Cyanide Fishing

Fishermen in some parts of the world, particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, catch fish by squirting cyanide from plastic bottles into crevasses in the reef. The cyanide temporarily stuns the fish so they can be easily captured by hand or with small nets, often using a crowbar to pry apart the reef where the fish hide. Fisherman in the Philippines cover their faces for protection from jellyfish stings and can stay underwater for long periods of time thanks to hoses attached to an air compressor known as a “hookah.” The poison initially does not normally harm the fish but it hurts the living coral. Fishermen also use bleach and other chemicals to get fish. Sodium cyanide capsules are cheap and easy to obtain in Asia. All one has to do create cyanide is crush a couple of these capsules and put the powder into a spray bottle of water . Cyanide fishermen then dive around a coral reef, find they fish they want and squirt the toxic mixture in an area of the reef teeming with fish. Fishermen often store the cyanide in cans on the ocean floor to escape detection by authorities. Long-lasting cyanide kills fish, coral polyps and other forms sea life. The cyanide kills the algae of the reef on which fish feed. Then the coral itself starts to die. Cyanide fishing is also harmful to fisherman who handle the cyanide and have to search in deeper and deeper water to find fish. Recalling his fifth experience with the bends, one Filipino cyanide fishermen told National Geographic, “I went down 70 meters [230 feet] and worked for about two hours. I came straight up. A minute after I got in the boat, I went into shock.” He has been paralyzed from the waist down ever since. One in ten cyanide divers either dies or is disabled.

Cyanide Fishing Trade

The practice of cyanide fishing began in the 1960s to supply tropical fish for the international aquarium trade. Since the early 1980s many of the fish caught using the methods have gone to supply restaurants in Hong Kong, Singapore and increasingly mainland China that offer reef fish pulled from a tank. The practice reached in peak in the early 1990s when 330,000 pounds of poison was placed on 33 million coral heads a year. Small fish like clownfish and damselfish are captured for the tropical fish trade and large fish like grouper and rock cod are caught for restaurants. Half the fish die while being transported. While cyanide fishing is illegal, the selling of fish caught with cyanide is not. Fish like flame gobies that are sold for around 50 cents a piece by the fishermen that catch them fetch up to $50 a piece retail. Fish caught using cyanide often survive long enough to be sold at pet shops in the United States, Europe and elsewhere but often die within a couple of months after they brought home. Cyanide poisoning often acts slowly through the digestive system, attacking the liver and eating away at digestive system and respiratory system. Sometimes large ships from Taiwan and Hong Kong provide local fishermen with “hookah” air compressors and cyanide needed to catch fish. These ships are blamed for the disappearance of large fish from reefs in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Gill Nets and Trawling

Gil Nets

There are thousands of poor, mostly Visayan migrant families, in Palawan each possessing one or more fine mesh gill nets that are regularly put out in front of their nipa hut dwellings. Along some stretches of coastline there are multiple (long duration set) nets in every kilometer of coastline stretching from the shore to 100m+ strait out to sea.  The nets cover from the surface to the bottom of the reef and indiscriminately kill everything: cruising sharks, rays, turtles, the few remaining large fish, mostly small colourful aquarium fish as small as 1″, shells, crabs, sea urchins, and even jellyfish get caught in the invisible webs of death.

It’s a gauntlet of nets than no marine animal who cruises the shallow reefs for food can escape. Other than Club Paradise on Dimakya island there are no effectively managed ‘no take’ zones for fish to reproduce. Some of the 500+ local fisherfolks interviewed over the past year claim the catches in their nets are less than 5% of what they were as recent as 8 years ago.

The reefs where gill nets are frequently used are devoid of most forms aquatic life> Marine life is less than 10% of its natural state miles from population centers and extending out further every year. The long term food security and potential for alternative eco-tourism jobs in these areas has already been greatly diminished. Often the nets get tangled in the fingers of fragile corals and the fisherman break the corals to retrieve their nets. So its not only the swimming creatures that are being wiped out but the coral habitat as well.  As more and more migrants flock to the area the number of nets multiply as well.


