Tackling fish-bombing among the coral reefs of Malaysia’s Sabah

With tourism hit by the pandemic and local people struggling to make ends meet, many fear a resurgence of this destructive fishing method
<p>An unexploded, homemade fish bomb off the Mantanani islands, Sabah (Image: Adzmin Fatta / Reef Check Malaysia)</p>

An unexploded, homemade fish bomb off the Mantanani islands, Sabah (Image: Adzmin Fatta / Reef Check Malaysia)

At the sound of a muffled “boom”, the divers pause and look uneasily at each other and their divemaster. Luckily, the blast seems far enough for the group to continue exploring the colourful reef.

What is fish-bombing?

Bottles, usually containing a mix of ammonium nitrate fertiliser and petroleum, are fitted with a timed fuse and dropped into the water. The ensuing explosion kills or stuns fish, which are then scooped out of the water. It is also known as blast or dynamite fishing.

Fish-bombing is the stuff of nightmares for the diving industry in Sabah state, Malaysian Borneo. Not only does it put off the tourists, it also devastates marine life and endangers the fishers themselves.

Action to address the practice has been ongoing for at least 16 years across several Asian countries. In Sabah, this action has intensified in the last six years as tourism has become increasingly central to the state’s economy and coastal communities. Programmes have been run by various concerned stakeholders and the government-led Anti-Fish Bombing Committee. As a result, there has been a decline in the practice in Sabah.

(Map: Suweii Chong / China Dialogue Ocean)

AreaFromToDecrease in fish-bombing incidentsData source
Mantanani Islands2014201983%Reef Check Malaysia
Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area2014201980%Reef Guardian
Semporna district islands2018201973%WWF-Malaysia
Tun Mustapha Park20192020Baseline data collectedWWF-Malaysia

In March last year, Covid-19 abruptly shut down tourism in Sabah, cutting off this vital source of income and increasing food insecurity for local communities. So far, data shared with China Dialogue Ocean from former fish-bombing hotspot the Mantanani islands, as well as information from other monitored islands, indicate the illegal practice has not increased. But as the tourism drought continues, some fear desperate fishers will return or resort to fish-bombing and other unsustainable practices. In its 2020 report on fish-bombing in Mantanani, the NGO Reef Check Malaysia sounded a warning note: “The impact of the pandemic on jobs reliant on tourism will contribute to community members becoming fish bombers again.”

The Mantanani islands are a popular tourist destination, especially for diving. The Covid-19 lockdown has severely impacted local incomes. (Image: Reef Check Malaysia)

Data can inform enforcement

Several programmes monitor fish-bombing in Sabah. They use detectors to record information such as blast location, time and size. The data is then analysed and shared with relevant agencies, enabling a more targeted approach to enforcement.

One of these programmes involves the Hong Kong-based Oceanway Corporation. It has been supplying detectors and analysing data in Sabah since 2005, and intensively since 2014 in tandem with non-profit The Reef Defenders and local NGOs.

A blast detector installed by non-profit group The Reef Defenders to prevent fish bombing
A blast detector installed by non-profit group The Reef Defenders. It can detect blasts caused by a beer-bottle-sized bomb up to 30km away. (Image: The Reef Defenders)

“Generally the activity has reduced in Sabah during the Covid-19 period,” said Paul Hodgson, Oceanway’s director.

Local NGOs are putting this down to an increased presence of enforcement agencies. Malaysia’s border controls to rein in Covid-19 have been strict, particularly in Sabah where pandemic deaths currently make up about a third of the country’s total. The state is located very close to the Philippines, and in normal times people move regularly between the two countries.

“There has been an increase of navy and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency patrol ships near the borders. I think their presence has reduced fish-bombing activities,” said Dr Achier Chung, lead marine biologist with Reef Guardian.

The NGO manages reefs in the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area off Sabah’s northeast coast. It implements an effective monitoring and enforcement strategy based on data from blast detectors and a radar tracking system otherwise used for border control purposes. The three islands in the privately run protected area have no permanent inhabitants; but illegal fishers come from the mainland and the Philippines.

Chung said the NGO has wildlife wardens who patrol the waters with the assistance of police, and apprehend encroachers. In the five years between 2014 and 2019, they had reduced the number of fish-bombing incidents from 49 per day to less than 10, she said.

