By Shruti Shrivastav
Staff Writer

Coral reefs disappear four times faster than the Earth’s rainforests. They cover less than 1 percent of the Earth, and yet support millions of marine plants and animals. They are among the most diverse of communities in our oceans and one of the oldest, having evolved over 200 million years ago. Southeast Asia, specifically the Indo-Malayan triangle, is the coral hotspot of the world with the greatest marine biodiversity. These productive and diverse ecosystems constitute 77 percent of the 800 reef-building coral species and in total, 34 percent of all corals. There are more coral species on a single island in Southeast Asia than in the entire Caribbean. (Burke, Selig, Spalding). This essay will explore the danger that coral reefs face in a society that feeds the increasing demand for production and allows the ocean to be used as an economic and environmental resource rather than as a ecological center for all people. The misuse of this system only increases the chances of extinction of coral reefs in Southeast Asia and potentially puts other species at risk as well.

Corals are the victims of six different anthropogenic threats: overfishing and overexploitation, marine pollution, coastal development, rising sea surface temperatures due to global warming, sedimentation and destructive fishing practices (Burke, Selig, Spalding). Blast and poison fishing fall under the last category, and although both are illegal, they are stark realities of Southeast Asian fishing exercises. The countries of Southeast Asia are experiencing some of the highest percentages of economic and population growth around the world. The construction of ports, airports, cities, infrastructure in ecologically sensitive areas and deforestation are all direct effects of unprecedented population growth in the area. These factors put stress on the coastal coral reef fisheries to increase production in order to supply the needs of the fast growing economy. Unfortunately, as the aforementioned anthropogenic threats make coral reef communities barren wastelands, fishers have to resort to traveling further out to isolated reefs and using the illegal and inexpensive destructive fishing techniques. This toxic cycle has resulted in the continued destruction of coral reef ecosystems — and in order to try and reverse the damage done the government — policy makers, private sector and coastal communities must work together to manage resources, enforce laws, monitor and educate youth and conduct research to attempt to repopulate coral reefs in Southeast Asia. The following discussion will detail ecologically the detrimental effects of destructive fishing, explore the socioeconomic mindsets that allow it and suggest reforms that will end the cause and effect cycle of devastation being committed to coral reefs. The chart below gives an indication of how the geographic and economic factors relate to one another (Cesar).

Ecological Effects Of Destructive Fishing Techniques On Reef Building Coral Species

Corals are often mistaken for plants or rocks, but these simple animals are made up of polyps with tube-like bodies and mouths surrounded by rings of tentacles. Some corals are single polyps, but the majority form large, dense colonies. The intricate structure built by the corals themselves provides animals with protection from predators, important breeding sites and endless feeding opportunities. Corals have the ability to hunt for their prey by using stinging tentacles to stun small organisms. Most corals, however, retrieve energy via photosynthesis through microscopic algae called zooxanthaellae, living within their tissue. This unique symbiotic process benefits both the coral and the algae. The algae receive shelter from predators and the carbon dioxide waste produced by the coral is used to run their metabolic processes. In the same way the algae provides the coral with oxygen. This highly efficient process allows corals to grow in low-nutrient oligotrophic waters (Burke, Selig, Spalding).

Structurally, corals can be either soft or hard and most form skeletons, which they use to protect their simple bodies. Soft and fan corals have skeletons made out of proteins, while hard, hermatypic (reef building) corals have skeletons made out of calcium carbonate or limestone. These reef-building corals are in the Scleractinia family and scientists have identified over 800 species to date. They range from growing in small patches to covering area tens of kilometers wide. Reefs become unhealthy for various reasons but a predictive factor is when algae take over the colony. Stress induced by storms, added nutrients from the shoreline and excess sedimentation are all causes for increase in algae population (Burke, Selig, Spalding). Already, 60 percent of coral reefs in Southeast Asia have been destroyed due to anthropogenic causes and predictions indicate that the entire coral population will be eliminated within fifty years (Lundin and Linden).

