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Blast Fishing


Blast fishing is one of the more pervasive threats to coral reefs in the world today. In the Philippines it's illegal. In April 2006, Tony Oposa and Jo Jo de la Victoria accompanied a crack government team on a raid to arrest a gang of blast fishers. After the raid, Oposa and de la Victoria counselled the community on the environmental damage caused by blast fishing. Some listened - others did not. Two days later, one of them was dead. Earth Report travels to the Visayan Sea... This is the story of two men's efforts to rid their seas of the blast fishing scourge.

The Visayan Sea, in the centre of the Philippine archipelago, is so rich in marine biodiversity that it contains more species of marine life than even the great barrier reef in Australia. But paradoxically, this biological wealth has attracted destruction and death.

Nygiel B. Armada, Fiah, Fisheries Manager: Unfortunately, Visayan Sea based on our recent studies well as comparing it to the studies before, has reduced in terms of its biomass by about 50%. ... It used to have something like 6 tons per square kilometre of fishes. But recently it just has about 2.6 tons per square kilometres of Visayan Sea.

Blast fishing is incredibly lucrative and less effort than traditional fishing. Since the end of world war two, the rampant use of explosives has depleted the Visayan Sea's rich and varied marine life... A practice, ironically, jeopardizing the families and future livelihoods of the very fisherman throwing the bombs. The ingredients for home made bombs are easy to come by - and the bombs themselves, even easier to make. Within minutes one is ready for use. When a school of fish is spied - a fuse is quickly lit and the bomb thrown... It's as easy as that.
Bomb Blast fisherman throwing a bomb
Nicola Barnard, ICRAN: Blast fisherman try to target large schooling fish that are associated with coral reefs that include rabbit fish, surgeon fish and snappers. However, the blast itself is indiscriminate, so not only are these target species killed, but any other species in the immediate area will be affected. These include any juveniles, which has an immediate impact on the recruitment into future fish stocks.

But a blast does more than just kill fish. It pulverizes the coral reef into rubble, sometimes leaving behind a crater three to four metres wide ... And avalanches material down slopes, smothering coral colonies, and further extending the impact of damage. Blast fishing also takes a human toll. No one knows the exact number of injuries or fatalities on a yearly basis, but in villages where the practice is common, it is not unusual to see 5 to 10 per cent of the male population missing hands, or even arms.

Roberto Collamat, former blast fisher: At one point when I was fishing I got into a situation where there were a lot of fish, left and right - and I was too careless because I wanted to get all of the fish without thinking of my safety - and it was not just the arm, but half of my body was blasted... thinking about it later, it was like nature getting back at me...

But nature is not alone in getting back at the blast fishers - Tony Oposa and Jo Jo de la Victoria joined forces over five years ago to stop the practice of blast fishing in the Visiayan Sea.

Greg Algoso, National Bureau of Investigation: Jo Jo is the head of the Banta Dagat commission in Cebu City, where most of the blasted fish are sold... particularly at Parsil market... Tony Oposa is the chairman of the IBP, national environment action team...

In addition to his duties as chairman of the environmental action team, Tony Oposa is a full time lawyer.

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: I think that Filipinos have abused our marine resources because we had not understood how rich we are, and how precious these things are.
JoJo Tony and Jo Jo
Tony and Jo Jo used a combined anti-blast fishing strategy that included community-run sea patrols, market denial for blasted fish, and educating fisherman and their families on the destructive nature of blast fishing. Tony and his sea patrol group called the Visayan Sea squadron regularly stop at remote islands to give lectures ... Vividly announcing their presence. Tony would quickly march ashore and sit community leaders down for a good hard talk.

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: You cannot arrest everybody and put them in jail. But hopefully we will be able to capture their hearts and their minds. ... We are trying to persuade them in ways using social values, cultural characteristics. And where that fails, use the power of the law... I explained to them how this place is known to be one of the hot spots of dynamite fishing... and I pleaded with them to please talk to their constituents and tell them its time to stop.