(this section is under construction)

The practice of trawling can cause significant and irreversible harm to fragile benthic ecosystems and species, which may not be environmentally sustainable.


Bycatch Ceiling – refers to the ceiling of ten percent (10%) of small tunas caught during fishing operation.

Small tuna – are young of tuna fish less than 500 grams which includes yellowfin tuna, big eye tuna, and skipjack tuna.

Mesh size for tuna purse seine nets – refers to the minimum mesh size not less than 3.5 inches (8.89 cm) at the bunt or bag portion for catching tuna

SECTION 3. Penal Clause

Violation of Section 2 of this order shall subject the offender to a fine of from Two Thousand Pesos (P2,000.00) to Twenty Thousand Pesos (P20,000.00) or imprisonment from six (6) months to two (2) years or both such fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the court; Provided that if the offense is also committed by a commercial fishing vessel, the boat captain and the masterfisherman shall also be subject to the penalties provided herein; Provided further that the owner/operator of the commercial fishing vessel who violates this provision shall be subjected to the same penalties provided herein: Provided, finally, that the Department is hereby empowered to impose upon the offender an administrative fine and/or cancel his permit or license or both

SEC. 86. Unauthorized Fishing or Engaging in other Unauthorized Fisheries Activities.

No person shall exploit, occupy, produce, breed, culture, capture or gather fish, fry or fingerlings of any fishery species or fishery products, or engage in any fishery activity in Philippine waters without a license, lease or permit.

Discovery of any person in an area where he has no permit or registration papers for a fishing vessel shall constitute a prima facie presumption that the person and/or vessel is engaged in unauthorized fishing: Provided, That fishing for daily food sustenance or for leisure which is not for commercial, occupation or livelihood purposes may be allowed.

It shall be unlawful for any commercial fishing vessel to fish in bays and in such other fishery management areas which may herein-after be declared as over-exploited.

Any commercial fishing boat captain or the three (3) highest officers of the boat who commit any of the above prohibited acts upon conviction shall be punished by a fine equivalent to the value of catch or Ten thousand pesos (P10,000.00) whichever is higher, and imprisonment of six (6) months, confiscation of catch and fishing gears, and automatic revocation of license.

Trawl – an active fishing gear consisting of a bag shaped net with or without otter boards to open its opening which is dragged or towed along the bottom or through the water column to take fishery species by straining them from the water, including all variations and modifications of trawls (bottom, mid-water, and baby trawls) and tow nets.

Fine Mesh Nets – net with mesh size of less than three centimeters (3 cm.) measured between two (2) opposite knots of a full mesh when stretched or as otherwise determined by the appropriate government agency.

Municipal waters – include not only streams, lakes, inland bodies of water and tidal waters within the municipality which are not included within the protected areas as defined under Republic Act No. 7586 (The NIPAS Law), public forest, timber lands, forest reserves or fishery reserves, but also marine waters included between two (2) lines drawn perpendicular to the general coastline from points where the boundary lines of the municipality touch the sea at low tide and a third line parallel with the general coastline including offshore islands and fifteen (15) kilometers from such coastline. Where two (2) municipalities are so situated on opposite shores that there is less than thirty (30) kilometers of marine waters between them, the third line shall be equally distant from opposite shore of the respective municipalities.

SEC. 89. Use of Fine Mesh Net.

It shall be unlawful to engage in fishing using nets with mesh smaller than that with which may be fixed by the Department: Provided, that the prohibition on the use of fine mesh net shall not apply to the gathering of fry, glass eels, elvers, tabios, and alamang and such species which by their nature are small but already mature to be identified in the implementing rules and regulations by the Department.

