The depths of destruction

Dynamite fishing ravages Philippines' precious coral reefs


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A scuba diver inspects dynamited reefs in the Sulu Sea. The reefs' remoteness, biological richness and scant state presence make them vulnerable. Photo by Wolcott Henry, special to the Chronicle


(05-30) 04:00 PDT Subic Bay, Philippines -- Although some of the world's most extensive coral reefs are found in the Philippines, they are under such sustained assault by dynamite fishing that marine biologists say the corals are on the verge of utter collapse.

"There are many horrific things going on in the world's oceans, but this tops the list," said John McCosker, the chairman of aquatic biology at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. "When divers talked about the world's finest coral reefs 20 years ago, the consensus for the top spot was always the Philippines, but nobody feels that way now."

Coral reefs constitute vital ecosystems for fisheries and wildlife and are even a source of medicine. Chemicals extracted from a Caribbean reef sponge are used in AZT, a treatment for AIDS.

But a variety of threats -- coastal development, global warming and, increasingly, dynamite fishing -- are exerting catastrophic pressure on reefs around the globe.

Few places offer a more sobering example of the impact of dynamite fishing than the waters off this former U.S. naval base -- an area that once supported luxuriant corals just a few years ago.

An expatriate diver who prefers the pseudonym "Billy" because of several unpleasant run-ins with dynamiters recently took a Chronicle reporter on a tour of one of Subic's devastated reefs.

"Ten years ago, this area just teemed with fish," Billy said. "Now -- well, you'll see."

He donned his scuba gear, tipped backward from the gunwales of his dive boat and descended through the pellucid, warm water. The reef could be seen as a dark, mottled mass 60 feet below.

There were a few small fish -- some fusiliers, a lone batfish. But there were none of the big groupers and ponderous snappers and gigantic manta rays normally associated with these waters.

And there was no coral -- no living coral, at least. There were only piles and drifts of dead coral rubble littering the rocks and sand.

REEFS BECOMING DESERTS

The reef, which had been growing bit by bit for centuries, had been blasted into oblivion within a few months along with vast populations of fish, lobster,

giant clams, shrimp and sea turtles that depended on corals for food and shelter.

Back in the boat, Billy gestured toward the west shore of the bay. "It's the same way -- the corals are completely gone. Every night you hear them blowing up the reef so they can get a few fish -- boom, boom," he said. "It's turning the reefs into deserts."

According to a U.N. survey last year, the world's coral reefs -- 113,720 square miles spread among 101 countries and territories -- are declining rapidly because of dynamite and cyanide fishing, pollution and climate change.

The state of coral reefs in Southeast Asia is particularly grim.

A report released in February called "Reefs at Risk: Southeast Asia" by the World Resources Institute and the United Nations Environment Program, showed that 90 percent of reefs in Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and China are threatened, while 85 percent are at risk in Malaysia.

The report also said the major reef nations of Indonesia and the Philippines, which contain 77 percent of the region's coral reef systems, are in deep trouble. While 86 percent of Indonesia's reefs are seriously threatened by human activities, the figure is a whopping 98 percent in the Philippines.

Dynamite -- or, more commonly, plastic bottles filled with an explosive nitrate and diesel fuel mixture -- began gaining widespread popularity among Filipino fishermen about 15 years ago, Billy and other critics say.

But the issue didn't gain global attention until the mid-1990s, forcing the Philippine government to pass stiff legislation against dynamite fishing. Critics, however, say the law has not been vigorously enforced and note destruction in some areas has even accelerated.

FISHERMEN, INDUSTRY BLAMED


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