While Tony Oposa would educate, Jo Jo and his men, routinely patrolled the waters around cebu city, hunting for blast fishers. And whereas Tony and his team could only use bottle rockets, Jo Jo worked with professional law officers authorized by the city of cebu to carry arms. They also have the authority to stop and board fishing boats, and inspect catches for illegally caught fish. If any blasted fish are found, the catch is impounded, and the fisherman arrested. For Tony and Jo Jo, preventing bomb-making ingredients from reaching blast fishers was another important part of their deterrent methods.

April 2006, acting on an undercover tip, they accompanied the Filipino national bureau of investigation on a raid to a hotbed of blast fishing activity. They reached Caubian Island - a potential tropical paradise, yet more like something out of the Hollywood movie waterworld. It's packed with over four thousand people... Fisherman and their families, barely able to scratch a living... But capable of making a quick peso by throwing a bomb into the sea...the purpose of the raid was to seize packs of explosive material and blasting caps used in illegal fishing. The agents had national search warrants for five targets, which they struck simultaneously. Explosive material and blasting caps were found... And five fishermen arrested. As part of the community education programme, Jo Jo and Tony talked to the fisherman, their wives and children, explaining how blast fishing was destroying the environment - and making it harder for them to catch fish. Some people listened, but there were others who weren't interested in hearing Jo Jo and Tony's message about saving the sea. Two days later, Jo Jo arrived home from work. As he came through his front gate, an assassin fired a hail of bullets... Vincent, his son, was inside the house when it happened.

Vincent De La Victoria: I just heard him screaming. He told me that he was being shot, that's why I went out of my room... and I helped him get inside our house... then I brought him to the hospital.

With four bullets in his back, Jo Jo died early the next morning.

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: I was on the beach then, somebody called me and said ‘Jo Jo was shot. Where are you?' "Why?" ‘Be sure you are safe.' "Why?" ‘Jo Jo was shot.'...One thing I am sure of, one thing I am almost 100% certain is it is related to our campaign to protect and restore the seas.

The question remained, however, would the death of Jo Jo mean open season for the blast fishers? The senseless killing of Jo Jo de la Victoria rocked Cebu City. Three days later, witnesses identified a local policeman as the hired gunman - and he was arrested. The person who ordered and paid for the killing, however, remained at large.

Tomas R. Osmeña, Mayor, Cebu City: We're really after the mastermind and we're not even clear on who it might be. But it's definitely some wealthy group or individual that is engaged in illegal fishing activity. One is a possible dealer of explosives. Another one, a local government official somewhere on the island.

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: I buried him. Joined a 6 kilometre long funeral procession. And buried him. By some stroke, immediately after, my spirit lifted. I organized the team, we went out right away to have dinner and said ‘One of us has left but leaves us a message. And the message is: ‘if you who have ordered his killing think that you have extinguished the fire of our fervour, you have only fanned the flames of passion'.

Tomas R. Osmeña, Mayor, Cebu City: It's only when he got murdered I got furious. Not only because of what happened, I got furious myself. I said my God, this guy really hated him. Now what do I do?...Things I used to take for granted, how do you fill in this gap? And we miss Jo Jo.

Soon afterwards, a retired army colonel was appointed to replace Jo Jo as director of Cebu City's Bantay Dagat.

Col. Cesar J. Enriquez, Bantay Dagat: When I took over there was a little bit low moral because of what happened, to the late Jo Jo Victoria... but I told them we will try to follow his footsteps and implement what he started...
NBI NBI agents on patrol
The colonel quickly stepped up sea patrol operations... Simultaneously, he and his men teamed up with government fish inspectors to conduct a "market denial" raid on the city's main fish market.

Col. Cesar J. Enriquez, Bantay Dagat: All fishes coming from the different areas, from the south, from the north, from Sombronga, are all directly put into this fish market.

