SAN FRANCISCO, 28 AUGUST 2011
Dear EarthTalk: I heard of a practice called cyanide fishing, which is
used mostly to collect aquarium specimens, but I understand it is also
used to catch fish we eat. Isnt this very unhealthy?
Phil Seymour, Albany, New York
Cyanide fishing, whereby divers crush cyanide tablets into plastic
squirt bottles of sea water and puff the solution to stun and capture live
coral reef fish, is widely practiced throughout Southeast Asia despite
being illegal in most countries of the region. The practice began in the
1960s in the Philippines as a way to capture live reef fish for sale
primarily to European and North American aquarium owners a market now
worth some $200 million a year.
But today the technique is also used to supply specialty restaurants in
Hong Kong and other large Asian cities. There high roller customers can
choose which live fish they want prepared on the spot for their dinner at
a cost of up to $300 per plate in what the non-profit World Resources
Institute (WRI) calls "an essential status symbol for major celebrations
and business occasions." WRI adds that as the East Asian economy has
boomed in recent decades, live reef food fish has become a trade worth $1
Of course, the cyanide itself is no good for the fish that ingest it.
Internet chat boards are rife with comments about cyanide-caught aquarium
fish developing cancer within a year of being purchased. And many aquarium
owners are willing to pay a premium for "net-caught" ornamental fish as
they have a longer life expectancy.
But perhaps the greater damage inflicted by cyanide fishing is to the
coral reefs where it is employed, as cyanide kills the reefs and also many
of the life forms that rely on them. Researchers estimate that more than a
million kilograms of cyanide have been squirted onto Philippine reefs
alone over the last half century. These days the practice is much more
widespread, with some of the worlds most productive reefs being
"Despite the fact that cyanide fishing is nominally illegal in
virtually all Indo-Pacific countries, the high premium paid for live reef
fish, weak enforcement capacities, and frequent corruption have spread the
use of the poison across the entire region home to the vast majority of
the planets coral reefs," reports WRI. "As stocks in one country are
depleted, the trade moves on to new frontiers, and cyanide fishing is now
confirmed or suspected in countries stretching from the central Pacific to
the shores of East Africa. Sadly, the most pristine reefs, far from the
usual threats of sedimentation, coral mining and coastal development, are
the primary target for cyanide fishing operations."
While there is not much evidence of cyanide-caught fish poisoning the
people who eat it the dose retained by a fish after being puffed is
relatively small the risk nevertheless remains, especially for those who
ingest a lot of it. Nausea and gastritis are the typical symptoms of
cyanide poisoning, and of course larger doses can cause death. WRI
estimates that some 20 percent of the live fish for sale at markets across
Southeast Asia are caught using cyanide. Children, the elderly and
pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid cyanide-caught
CONTACT: World Resources Institute, www.wri.org.
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