Violation of the above shall subject the offender to a fine from Two thousand pesos (P2,000.00) to Twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00) or imprisonment from six (6) months to two (2) years or both such fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the court: Provided, that if the offense is committed by a commercial fishing vessel, the boat captain and the master fisherman shall also be subject to the penalties herein: Provided, further, that the owner/operator of the commercial fishing vessel who violates this provision shall be subjected to the same penalties provided herein: Provided, finally, that the Department is hereby empowered to impose upon the offender an administrative fine and/or cancel his permit or license or both.

SEC. 93. Illegal Use of Superlights

It shall be unlawful to engage in fishing with the use of superlights in municipal waters or in violation of the rules and regulations which may be promulgated by the Department on the use of superlights outside municipal waters.

Violations of this provision shall be punished by imprisonment from six (6) months to two (2) years or a fine of Five thousand pesos (P5,000.00) per superlight, or both such fine and imprisonment at the discretion of the courts. The superlight, fishing gears and vessel shall be confiscated.

Superlight – also called magic light, is a type of light using halogen or metal halide bulb which may be located above the sea surface or submerged in the water. It consists of a ballast, regulator, electric cable and socket. The source of energy comes from a generator, battery or dynamo coupled with the main engine.

Dynamite Fishing

In some places people catch fish by setting off an explosive charge in the water which kills or stuns fish with its percussive blast. The fishermen then scoop up the fish when they float to the surface. The fish are generally caught not to feed their families but sell for profit. Dynamite charges are often used to create the explosions. The dynamite blows off huge chunks of reef and kills plankton, larvae, eggs, fingerlings, coral and other life forms. Blast fishing is also done with a mixture of fertilizer and diesel, an explosive mix favored by unsophisticated terrorists. Dynamite fishing became common place in the 1970s. Although the practice is illegal most everywhere now, it is still used in the southwestern Pacific where laws are difficult to enforce in the vast sea.

Combating Cyanide and Dynamite Fishing

Efforts are being made to educate fishermen that although cyanide and dynamite fishing may increase catches in the short run they destroy the goose that laid the golden egg in the long run. This message is delivered to children in school with puppet shows. Environmental groups are encouraging fishermen to use traditional fishing methods and to create a sense that the reefs are a resource that needs to be preserved. Villagers are encouraged establish offshore fish farms, seaweed farms and to set up “fish-aggregation devices”—floating platforms anchored in the water that attract algae and fish. Tests for cyanide have been developed. A campaign has been launched to screen fish for the presence of cyanide and ban the import of fish caught in areas where cyanide fishing is used. Some places have introduced punishments such as prison sentences and heavy fines and stepped up enforcement. Not everyone is happy about the efforts. In some place fish bombers threaten authorities with automatic weapons and the same bombs they use to blow up fish. Continuing exploitation of almost all forms of local wildlife is largely because the vast majority of habitat in Northern Palawan is owned and managed by clans, villages, and district councils. These local government bodies have the authority to enforce traditional laws, and, the authors speculate, most likely assume the authority to not enforce national laws that conflict with traditional lifestyles. Most people in this area still depend on food gathered from the forests and ocean to survive. Given the traditional dependency of people on wild resources, cultural sentiments and livelihoods, any interventions for wildlife conservation must have the involvement and support of local inhabitants, which will necessitate offering alternative livelihoods.

SEC. 88. Fishing Through Explosives, Noxious or Poisonous Substance, and/or Electricity

(1) It shall be unlawful for any person to catch, take or gather or cause to be caught, taken or gathered, fish or any fishery species in Philippine waters with the use of electricity, explosives, noxious or poisonous substance such as sodium cyanide in the Philippine fishery areas, which will kill, stupefy, disable or render unconscious fish or fishery species: Provided, that the Department, subject to such safeguards and conditions deemed necessary and endorsement from the concerned LGUs may allow, for research, educational or scientific purposes only, the use of electricity, poisonous or noxious substances to catch, take or gather fish or fishery species: Provide, further, that the use of poisonous or noxious substances to eradicate predators in fishponds in accordance with accepted scientific practices and without causing adverse environmental impact in neighboring waters and grounds shall not be construed as illegal fishing.

