EACH day, a young man puts on diving goggles and a pair of swim fins fashioned from little more than plywood and rubber, takes a tube in his mouth, grabs a plastic bottle of cyanide and a small net, and slips into the clear waters of a Philippine lagoon.
Breathing air pumped from the surface, he descends onto the coral reef in search of fish -- not for the next meal, but for the international aquarium trade. His eyes trained to detect the slightest movement in the rocks or flash of color among the anemones, he quickly squirts a shot from his bottle into a hidden recess.
The butterfly-fish is instantly stunned by the solution of hydrocyanic acid. Netted and later packed individually in a plastic bag half full of water, it will be shipped to wholesalers for international distribution. In all likelihood, it will perish en route.
When a Cousteau expedition team visited the Philippines in 1990, it found aquarium fishermen enjoying a prosperity that contrasted starkly with the steady depletion of local fish and the degradation of the reef. Their wealth, though not meager by Philippine standards, can do little by itself to support the ecosystem on which it is based. Gradually, even the aquarium trade suffers. Mortality among fish caught with cyanide is estimated to be 10 to 20 percent higher than among those caught with nets. This amounts to $2.5 million each year!
Fishing with cyanide is illegal in the Philippines, but enforcement is difficult, and the pressure from purveyors of the chemical is strong. Even the table scraps from the $50 million aquarium industry are enough to induce poor fishermen to engage in a life of crime.
While this offense would traditionally be met with heightened enforcement of the laws, such measures generally fail to address the wider social and economic situation that gives rise to the problem in the first place.
The recent work of Ocean Voice International and the International Marinelife Alliance, two small organizations concerned with the health of reefs and reef fishes, demonstrates that success in reef conservation can be achieved as long as the economic aspirations of local peoples are respected.
Working with local mayors as well as federal fisheries officers and conservationists, the "Netsman" project in the Philippines has trained more than 700 of the estimated 2,500 cyanide fishermen in the use of fine-mesh monofilament hand nets. While the transition has been marked by reports of occasional reversion to cyanide, most fishermen recognize the benefits of net fishing: a year's supply of cyanide can cost $500, while netting involves an annual outlay of only $25.
The program has also focused on helping local people understand their reefs as living resources to be managed sustainably rather than plundered. A video, "Say No To Cyanide," has been produced, and a coral reef conservation manual has just gone to press. The manual features cartoon strip-like explanations to facilitate distribution among the semi-literate communities of the Philippine islands. Safety tips for those injured by cyanide are mingled with information on the reproductive behavior and ecological niches of angelfish, anemones and other reef denizens.
Finally, and most significantly, efforts are also under way to provide local fishermen with greater access to the benefits of aquarium fishing through cooperatives. And on the retail level, support has been building -- albeit slowly -- for labeling those fish caught without the use of cyanide.
From long-lines to dynamite, unsustainable fishing techniques are on the rise throughout the world, as population and demand combine with ever more efficient technologies to plunder swiftly vanishing stocks. Success stories are rare, but when they are reported, they seem to bear the same profile as the "Netsman" plan: broad involvement of official and unofficial agencies, hard scientific research and sensitivity for the livelihoods of local fishermen.
Jean-Michel Cousteau writes a syndicated column on the world's ecology.