(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,
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
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
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