A Reef Guardian patrol checks on a boat suspected of fish-bombing in the Sugud Islands marine conservation area
A Reef Guardian patrol checks on a boat suspected of fish-bombing in the Sugud Islands Marine Conservation Area (Image: Achier Chung / Reef Guardian)

Meanwhile, on Sabah’s west coast, a fish-bombing response plan is being developed for a much larger area. The Tun Mustapha Park covers more than 50 islands across nearly 9,000 square kilometres. It is the state’s newest and largest marine park and has its second highest coral concentration.

As a multiple-use conservation area, its fishing grounds support the livelihoods of about 85,000 people, said Joannie Jomitol of WWF-Malaysia.

Fish-bombing has been practised there for generations and “destroys coral habitats”, she added. “Healthy coral habitats support better livelihoods for coastal communities… and can withstand inevitable climate change impacts such as coral bleaching.”

fish-bombing: A Reef Guardian patrol check fish for internal trauma to see if they were killed by a fish-bomb (Image © Achier Chung / Reef Guardian)
A Reef Guardian patrol checks fish for internal trauma to see if they were killed by a fish bomb (Image: Achier Chung / Reef Guardian)

Fish-bomb detectors were installed throughout the park two years ago by a government-led multi-stakeholder task force including WWF-Malaysia. The detectors have yielded nine months of baseline data, which is being fed into the park’s response plan.

Jomitol believes the effort to end fish-bombing needs everyone to be involved.

Communication is a key part of this, she said. “How are we going to frame this fish-bombing messaging so that it will build awareness and enable the public to take informed actions about it?”

Involving the community

It is critical that local people see the connection between sustainable fishing and better livelihoods. During a 2018 dialogue with local fishers, Fazrullah Abdul Razak of Sabah Parks emphasised the importance of protecting habitats and biodiversity conservation for food security and human wellbeing.

Including local people in sustainable marine resource programmes has become even more important in the face of pandemic-related lockdowns and economic hardship.

“We believe that the community is part of the solution and [are] our coastal frontliners,” said Tommy Cheo of WWF-Malaysia.

WWF-Malaysia talks with community representatives on Tigabu island about protecting marine resources in the Tun Mustapha Park (Image: WWF-Malaysia Marine Program)

Cheo works in Semporna, a district on Sabah’s southeast coast whose waters contain the largest coral concentration in Malaysia. Semporna is also home to one of Sabah’s largest fisher communities and two marine parks.

Cheo said island communities in the district have been provided with training and resources to help manage their marine resources sustainably through “locally managed marine areas, and indigenous and community conserved areas”. Cheo believes this approach has helped local people find alternatives to fish-bombing.

Hodgson from Oceanway agrees, but added: “You need to look further than the fish-bombing… You see, the bombing is an indicator of the other illegal activity happening in an area. With the major effort seemingly targeting just this activity in the small-scale grassroots local fishing community, most other illegal, unreported and unregulated [IUU] fishing has probably increased in some areas. Especially with the larger-scale fishers.”

China Dialogue Ocean was unable to verify increases in other IUU fishing in Sabah with government agencies or NGOs.

Hodgson said: “In areas where we see massive reductions in fish bombing – like more than 90% – one would expect an increase in fish populations. Well, this doesn’t happen in most areas. What we see happen is an increase in electric and other IUU fishing.”

According to Reef Check Malaysia’s 2019 Status of Coral Reefs in Malaysia report, populations of high-value species such as grouper and shellfish are not recovering well from past overfishing, while live coral cover declined between 2015 and 2019.

The report mentions fish-bombing as a threat in all seven sites surveyed in Sabah, along with unregulated tourism and lack of waste management. But monitoring is not easy. In the Semporna area, WWF-Malaysia’s Cheo said detectors have been stolen in the past, with another destroyed by a blast.

“WWF-Malaysia do not own enough detectors to monitor the whole of Semporna, and there is still a huge gap for monitoring,” he added.

‘Education and alternative livelihoods’

 Despite continuing to furnish local groups with detectors, Hodgson actually suggested their use should be bypassed altogether.

“The issue has been identified as socio-economic, and the permanent solution to this and other IUU [fishing] is education and alternative livelihoods. This approach was used… [in] places like Batangas [in the] Philippines in the 1980s. Recent monitoring in these locations reports no bombing, good fish stocks and healthy corals. No elaborate technology, just all of the money raised used to support the establishment of alternative livelihoods and reef restoration.”