The colonel and his men fan out, the idea was to inspect the shipments for fish caught by blasting. If any are found then the entire load would be confiscated. In theory, raids like this discourage wholesalers from buying illegally caught fish - denying a market to the blast fishers, and forcing them out of business. However, with tons of fish arriving nightly, the colonel and his small team can only spot-check the shipments. Even determining if a fish had been caught by an illegal blast wasn't easy. The first step was to look for outward signs - blood in the eyeball, or internal organs protruding out the anus. But to be sure requires an internal investigation - the vertebrae column is usually broken, internal organs crushed, with blood in the organ cavity. The colonel's men soon discover one shipment that looked very suspicious.

Col. Cesar J. Enriquez, Bantay Dagat: We cannot open it without the presence of the owner or his representative... I'm not to sure about the box... most of the fishes coming from Sabunga packed in this manner are 80 to 90 per cent positive. You see the hardship of trying to check whether it was blasted or not? it's very cold... it's like the south pole when you put your hands there... no more internal organs, so we cannot determine if it was caught by blast fishing...

Because the organs have been removed, there is no evidence showing an illegal catch, so the fish inspector officially releases the shipment back to the owner. But it's early yet, with trucks still arriving... And soon the colonel and his men find what they are looking for.

Col. Cesar J. Enriquez, Bantay Dagat: you see the internal organs are ruptured... 04:38... first positive of the night. According to him he bought it and he's sure it was not a blasted or dynamited fish ... The fisherman that sold the fish to him maybe was in a hurry to fill up the bucket. The fishes that are in good shape are not enough to fill up the bucket... maybe he put in some dynamited fish, ten or twenty just to fill up the bucket.

As an incentive to go straight, the colonel gives the man back his box of fish. The other box, still unclaimed by its owner... Will be confiscated, and before the night is out, the fish donated to charity. Meanwhile, as the colonel and his men patrol the seas and the markets, Tony Oposa continues his anti-blast fishing efforts through the courts.

Alberto E. Dico Jr., Defence Attorney: Six adult fishermen were caught with 3 minors. And then during the arraignment, the adult accused pleaded guilty to the crime. The sentence was supposed to be 5 to 10 years. But then we were able to plea bargain...

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: One of the purposes of penology of the penal system is to reform the persons of the offenders...we respectfully suggest that for the next 10 months they will serve one year, as part of their probation, they will serve one day every week for the next 10 months duration of the sentence, as a volunteer fish warden, to assist in the enforcement of anti-illegal fishing laws.

The concept of fish blasters working off their sentences as fish wardens and tourists lifeguards in marine protected areas has worked out well in the Philippines. The Gilutungan marine sanctuary, in particular - was for years a blasted underwater landscape - and now is a thriving reef community that attracts visitors from around the world. Reformed blast fishers maintain a constant vigilance over the sanctuary, and happily collect tickets from tourists, whose diving fees add up to nearly a hundred thousand dollars a year, all of which goes to the local community. But in the Philippines, a marine sanctuary is an exception, and not the rule. And the use of explosives to catch fish continues.

Nicola Barnard, ICRAN: Not only is blast fishing a problem for the Philippines, but it's also a problem for more than forty countries, occurring in all areas of South-east Asia, parts of the South Pacific, and also countries in the Caribbean. It's also a significant management challenge for areas of eastern Africa.

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: In the end it is about education. It is about making people aware of what they have. And making them appreciate it and take better care of it.
Kids Tony Oposa has set up a school to teach environmental awareness.
Tony Oposa has set up a school that teaches environmental awareness to young kids.

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: snorkel... this is your window to the underwater...

The best teacher is a good example. If we show the kids how beautiful, how rich the sea can be, if we just took care of it... we shall have planted a few seeds in their minds.

Kids chanting:
No coral equals... NO FISH
No fish equals... NO FOOD
No food equals... NO PEOPLE

Oposa also plans to continue his anti-blast fishing efforts on the legal and enforcement front.

Tony Oposa, Attorney-at-Law: The Visayan Sea squadron has resumed its operations. ... This will be a series of continued enforcement operations until we eliminate the blast fishing industry. We do not intend just to minimize it. We intend to eliminate it. One blast is one blast too many.

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This article was published on Tuesday 12 August, 2008.

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