It will likewise be unlawful for any person, corporation or entity to possess, deal in, sell or in any manner dispose of, any fish or fishery species which have been illegally caught, taken or gathered.

The discovery of dynamite, other explosives and chemical compounds which contain combustible elements, or noxious or poisonous substances, or equipment or device for electro-fishing in any fishing vessel or in the possession of any fisherfolk, operator, fishing boat official or fishworker shall constitute a prima facie evidence, that the same was used for fishing in violation of this Code. The discovery in any fishing vessel of fish caught or killed with the use of explosive, noxious or poisonous substances or by electricity shall constitute prima facie evidence that the fisherfolk, operator, boat official or fishworker is fishing with the use thereof.

(2)         Mere possession of explosive, noxious or poisonous substances or electrofishing devices for illegal fishing shall be punishable by imprisonment ranging from six (6) months to two (2) years.

(3)        Actual use of explosives, noxious or poisonous substances or electrofishing devices for illegal fishing shall be punishable by imprisonment ranging from five (5) years to ten (10) years without prejudice to the filing of separate criminal cases when the use of the same result to physical injury or loss of human life.

(4)       Dealing in, selling, or in any manner disposing of, for profit, illegally caught/gathered fisheries species shall be punished by imprisonment ranging from six (6) months to two (2) years.

(5)         In all cases enumerated above, the explosives, noxious or poisonous substances and/or electrical devices, as well as the fishing vessels, fishing equipment and catch shall be forfeited.

Undocumented Domestic Fishing Vessels

(this section under development)

SEC. 18. Users of Municipal Waters

All fishery activities in municipal waters, as defined in this Code, shall be utilized by municipal fisherfolk and their cooperatives/organizations who are listed as such in the registry of municipal fisherfolk.

The municipal or city government, however, may, through its local chief executive and acting pursuant to an appropriate ordinance, authorize or permit shall and medium commercial fishing vessels to operate within the ten point one (10.1) to fifteen (15) kilometer area from the shoreline in municipal waters as defined herein, provided, that all the following are met:

a.       no commercial fishing in municipal waters with depth less than seven (7) fathoms as certified by the appropriate agency;

b.      fishing activities utilizing methods and gears that are determined to be consistent with national policies set by the Department;

c.       prior consultation, through public hearing, with the M/CFARMC has been conducted; and

d.       the applicant vessel as well as the ship owner, employer, captain and crew have been certified by the appropriate agency as not having violated this Code, environmental laws and related laws.

In no case shall the authorization or permit mentioned above be granted for fishing in bays as determined by the Department to be in an environmentally critical condition and during closed season as provided for in Section 9 of this Code

Foreign Vessels Illegally Fishing in Philippine Waters

(this section under development)

China’s biggest fishing fleet ramping up industrial-scale trawling in South China Sea — will inevitably deplete fish stocks. China has sent one of its largest fishing fleets on record to the disputed Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands, amid tensions over Beijing’s increasingly aggressive claims over the entire East Sea.

Analysts say by doing so, China is sending a message that it will continue to exploit fishing resources in the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea. A flotilla including 30 fishing vessels and two large transport and supply ships left China’s southern province for a 40-day trip to the Spratlys, AFP quoted a China Daily report as saying.

Chinese fishing boats regularly travel to the Spratlys – an archipelago claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei – but the fleet dispatched in 2013 matches China’s biggest ever infiltration of the Spratlys.

China’s claim is the largest, covering most of the sea’s 648,000 square miles (1.7 million square km), a position that has been emphatically dismissed as illegitimate by international scholars. The area is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place claimant nations alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar.