Destructive fishing fundamentally destroys the marine natural resource base for future generations of fish, corals and humans as well as the symbiotic relationship between algae and corals by damaging the reef framework. Commercial poison use didn’t flourish until the 1960’s, before natural poisons such as leaves, berries and roots, from species including Derris, Barringtonia, Tephrosia and Wikstroemia were commonly used in coastal communities. After the Vietnam War, however, sodium cyanide and similar bleaches, deadly broad-spectrum poisons, became the popularly used in cyanide or poison fishing (McManus). The sodium cyanide, sold in village markets is crushed and put in plastic squirt bottles by divers (Burke, Selig, Spalding). Sometimes, sodium cyanide tablets are tied to sticks and tapped directly on to reefs that fish are hiding in. Poison is also used in larger quantities bluntly by ladling it directly onto the reef, and creatively by mixing it in with shrimp and fish bits dubbed as “chum” (McManus). Regardless of the method, the poison acts as an anesthetic that stuns and makes the fish easier to capture. It affects all fish in the surrounding area by damaging, killing and leaving them exposed to predators. Corals are obviously also deeply affected through total or slight bleaching. Repeated exposure almost certainly causes death, and most village divers return to the same spots to fish guaranteeing destruction of the reef. Poison is the predominant method used in obtaining high value commercial fish for the ornamental trade. Additionally, poison fishing is targeted in the most pristine and isolated reefs where the exotic fish populations are greater. What many fishers don’t realize is that the sodium cyanide has adverse effects on the fishermen as well those who often bite the tablets using their teeth and do no protect their faces from exposure in the water.

Similarly blast or dynamite fishing, although outlawed, is still used regularly all over Southeast Asia especially in Indonesia and the Philippines. The widespread use began after WWII because Japan and the Allied Nations left behind thousands of shells littering the waters of the area (Burke, Selig, Spalding). The shells were repacked with explosives to make bombs for fishing. These days, dynamite, grenades and even empty beer and soda bottles filled with potassium nitrate and artificial fertilizer, topped with pebbles and a fuse are used as bombs. The bombs kill most of the fish by bursting their swim bladders that are filled with gas. Fishermen can thereby easily and very cheaply hunt large schools of reef fish. The shock waves from the explosion break the coral’s calcium carbonate skeleton into small pieces. Once broken the coral/algal symbiotic relationship is disrupted and the coral begins to lose nourishment and starts to die. A mere coke bottle can blow out a crater of coral two to three meters in diameter. Blossoming reefs are transformed into wastelands of rubble. The fields of broken rubble shift in the current, abrading or burying new coral larvae, and thereby slowing and preventing reef recovery. Regularly bombed reefs exhibit a 50-80 percent mortality rate (Burke, Selig, Spalding). Bombs only cost villagers $1-2 to make and most earn about $15-40. The effects are much more devastating to corals and the future economy, and thus outweigh the profits. Additionally, the bombs are often constructed by women and children in the villages and stored underneath the houses that constitute unrealized hazards (McManus).

Coral recovery has a dismal outlook. Factors like recruitment rates, environmental disturbance regime, rates of siltation and competition for space with other organisms such as seaweed must be taken into consideration. Rising coastal congestion leading to pollution affects coral larvae health and recruitment survival (McManus). Destroyed coral reef ecosystems are not like land ecosystems that are ruined by fires, in that they do not begin recovering almost immediately after. Corals need a reversal of destruction in some sense. The fundamental starting condition that recovery begins at is critical to whether the coral will repopulate the area, especially because coral larvae thrive most amongst parent or neighboring reef colonies. When larvae travel via current to other colonies, they rarely take root. Therefore — unless population growth rates decline, poverty is somehow diminished, coastal management is put into practice and alternative livelihood programs are created — coral reefs in Southeast Asia will remain at risk and recovery rates will remain low as well.

