefs which are essential for fish breeding.
The expert said the malpractice also destroyed the coral reef’s biodiversity due to the use of explosives, thus adversely affecting tourist attractions.
The source said corals which were being destroyed, which had taken many years to grow, would take decades for them to recover.
The expert however said there was a need for the government to ensure that fishermen abided by the laws governing sustainable fishing.
“If the government decided to work on the problem it could be addressed within a short time. It has got district commissioners and municipal directors who are aware of the illegal fishing and they are in a good position to ensure that fishermen do not use such illegal methods,” the source said, adding:
“The fishermen are aware of the impact of illegal fishing methods, but they have been using them because the government has not been tough enough in ensuring that fishermen do not practice illegal fishing.”
Efforts to reach the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock, Mwigulu Nchemba, yesterday to comment on the report were unsuccessful.
However, the report says that blast fishing in Tanzania dates back to the 1960s, adding that it was outlawed in 1970. Cheaper and vastly more productive methods, such as basket traps and hook and line, were safer while blast fishing, apart from being destructive, was also dangerous as errant blasts could shatter limbs and even kill people.
Tossed overboard, one bottle bomb could kill everything within a radius of 30 to 100 feet of the blast. An explosion can rupture a fish’s swim bladder, the organ that gives it buoyancy. Most of the dead fish sink, but fishermen are ready with nets to scoop up those which float to the surface.
“With numerous blasts occurring daily on reefs all over the country over a period of several decades,” Greg Wagner of the University of Dar es Salaam wrote in a 2004 study, “the overall impact of dynamite fishing on coral reefs in Tanzania has been devastating.”
It was European armies during World War I which introduced dynamite fishing as a way to catch a quick, fresh meal, according to marine expert Michel Bariche. Some countries, such as Kenya and Mozambique, have succeeded in curbing it, but it still goes on in Lebanon, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Myanmar, among others countries.
Tanzania is the only country in Africa where blast fishing still occurs on a large scale, says an official with SmartFish, a fisheries programme funded by the European Union. When a fisherman can rake in a profit of $1,800 at the Dar es Salaam fish market from a single blast, a BBC report notes, it’s not hard to see why people do it.
According to the report, Davenport and other researchers stumbled upon the intensity of Tanzania’s problem earlier this year. They had set out in March to gather information about whale and dolphin species inhabiting Tanzania’s coast. But when they heard more explosions than cetacean whistles on their hydrophone recordings, they decided to analyse the data too.
It said the researchers counted more than 300 explosions in 30 days, or 231 hours, of underwater recordings from the Tanzania-Kenya border down to Mozambique.
“What we wanted to show was how extensive this is,” says Davenport, “and it’s going all the way up and down the coast.”
Most of the blasts - more than 60 percent - occurred within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the city of Dar es Salaam, according to the November 2015 report, but other hot spots included areas near Songo Songo island, Tanga region and the coastal town of Lindi. Seventy per cent of the explosions happened between 9am and 1pm, “suggesting little evidence of concern for the risk of detection by the authorities,” the report notes.
In Tanzania, about two-thirds of the country’s coastline harbours reefs, which support fish, crab, and other species, and play a crucial role in controlling carbon dioxide levels in the ocean. They thrive in shallow waters, where blast fishing is most prolific.
“Some of these corals have been growing for decades,” says Gabby Ahmadia, a marine conservation scientist with World Wildlife Fund.
“When you damage them, it can take decades for them to recover, and sometimes not at all,” he laments.
A study of coral reefs in Tanga region revealed that fish densities were 12 times higher on a reef with little dynamite damage versus one nearby that was heavily dynamited, the WCS report notes. The report also cites anecdotal evidence that blasts have killed dolphins, the endangered Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins which swim in Tanzania’s waters.
Beyond environmental damage, blast fishing threatens the livelihood of legitimate fishermen, who blame dynamite for recent declines in their catch. That’s according to a 2014 report by Mwambao Coastal Community Network, a nonprofit body in Tanzania which helps to combat blast fishing.
Then there’s the threat to tourism, which constitutes 17 per cent of Tanzania’s gross domestic product.
“People won’t be interested in going to the beach if there are explosions and the coral is being systematically destroyed,” Davenport says, adding: “If people are scared to swim in the waters because of incidents like this, that’s a big problem.”
In June, last year, the Tanzanian government launched the Multi-Agency Task Team to deal with wildlife crimes such as blast fishing.
“The focus will be to target individuals and networks that control this illegal trade, bring them to justice, and seize any assets obtained through their crimes,” Magese Emmanuel Bulayi, a principal fisheries officer in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, said during a meeting on blast fishing last month.
Formation of the task force shows that there is political will to end blast fishing, but it wouldn’t be the first time the country has tried to clamp down on the malpractice.
“Occasionally it’s been cracked down on, but temporarily,” Davenport says. From 1997 to 2003, the navy and marine police combined forces with local programmes to enforce the blast fishing ban.
Scant resources, confusion over who’s supposed to enforce the law, and lenient sentences for offenders have perpetuated the problem. The country’s Fisheries Act of 2003 imposes a minimum of five years for dynamite fishing, but according to marine conservationist Sue Wells, people rarely receive that sentence.
Davenport says he wants the WCS study to help efforts against blast fishing.
“I hope that, in conjunction with the earlier reports, people will realize that it’s extremely serious, that it’s not going away, and it needs to be tackled,” she says.