Vietnam and the Philippines have repeatedly slammed China for its increasing belligerence in staking out its claims in the East Sea over the past several years. Manila is seeking a United Nations ruling on the validity of Chinese claims to the resource-rich sea. An unfavorable verdict for China would set the stage for a test of Beijing’s willingness to yield over territorial disputes.

China map

Experts say by sending one of its largest recorded fishing fleets to the Spratlys, China expects its actions to go unopposed. “The message China is sending is that this is my water and I am determined to assert my rights over it,” said Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

China’s approach to its territorial claims in the East Sea is reflective its military doctrine, which includes “legal warfare”, experts say. “China bases its action on domestic legislation and its own unilateral interpretation of international law,” said Carl Thayer, a maritime analyst with the University of New South Wales in Australia.

Fish stocks in danger

Experts say upgrading its civil administration over economic activity in the East Sea is China’s way of trying to boost the legitimacy of its territorial claims. Although over 500 Chinese boats have licenses to operate in the Spratlys, the current total active in the area is well below that and has been substantially reduced since the 1990s, experts say.

Instead, China has resorted to industrial-scale trawling in the East Sea and last year deployed its largest commercial ship (32,000 tons), capable of processing over 2,000 tons of seafood a day for nine continuous months. “Such a step-up in capability will inevitably deplete fish stocks further, affecting Southeast Asian littoral states that rely heavily on the same fisheries,” said Euan Graham, a maritime expert with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Experts say with monsoon season now over, fishing boats will go out to sea in larger numbers, and this usually leads to “incidents” involving trawlers – mostly from Vietnam and the Philippines – and Chinese patrol boats. “It is likely that China will [continue] confronting Vietnamese fishermen [found] operating in waters around the Paracels and Filipino fishermen operating near Scarborough Shoal,” Thayer said.

Experts are expecting China to impose its unilateral seasonal ban on fishing in the waters around the Paracels.

If all claimant nations could agree to a multilateral fishing moratorium in the area, it could result in boosting food security and be environmentally beneficial to littoral states, and potentially remove one spark from security frictions, they say. But China’s recent track record does not provide fertile ground for such optimism, the analysts say.

“Unfortunately, we appear to be stuck in a winner-takes-all approach to fisheries in the [South China Sea], in which the biggest loss is likely to be the chance of establishing sustainable fisheries before stocks collapse,” Graham said.

SEC. 87. Poaching in Philippine Waters

It shall be unlawful for any foreign person, corporation or entity to fish or operate any fishing vessel in Philippine waters.

The entry of any foreign fishing vessel in Philippine waters shall constitute a prima facie evidence that the vessel is engaged in fishing in Philippine waters.

Violation of the above shall be punished by a fine of One Hundred Thousand U.S. Dollar (US$100,000.00), in addition to the confiscation of its catch, fishing equipment and fishing vessel: Provided, that the Department is empowered to impose an administrative fine of not less than Fifty Thousand U.S. Dollar (US$50,000.00) but not more than Two Hundred Thousand U.S. Dollar (US$200,000.00) or its equivalent in the Philippine Currency.



Law enforcement as the problem

From the Article, Of Crimes and No Punishments: Fisheries law offenses and the criminal justice system in Calamianes Group of  Islands in the Province of Palawan,  by Dante Dalabajan

“In 2002, CI commissioned a study to determine the number of fishermen  who are actually engaged in cyanide fishing and it concluded that there are  approximately 2,482 fishermen. A follow up CI study was conducted in 2004,  in which I was one of the investigators, to study the extent of cyanide fishing. Just how many cyanide-fishing forays that these 2,482 fishermen made over  time can be measured by multiplying the said number to the number of trips  that each cyanide-fisherman makes per monsoon season. In the said study, it was estimated that there were 263,652 incidents in a four-year span that began in 1999. While this figure was already startling as it was, it might even  be an underestimation considering that it did not include the municipality of  Linapacan in the computation. According to the PCSD, Linapacan has the most number of live-fish catchers in the Calamianes with 800 catchers compared with 400 in Coron, 300 in Busuanga and 600 in Culion.11 Furthermore, the figure also excludes cyanide-fishing done by seasonal fishers and fishing boats from neighboring provinces.

