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Fish Bombing Blows Up Sabah Food Security

NGO believes the problem might be more devastating than what’s been thought

The damage caused by fish bombing to the environment and community livelihood might be far worse than what people – and science – have known so far.

This destructive form of fishing destroys corals reefs. All evidence has shown that the damage can be so severe that it degrades the ecosystem, affects the tourism industry, and causes fishermen to lose their livelihood.

A bombed area would have also destroyed beyond repair what used to be home and nursery for fishes.

But Stop Fish Bombing Malaysia (SFBMY) believes that the deadlier killer blow from a single blast destroys a lot more than just the coral reefs.

“A blast radius of a fish bomb is probably between two to three square metres depending on the number of explosives they use.

“But no proper study has been done on the impact of the shock wave that is created by a single blast. I’d say that in theory, it could travel may be between 200 to 300 metres further. This means it could kill or injure a lot more fish and fish fries. When this (blasting) is done continuously, our fish stock would be severely depleted over time. And there’ll be no replacement,”

Says its Executive Director Terence Lim

He stresses that if this is proven to be true, Sabah’s food security is seriously in trouble.

“A lot of studies have been done based on what we can see. For example, we can assess the damage based on how many dead fish floating around as a result of a blast. But those that we can’t see, we can’t quantify. These include planktons, fish eggs and fish fries and so on,” he adds.

He believes there is something to the shock wave effect theory after a fish farmer in Kunak related an experience that could provide some kind of evidence to back it up.

Many fishermen have lamented that fishes like these are hard to find these days
Installing a hydrophone underwater

“He brought in fish stocks from out of Sabah to be raised in his fish farm. Soon he discovered that the mortality rate of his fish fries was high. He initially thought it was caused by diseases or viruses. Suspecting that the stocks were of low quality, he complained to the supplier. But the supplier told him that he had also supplied to other clients elsewhere and none was facing the issue.

“So, this triggered a suspicion in him that it could have been caused by shock waves as fish bombing had been quite rampant in his area. But a study needs to be done on this by universities and to be able to do this requires funds,” he says.

When Terence, a professional diver for more than 30 years, began his mission to reduce or stop fish bombing activities in the state, his over-arching goal has always been to ensure that Sabah would always have enough fish in its waters to feed its millions of people.

He cannot stress enough the importance of this as fish bombing has affected the livelihood of coastal communities with the depletion of wild fish stock.

“In an area that has been blasted, we can hardly see any fish. Almost zero. Like a desert. If going by the theory of the shock wave that I’ve mentioned earlier, then what we’re facing is that there’s no replacement of fish. Of course, fish from other places could come to colonise the area but this takes time.

“When you talk to any fishermen you’ll hear the same story. They will say ‘tiada ikan sudah’ (there’s no more fish) or “kurang ikan sudah” (there’s less fish) or that they’ll have to go further and deeper areas at sea before they could catch any. Sure, over-fishing is a factor but when you couple that with fish bombing, it makes the whole problem worse,” he says.

When fishermen do not make a catch, consumers would have no fish to eat and Terence suggests no one can dismiss this situation could never happen.

Easy to make yet so devastating

His project is arguably the first in the world to have pioneered the use of technology to combat fish bombing and it is backed by a published scientific paper in which he is one of the co-authors. The paper was published in ScienceDirect.com, a website that provides the widest range of trusted, high quality, interdisciplinary research and scholarly literature to help uncover answers to the world’s most pressing questions.

Thanks to funding from a generous funder in the United States, Stop Fish Bombing Malaysia has partnered with ShotSpotter Labs and Stop Fish Bombing USA to develop a real time underwater bomb detection technology that alerts marine law enforcement of bombing events for rapid and precise response.

So far, SFBMY has deployed 13 detection sensors in the state, most of them off Semporna waters. However, this is far from enough to protect Sabah’s food security from being bombed by fish bombers.

“To reduce fish bombing activities, or even stop them altogether, we need to deploy 250 underwater bomb detection sensors throughout Sabah’s coastal waters.

“But one of our challenges right now is funds. Our equipment is not cheap. They cost between RM18,000 to RM25,000 each and this is subject to the length of the hydrophone cable. Our reef structures are not symmetrical as some are in shallow waters and some are in deep waters and some reefs are far away. One of our longest deployments of hydrophone cable is 350 metres long from the edge of the reef to the sensor board located on land,” he says.

He estimates that it would cost the State Government an investment of about RM8 to 10 million a year to deploy this technology.

Although it is a huge sum, Terence argues that it is just a “small fraction” to put the plug on huge financial losses incurred from the depleted source of food, degraded ecosystem, loss of tourism revenue and loss of community livelihood, to name a few.

A bombed area underwater that now looks like a desert

“They’re not only blasting our coral reefs. More painfully, they’re bombing our economy, our rice bowl,” he suggests.

One study has noted that the characteristics, impacts and economic costs and benefits of fish bombing have been little investigated. But an economic analysis of such a destructive fishing method in Indonesia suggested a net loss after 20 years of blast fishing of US$306,800 per square km of coral reef where there is a high potential value of tourism and coastal protection, and US$33,900 per square km of coral reef where there is low potential value. This analysis was done and published ten years ago.

If going by Terence’s theory that a shock wave from a blast creates a larger trail of destruction, anyone could safely guess that the economic loss from the illegal activity could be worth millions and billions of ringgit by today’s standards.

The numbers alone justify the urgent need for the deployment of 250 sensors as proposed by SFBMY that has been trying hard to get the funds to bring the best technology to protect Sabah’s marine food security.

Basically, how the sensors work is that it uses hydrophones to pick up loud impulsive sounds that could be fish bombs. If these sounds are classified as actual bomb blasts, their arrival times will be used to locate and alert a fish bombing incident. Their development has been driven by navies of the world, principally to detect submarines and torpedoes.

Currently, the non-profit organization is looking at arming Sabah with more state-of-the-art technologies.

“We’re currently on phase one of the project which we’re still improving. Phase two will be radar to help authorities to track the movement of boats. We understand that when the patrol boats are patrolling, nobody is fish bombing. So, the use of the radar will overcome this issue.

“I’m also working with a US technology provider for drones. We’re also talking to an Australian organization that uses remote sensing equipment,” he says.

When all the technologies are put together, Sabah should be better armed to fight against destructive fish bombing without question.

But still, it all comes down to a political will and funding.

“Come to think of it, it’s a small investment for a reward that would last for generations to come. While so many studies are pointing to a world facing an imminent food crisis, we want Sabah to stay ahead in preventing that from happening to our state and people,” he says.

Investing on technologies however is just one side of the whole story though.

The fight against fish bombing also calls for huge amounts of money to implement alternative livelihood programmes and projects especially for the coastal communities.

“So, what we’re talking about is a total transformation to a complex and complicated problem. And it’s an expensive problem to fix as well.

“But we don’t have a choice really. We must stop fish bombing at all cost for our sake and that of the future generation of Sabahans, and to the planet too.

“We now have the opportunity to show to the world it can be done; the world that is fighting for sustainability,” Terence says.

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