In the Philippines, Dynamite Fishing Decimates Entire Ocean Food Chains

By Aurora Almendral

BOHOL, Philippines — Nothing beats dynamite fishing for sheer efficiency.

A fisherman in this scattering of islands in the central Philippines balanced on a narrow outrigger boat and launched a bottle bomb into the sea with the ease of a quarterback. It exploded in a violent burst, rocking the bottom of our boat and filling the air with an acrid smell. Fish bobbed onto the surface, dead or gasping their last breaths.

Under the water, coral shattered into rubble.

The blast ruptured the internal organs of reef fish, fractured their spines or tore at their flesh with coral shrapnel. From microscopic plankton to sea horses, anemones and sharks, little survives inside the 30- to 100-foot radius of an explosion.

With 10,500 square miles of coral reef, the Philippines is a global center for marine biodiversity, which the country has struggled to protect in the face of human activity and institutional inaction. But as the effects of climate change on oceans become more acute, stopping dynamite and other illegal fishing has taken on a new urgency.

According to the initial findings of a survey of Philippine coral reefs conducted from 2015 to 2017 and published in the Philippine Journal of Science, there are no longer any reefs in excellent condition, and 90 percent were classified as either poor or fair. A 2017 report by the United Nations predicts that all 29 World Heritage coral reefs, including one in the Philippines, will die by 2100 unless carbon emissions are drastically reduced.

The effects of climate change — warming waters and acidification that cause coral bleaching and push some reefs to death — are difficult to address. But if the stresses caused by human activity can be stopped, Dr. Alino explained, coral reefs have a better chance of surviving.

Dynamite fishing destroys both the food chain and the corals where the fish nest and grow. Blast fishing kills the entire food chain, including plankton, fish both large and small, and the juveniles that do not grow old enough to spawn. Without healthy corals, the ecosystem and the fish that live within it begin to die off.

New York Times journalists embedded with dynamite fishermen in Bohol who gave exclusive access on the condition that we not use their names or the names of the islands where they live, for fear of being arrested.

With a rubber hose attached to an air pump wedged between his teeth, and no other gear aside from a single homemade flipper and a pair of goggles, one of the fishermen sank 30 feet into the water after the bomb went off. He lurched along the ocean floor, collecting stunned and dead fish among the crevices and broken coral.

Twenty minutes later he surfaced, heaving for breath, with five high-value reef fish and 12 pounds of scad and sardines. It was a small catch. The men on the boat saved a few handfuls for their families, and sold the rest to a local trader. The two men split the earnings, about $10, between them.

The fisherman says it is the only job he knows that earns this kind of money. For legal net fishermen, six pounds of fish is a good day. Often, they come back with nothing. With dynamite fishing he can come back with 20 pounds and sometimes as much as 45 pounds, if he lucks out with a large jack or grouper.

Back on the island, one of the men lit a gas burner under a pan and used his bare hand to stir a splash of kerosene into white beads of solid ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer has been illegal in the Philippines since 2002, but the men buy sacks of it from dealers on a neighboring island.