Ideal Versus Real Socioeconomic Value of Coral Reef Ecosystems

“Ecosystem functions refer variously to the habitat, biological or system properties, or processes of ecosystems. Ecosystem goods and services represent the benefits human populations derive, directly or indirectly, from ecosystem services” (Cesar). Coral reefs have unprecedented value to the human population and the data and information has only recently begun to make its way into the academic world. The high value of coral reefs as well as the loss due to its destruction cannot be calculated. A value can be assigned using fundamental principles of economics, determining the goods and services provided by corals. For example, they serve as physical structures that protect the coastline. They have biotic services both within ecosystems like habitat maintenance, and between ecosystems like biological support through mobile links (Cesar). Biogeochemical services such as nitrogen fixation, as well as information services like providing a climate record can be attributed to corals. Last but not least, reefs provide social and cultural services such as aesthetic values, recreation and tourism (Cesar). In the graphs below the major goods and services provided by coral reefs are detailed.

Scientific and economic research has given value to coral reefs through six categories: direct use value, indirect use value, option value, quasi-option value, bequest value and existence value. The direct value of corals can be narrowed down to two main sources of income — fisheries and pharmaceuticals. Both fisheries and pharmaceuticals require extraction of goods from the ecosystem. Indirect value, however, comes from biological support as nutrients, habitat for fish, and protection of mangroves and sea grasses on the coastline (Cesar). Option value is the current value of potential future direct and indirect uses; a commonly used example is the possibility of deriving a cure for cancer from any of the numerous species found in the coral reef ecosystem. The quasi-option value is similar to the option value since it shows that avoiding irreversible destruction of an ecosystem that may have a profitable and useful value in the future gives it value today. Bequest value comes down to preserving the natural heritage for future generations and knowing that reefs exist today and can possibly be of use to mankind in the coming decades. For example, many large donations are gifted to NGOs in wills (Cesar). The existence value, which is by far the most noble, goes off the idea that coral reef ecosystems have value to people irrespective of whether they are used.

Unfortunately, the only value considered by the populations directly affecting the coral reefs in Southeast Asia is direct value. The only benefit of mapping out the different values of the ecosystem is to stimulate discussion amongst government officials, policymakers and beneficiaries that will provide donations or funding to NGOs or greater enforcement programs to prevent destructive fishing practices. Another great use of this economic mapping has been the counter calculation of the negative effects of various threats on coral reefs. Knowing the societal costs and benefits of a particular threat from a mere management perspective will not prevent any kind of destructive fishing practice. It is the stakeholder analysis that looks into who gains from the practices and how much. In the case of poison fishing, approximately US $0.4 million is made per boat (Cesar). Upon closer investigation of the ownership and trickle-down nature of the live reef fish trade, it is evident that most poison fishing practices are conducted under a larger umbrella company or organization. The profit rarely goes to the specific diver.

It is the divers, however, who must be informed of these economic values. Most coastal populations are unaware of the goods and services coral reef ecosystems provide (Cesar). Simple education on the linkages of the natural world and the danger that loss of the ecosystem would bring may alter the mindsets of many fishermen. The following model was designed based on the aforementioned value notation taking into account the damage being done by destructive fishing practices. If models like these could be explained to coastal fishing communities and government officials alike, more funding might be allocated for coral restoration.

Governments in Southeast Asia have their development goals affixed on issues other than marine conservation, and understandably so. GDP growth and investment in technology and business are top priorities in these countries. Some nations like Cambodia have unstable governments and are working to simply establish a working economy with peace and justice, while others like Indonesia are trying to move out from under the developing nation label by investing a majority of their nations capital in improving industry. Either way, more people continue to move into these nations cities. Simultaneously, the population continues to grow, and the majority of this growth is centered in cities. Although there is a correlation between coral reef destruction and population growth, it is not necessarily linear (6). Resources on land are more clearly owned and subdivided. There is only so much land and once it is distributed individuals must seek livelihood in other places, for example the ocean. The people that are forced into coastal regions because their skill sets are not suitable for cities are often unfamiliar with fishing practices and do not have the fundamental understanding that destructive fish practices will continue to affect future generations. Reefs are also easy entry resources for these poor fishermen. There is little investment involved in destructive fishing practices and at the end of the day their families must be fed one way or another. Coastal reefs are actually considered a kind of welfare resource that is enormously exploited (Mous). Whenever there is a catastrophe, natural disaster or even economic depression, non-fishing people head out the coastal reefs to make some quick money. It is a reliable source of income for the poor, and to this demographic the health or any of the values that corals provide are irrelevant and useless. It is not the older generations of fishermen, however, who practice destructive techniques. Their families have coexisted with corals in the coastal communities for several thousands of years. It is the newer, poorer, expunged city dwellers trying to make a living that are destroying coral reefs. They also make it harder for the original inhabitants of the villages to make money, adding competition by selling fish at cheaper prices because blast fishing is inexpensive. It is a slippery slope because as the economic situation worsens, a higher number of poor people resort to cheap, illegal, destructive fishing practices. The resulting destruction of reefs have long lasting effects on corals, as well as the fish and fisheries that have a direct correlation to Southeast Asian economies.

