A reflection on marine conservation and destructive fishing.
Wakatobi Marine Park in southern Indonesia is considered a protected region with the highest marine biodiversity in the world. As far back as the 60s diving pioneer Jacque Cousteau considered it among the most beautiful places to dive on the planet.
Nowadays this region and its reefs are heavily protected as being among the top reef hotspots in the world that help to support and preserve sealife.
With the recent destruction of the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef, keeping these protected regions protected and thriving is our duty to our planet, right? Sadly, the reality is not so simple.
I spent 6 weeks diving in the Wakatobi Marine Park with the NGO Operation Wallacea. OpWall created this Marine Protected Area back in 1996 once studies they had undertaken in the region showed how damaged the reefs were. It is only recently that the reefs have begun to show meaningful regeneration towards their former glory.
Naturally, this idea of the reef quality improving and all the years of careful study that OpWall has put in assessing the reef from a variety of aspects have created this idea, for me anyway, that Wakatobi is a marine safe haven that will help the world’s reefs and oceans.
This idea was suddenly shattered one dive. We were conducting our survey at one of the reef sites when there was an explosive bang underwater. Myself and my dive partner looked around in panic, believing the worst had happened: someone’s tank had exploded. It was not until after the dive and we had reached the shore that we learnt what had truly happened. Another group of divers surveying nearby had been forced to abort their dive as some locals began blast fishing.
Blast fishing is an illegal type of fishing that involves dropping explosives into the water to stun/kill large quantities of fish at a time. The fish are killed by shockwaves or their swim bladders are ruptured.  Dynamite or more commonly homemade explosives of ammonium nitrate and kerosene are used.
It is among the most destructive forms of fishing that can be undertaken as it decimates the seabed underneath. Unlike ordinary coral degradation there is no chance for recovery from blast fishing.  I was aware that blast fishing had occurred in the region in the past, given that areas of dead coral and craters litter the reefs in places. However, I hadn’t realised it still occurred, at least not so close to the research sites for the marine park! Surely such destructive practices on such critical reef systems wouldn’t be allowed?
The more I thought about it, the more problematic the situation of marine conservation became to me. While terrestrial parks can be fenced in and, as a result, regulated more easily, a marine park has no fences and is defined on paper only. Sealife comes and goes more freely but more importantly people still live within it.
In somewhere like Wakatobi the Bajau people have lived and thrived there for their entire existence.
For us to come in and declare a marine protected area and move them out for the protection of the reefs is an unfair and impossible task. Instead we have had to educate and compromise to try and maintain this protection.
Sadly “the best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew”, and the region is still slowly being more and more damaged by overfishing and harmful practices. The government is supposed to have a series of officers patrolling the region regularly to deter these practices. However, as several staff members informed us, no such officers have ever been seen actually performing their duty in the Park.
It’s not just in Wakatobi that this destruction has happened. At the world heritage site of Komodo National Park, some of the coral reefs have recently been reduced to desolate, grey moonscapes from blast fishing.
The practice is so widespread that a report from 1999 estimated that some 70,000 fishermen in the Phillippines (12% of the total) still used blast fishing as their main method of fishing.
Outside of these ‘protected’ regions the reefs are even more in danger. I spent 2 weeks after Wakatobi surveying in South Buton. I found the reefs were barely functioning in places due to even more harmful fishing methods like bubu traps and trawling. Algae blooms from run-off choked coral in places, only just supporting acceptable levels of marine life. Closer to beaches where fishing and boating were most popular the coral had all but been destroyed in large areas, with only a few tougher forms like Aquapora clinging to an existence.
All this destruction coupled with increased bleaching from global warming spells almost certain death for our world’s coral population.
As our lecturer half-jokingly/half-morbidly told us this year: “(his) generation is the one that has messed up the balance of this world, and it’s up to your generation to fix our mistakes”.
- Lewis, J.A. – “Effects of underwater explosions on life in the sea” Australian Department of Defence, 1996
- Fox, H. E., Pet, J. S., Dahuri, R., & Caldwell -” Recovery in rubble fields: long-term impacts of blast fishing” – Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2003
- Sievert, R. – A Closer Look at Blast Fishing in the Philippines