Ocean of concern on future of reefs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 May, 1998, 12:00am

The ocean affects our daily lives, and what we do has an effect on the ocean.

In recognition of the importance of the oceans, the life-giving resources of the marine environment and of sustainable development, the United Nations has declared 1998 to be the International Year of the Ocean.

The intent of this declaration is to focus attention on the importance of the oceans and threats to marine ecosystems.

One such threat lies under the cobalt seas of Southeast Asia, which cover some of the most extensive coral reefs on the planet.

Many tropical aquarium and food fish are captured from these reefs after being stunned with sodium cyanide. Although it only stuns the fish, the cyanide poisons habitat.

The trade begins in small fishing towns in places like the Philippines and Indonesia. Four men climb into a motorised outrigger boat, equipped with food and water for up to two weeks - along with cyanide provided by the middlemen who will purchase the catch.

When they reach reefs several miles out, a fisherman dives amid the coral, breathing through a plastic hose attached to a compressor on the boat.

His targets are the groupers, favourite of restaurant tables in Hong Kong and Taiwan. With a squirt bottle containing sodium cyanide and sea water, he sprays the fish. Within minutes, several dozen are stunned and netted by the diver.

Placed in saltwater tanks aboard trawlers or packaged in plastic bags filled with sea water for shipment by air freight, the vigorously flapping groupers are sent to Hong Kong, the major market and transshipment centre for live food fish.

Meanwhile, their former home is closer to death. After the fisherman squirts the cyanide, the first thing to perish is the reef algae, on which fish feed. Days later, the living coral starts to expire. Soon the reef becomes an underwater graveyard.

An estimated 10 per cent of the world's 600,000 sq km of reef has been destroyed in the past 50 years.

But diners in Hong Kong, South China and Singapore want their fresh, steamed grouper, the middlemen their profit and the fishermen a decent livelihood - all at the expense of the reefs. There are two possible ways, however, to untangling this twisted net.

Firstly, traditional methods of catching grouper, the main fish caught for food, are less harmful to the environment. In the Philippine province of Palawan, for example, the non-governmental International Marinelife Alliance has weaned fishermen from cyanide and re- taught them the art of fishing with hook and line.

Secondly, instead of ineffective bans by individual governments on the use of cyanide in fishing, experts are studying a procedure practised in the Philippines in which fish are tested for cyanide residue before shipment.

When you next order your fresh seafood meal, think twice about the vanishing reefs.