Blast fishing has been reported in at least forty countries or island territories, and poison fishing in at least fifteen (Pet-Soede, Cesar, Pet). These problems are widespread and involve almost 277 and 40 reefs, respectively. Thirty-one of the reefs that exhibited traces of cyanide fishing also indicated blast fishing, revealing that the two activities may be symptoms of a common problem (Pet-Soede, Cesar, Pet). In poorer nations like Papua New Guinea, blast fishing is one of the only economically viable fishing methods and is almost impossible to enforce due to the indigenous nature of some of the islands it is used at. Destructive fishing isn’t even perceived as harmful in such areas because the corals are still considered abundant. The repercussions are not evident yet.

Reforms, Restoration and Conclusion

The first step in attempting to protect coral reef ecosystems is understanding and assessing the degree to which blast and poison fishing affects the area and what population is responsible for it. The driving forces must be made clear to governments and communities. Most officials and small business owners understand the language of cost and benefit, therefore publishing summaries with numbers and predictions is an important step. All of these steps have been taken by either NGOs, scientists, organizations, universities, even some government officials, but not at the level to make noticeable differences. Creative solutions that appeal the government must be used to combat threats, for example, financially sustainable and ecologically beneficial marine parks or generate jobs and alternate livelihoods for people involved in reef destruction. Overall, coastal development needs to be well planned and at a safe distance from environmentally sensitive areas (Barber and Pratt). Laws must be passed and then enforced to protect coral reefs. As mentioned earlier, blast and poison fishing are both illegal. The enforcement is poorly carried out, if at all. One recent and quite successful practice implemented by NGOs requires divers to make a payment towards the hire of enforcement boats and rangers that severely punish blast fishers by imprisoning them (Barber and Pratt). Public education also increases environmental stewardship. The dangers of destructive fishing techniques are being taught in some schools in Indonesian cities. It is the village children who must learn about the threats. The information is not widespread enough to become an economic priority. For example every nations believes that clean drinking water is a necessity, which it is, therefore funds will be allocated for this cause. The effects of the destructive fishing practices on humans must be better known. For example, figures like the one shown below need to be commonly displayed (Pet-Soede, Cesar, Pet).

Restoration practices must be implemented while reform occurs. Conservation of reefs can be done through restoration, rehabilitation and even creation. The difference lies in how far the efforts are taken. Restoration implies bringing the reef back to its original condition in terms of biodiversity, structure, functions and aesthetic quality (Barber and Pratt). Rehabilitation is partial restoration with the original qualities being replaced by an alternative set, with emphasis on particular functions like fish habitat or coast protection. Creation of reefs is occasionally possible by means of introducing corals to an area previously devoid of them. All three of these conservation techniques are being used and experimented with to make up for the threats posed to coral reef ecosystems. Restoration projects involve aiding the recovery of corals damaged by blast and poison fishing, especially in the sense of repopulating and ensuring larval connectivity. Restoration is also conducted by fixing the substrate that includes clearing and consolidating loose rubble and stabilizing or filling cracks and hollows. Rehabilitation is seen when scientists carefully dig out corals and move them to safer areas less affected by development and destructive fishing practices (Barber and Pratt). Some scientists have also been experimenting with the installation of artificial sea-beds, structures like concrete blocks and mattresses that are suitable surfaces for corals to attach to. Some even use electrically accreted carbonate on chicken wire to shape the proper skeleton. Corals are then glued, nailed, wired or simply left to attach naturally. Conservation isn’t the only answer. Many NGOs dedicate their time and money to improved management and enforcement practices, which in many ways are more beneficial. The graphs below display the figurative short and long-term effects on a model coral reef colony in Southeast Asia (Cesar).