To determine exactly how many of the 263,652 incidents were actually detected in the said span of time, we conducted focus group discussions and key informant  interviews in January 2003 in 13 villages around Calamianes. The focus group  discussions and key informant interviews revealed that community members  around Calamianes detected approximately 8,102 of the cyanide-fishing incidents. Given this, it was hypothesized that there is 3 percent probability of detecting  cyanide fishing when they are committed. The depressingly low level of detection  despite the spectacular number of violations can be explained by the lack of  support of the citizens and the paucity of manpower and facilities (such as  communication and boats) to do detection work.

Of the 8,102 cases of cyanide fishing detected from 1999-2002, police and court  records show that only 15 arrests were actually made, a dismal batting overage  of 0.0020. Again, law enforcement agencies cite the lack of citizen’s support of  equipment to explain the astonishing gap between detection and arrest. Even  granting, for the sake of argument, the paucity of equipment, the figure is still very  difficult to accept. Allegations of corruption among police agencies abound during  FGD. Community members allege that bribery occurs immediately upon arrest,  an assertion which is very plausible and difficult to dismiss. An indication that  there is corruption upon arrest is the surprising number of police reports where  they were able to confiscate cyanide and even the boat used, but the perpetrator  was able to flee before the arrest could be made. The inability of police officers  to identify perpetrators is highly suspect considering that it is easy to trace the ownership of the confiscated boat through interviews and municipal registry and  records of Coast Guard. Hence, it appears that the actual number of arrest may  actually be higher than what appears on the police records.

But, the most depressing link of the entire enforcement chain is the court system. From the court records we reviewed, there were only 12 cases of cyanide fishing actually filed. Of the said cases, one got dismissed, nine were still pending and two were archived. Remarkably, there were no convictions and thus no penalties imposed on any of the offenders. We assessed the estimated value of enforcement  disincentives for cyanide and dynamite fishing activities in Palawan by applying  the probabilities of detection, arrest, case-filing, prosecution and conviction. The replacement costs of forfeited fish catch and fishing paraphernalia (e.g. fishing boats, nets, compressors and other materials confiscated at the time of arrest) of four decided cases were computed and added to the expected loss of fishing income of offenders during the minimum incarceration period. We arrived at the figure of 223,166 Philippine pesos (PHP) as the average value of the effective penalty per case, equivalent to 4463 US dollars (USD) (based on an exchange rate of USD 1 to PHP 50). Using the average time elapsed from detection to conviction of 0.58 years, or about 7 months, and a 12 per cent annual discount rate, the value of the penalty in present value terms was about PHP 206,807, or USD 4136.

When the probability of being convicted upon detection was factored in, the present value of the enforcement disincentive was estimated to amount to a  meager PHP 461, or approximately USD 9. Contrast this with the expected net income from cyanide and dynamite fishing per fishing trip, which in 2002 were about PHP 4084 (USD 82) and PHP 2973 (USD 59), respectively, and it is apparent  that the net enforcement disincentive is negative (i.e. the illegal fisher gains  a large net benefit from destructive fishing practices). Following the theories of Becker, Sutinen and Gauvin13, Kuperan and Sutinen and Nielsen and Mathiesen, a fisher in the Calamianes would naturally use either cyanide or dynamite in his or her fishing activity for the simple reason that the net value of  the deterrent to commit the crime is negative.”

SEC. 14. Monitoring, Control and Surveillance of Philippine Waters

A monitoring, control and surveillance system shall be established by the Department in coordination with LGUs, FARMCs, the private sector and other agencies concerned to ensure that the fisheries and aquatic resources in Philippine waters are judiciously and wisely utilized and managed on a sustainable basis and conserved for the benefit and enjoyment exclusively of Filipino citizens.