Hodgson proposes a three-point strategy for stopping fish-bombing: stop the flow of blasting detonators (a job for the land police); stop the sale of blasted fish to fish mills and in wet markets (fisheries officer inspections and patrols); and give fishers other ways to make money (NGOs).

A key alternative livelihood has been tourism. In 2019, the sector was the third highest earner for Sabah, having grown 8% on the previous year. The value of the diving subsector alone was estimated at 420 million Malaysian ringgit (US$104 million) in 2017.

When the China market became really big, fish-bombing became less.

Many of the tourists visiting before the pandemic were from China. By 2019, the proportion had reached 43%, helping create jobs and raise incomes in coastal communities.

Allister Lee, a dive tour operator of 20 years, said: “When the China market became really big, fish-bombing became less. As the economy grows because of tourism, local people can afford higher quality of food – they know it’s best for health.”

In Mantanani, the vast majority of islanders had transitioned away from fishing to tourism pre-pandemic. About half developed skill sets for sustainable tourism with the help of Reef Check Malaysia, according to the NGO’s Mantanani programme manager, Adzmin Fatta.

But the tourism shut-down has emphasised the danger of depending on a single source of income, and the NGO has initiated an economic recovery programme, said Adzmin.

“It is essential to help the local community to recover from the [pandemic] impact as well as to increase their resilience for future tourism shocks, through the diversification of economic activities in the island.”

A group of women on Mantanani island have taken the lead in establishing a community initiative to generate an alternative source of income making coconut oil (Image: Adzmin Fatta / Reef Check Malaysia)
A group of women on Mantanani island have taken the lead in establishing a community initiative to generate an alternative source of income making coconut oil (Image: Adzmin Fatta / Reef Check Malaysia)

One of these projects is already going well. Using traditional knowledge, six villagers, all women, are producing coconut oil from the island’s plentiful coconut trees. Production is on a small scale “but it helps to generate income,” said Mainah binti Maulana, who runs a now-empty tourist homestay.

Developing alternative livelihoods and skills is about much more than tackling fish-bombing. It requires sustainable co-management of the island.

Adzmin said: “We all want it to become a community-led marine protected area where it’s not just about protecting the environment, but the local community have long-term resilience and can sustainably benefit from marine resources through harvesting and tourism.”

Faizul the divemaster

Mantanani islander and “eco-diver” Mohd Faizul bin Madali (Image: Adzmin Fatta / Reef Check Malaysia)(Image: Adzmin Fatta / Reef Check Malaysia)

Mantanani native Mohd Faizul bin Madali is twiddling his thumbs waiting for the pandemic to end and tourists to return. He is a divemaster and has been without work since lockdowns began in March 2020, relying instead on his family to support him.

“Previously, my life was diving, eating, sleeping,” says the 22-year-old. “Now, it’s eating, sleeping, eating, sleeping.”

He says virtually everyone in his village of 100 people has been dependent on tourism. The same is true of the other, larger village on Mantanani, the only inhabited island of a small group off Sabah’s northwest coast.

With tourists still unable to visit, many islanders have returned to fishing as a way to make a living. As Faizul remarks, there are very few alternatives: “Where else are we going to get an income if not from the sea?”

When asked if they use fish bombs, he is quick to respond: “No, no, no! Not any more.” If fish-bombing is taking place around the islands, he is adamant the perpetrators are “outsiders, maybe from Kota Kinabalu [on the mainland]”.

Faizul has reported to the authorities the intrusion of non-local fishing boats during lockdown, incensed that they used nets in shallow waters, destroying the coral.

“I felt sad because the coral used to be alive, but they killed it. Thank goodness there are laws [to tackle this]… Tourism also depends on corals being beautiful and healthy. Who wants to look at dead corals? And Chinese tourists are very particular!”

Faizul (second from right) joins other Reef Check Malaysia divers to “plant” new corals on a Mantanani reef destroyed by fish-bombing (Image: Adzmin Fatta / Reef Check Malaysia)

A certified “eco-diver”, Faizul is also part of Reef Check Malaysia’s Mantanani Youth Club, a capacity-building conservation initiative, and takes an active part in the NGO’s reef surveys.

Unlike other islanders, however, he has not turned to fishing to make ends meet: “How would I know how to do that? What I can do is bring people diving and teach them how to dive.”

This article is a collaboration with the Malaysian environmental journalism site Macaranga.