The vast nature of the ocean gives it the liberty of being free of ownership. This open access is part of the reason it is so difficult to protect. Destructive fishing practices should be obsolete in 2012, but the layers upon layers of problems in foreign nations makes combating them near impossible. Socioeconomic factors play the largest role in the determination of coral health. Several anthropogenic threats are directly linked to the countries’ economic stability. These factors are only one piece of a multi-faceted puzzle. Seeing the ocean as a resource instead of an ecosystem is a cultural and social worldview that the Southeast Asian people have had for thousands of years and cannot be changed overnight. The enforcement of any kind of laws is difficult due to the unrestricted nature of the ocean. Coral reefs are in serious danger of being completely wiped out and there are several factors contributing to their extinction. Destructive fishing is only one, but in a way it is the most preventable and manageable. Although poverty may always exist, the poor need not resort to dynamite fishing. Taxes and tariffs can be placed on potassium nitrate. By educating youth, the concept of a bottle bomb can be made taboo. Similarly, restaurateurs can make regulations by checking for traces of poison when buying shipments of reef fish in order to prevent poison fishing. If traces of sodium cyanide are detected they can refuse to buy fish, or even turn in the merchants. There are perceivable solutions to these heinous practices. The risks surrounding destructive fishing should be so high that no fisherman ever resorts to it. The preservation of the coral reef ecosystem is a pressing issue, because if some of the threats posed are not diminished, data confirms that they will be gone.


Barber, Charles Victor and Vaughan R. Pratt. Sullied Seas Strategies for Combating Cyanide Fishing in Southeast Asia and Beyond. Washington D.C.: World Resources Institute, 1997. Print.

Burke, Lauretta, Elizabeth Selig, and Mark Spalding. Reefs at Risk in Southeast Asia. N.p.: World Resources Institute, 2002. Print.

Cesar, Herman S.J. “Coral Reefs: Their Functions, Threats and Economic Value.” Collected Essays on the Economics of Coral Reefs. Kalmar, Sweden: CORDIO, Department for Biology and Environmental Sciences, Kalmar University, 2000. 14-40. Reefbase. Web. 8 May 2012. .

Lundin, Carl Gustaf, and Olof Linden. “Coastal Ecosystems: Attempts to Manage a Threatened Resource.” Ambio 22.7 (1993): 468-73. JSTOR. Web. 8 May 2012.

McManus, J. W. “Tropical Marine Fisheries and the Future of Coral Reefs: A Brief Review with an Emphasis on Southeast Asia.” Coral Reefs 16.5 (2007): 121-27. SpringerLink. Web. 8 May 2012. .

Mous, Peter J., et al. “Cyanide Fishing on Indonesian Coral Reefs for the Live Food Fish Market: What Is the Problem?” Collected Essays On the Economics of Coral Reefs. Kalmar, Sweden: CORDIO, Department for Biology and Environmental Sciences, Kalmar University, 2000. 69-76. Reefbase. Web. 8 May 2012. .

Pet-Soede, Lida, Herman S.J. Cesar, and Jos E. Pet. “Blasting Away: The Economics of Blast Fishing on Indonesian Coral Reefs.” Collected Essays on the Economics of Coral Reefs. Kalmar, Sweden: CORDIO, Department for Biology and Environmental Sciences, Kalmar University, 2000. 77-85. Reefbase. Web. 8 May 2012. .

Image by Flickr user Justin Friend.

*This article has been slightly modified for clarity



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