A loud blast in the middle of the ocean. A few seconds later, dead fish are seen floating on the surface of the sea. In a matter of minutes or seconds, the rich resources beneath the ocean are all destroyed, just so some fishermen can get the fish they need for their daily supply.
Known as fish dynamiting, this horrid, destructive, and illegal method not only destroys the fish beneath the ocean but also the rare and unique corals, seagrass beds, and ornamental fish that are a major tourist attraction in the country. The once beautiful coral reefs in some areas can be seen in pieces, destroyed by this dynamiting. Over the years, fish dynamiting in the ocean has resulted in the deaths of protected marine species such as the dugong and the dolphin.
Dynamite sticks are exploded to target a school of fish and result in the destruction of the entire ecosystem. Apart from the impact on sustainability underwater, fish caught in this manner are not good for human consumption, as they contain explosives and other poisonous chemicals. Fishing with dynamite is one of the oldest illegal fishing practices, and it still continues, particularly in the Southwest, South, and East. It is also reported to occur in the Pallimunai area in the Mannar district.
From around 2015, dynamite fishing has been on the increase all over the country. The reefs and wrecks are being bombed by fishermen who are not only destroying our natural and cultural heritage but also depriving other fishermen engaged in sustainable fishing practices. Dynamite fishing has a huge economic impact on our country and affects our fisheries and marine tourism industries.
President of the Organisation for Aquatic Resources Management (OARM) Shantha Jayaweera says fish dynamiting is illegal, whether it is in freshwater or in the sea, and is done by fishermen on the sly. “This is an easy way to catch fish. A lot of fish die and the coral reefs are seriously damaged. How do the fishermen get the dynamite? People say they get the dynamite from the Police and the Army. The fishermen put dynamite on reefs or on sandstone reefs or rock reefs where there is a lot of fish. The bottom of a tin is filled with cement, then the explosive. The upper part of the tin is covered with cement and the explosive is set. When put in water the tin goes down because it is heavy and then explodes in five seconds,” Jayaweera explained.
He says the blast breaks through the coral reefs and many coral reefs that have not yet been identified and researched have been destroyed. “Dynamite is used at Pigeon Islands to kill fish and colour fish also die. Fishermen check out the reef for fish and then put the dynamite. There are two types of coral reefs – branch corals and bowl corals. Branch corals grow fast but bowl corals are a round shape and take a long time to grow. For this coral to grow to about three to four feet it takes about 1500 to 2000 years,” Jayaweera said.
He added that in a few seconds all is destroyed, and these explosives are put in shallow water and not in the deep sea because it has to explode within five seconds. “In some areas fish dynamiting is controlled by the Sri Lanka Navy (SLN). The Rumassala Coral Reef in Galle is protected well. Most fish die due to vibration. The Pigeon Island National Park opens at 8 am. Wildlife officers go in hired boats with visitors to check on fish dynamiting. Before 8 am fishermen use dynamite to kill fish. Fishermen know that wildlife officers come at this time. In the evening after wildlife officers leave, fishermen put in dynamite again,” Jayaweera explained.
He says boats should have a number and a registration, then it is easy to catch people using dynamite. “Night vision CCTV cameras can also be used to track people. Boats should have luminous number plates, then they can be seen from a distance. Microchips can be fixed on every boat to trace the movements of the boat. The authorities should try to stop the purchase of dynamite from people who supply it. In Vedithalativu, because of the mangroves and rich environment for fish breeding, fishermen catch a good supply of fish within a few hours. But fishermen coming from Mannar are the ones who use dynamite to kill and catch fish,” Jayaweera said.
“According to Section 27 of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act (FARA) it is an offence to kill fish by the use of dynamite, while the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) says no animal can be killed by the use of explosives. The police can take action if any person violates the FFPO and the FARA.”
Ocean Resources Conservation Association Marine Naturalist Prasanna Weerakkody said killing fish by dynamiting, though illegal, is an ongoing practice and has resulted in grave harm to the fish and corals in the country.
“When dynamite is used to kill fish, all types of fish die irrespective of the size. A boat with two fishermen generally goes out to sea in search of areas where there are large numbers of fish. One fisherman sits on the bow of the boat and looks out for the fish while the other rows the boat. When the fish are spotted the fisherman on the bow drops the stick of dynamite into the water. The dynamite stick, when dropped, sinks ten feet into the water and bursts. When the blasting occurs a large number of fish are killed. Rare fish and pregnant fish are also killed in the blast, and go down to the bed of the ocean,” Weerakkody said.
He added that fishermen then come in boats, collect only the required amounts of fish, and leave the balance underwater. “After two days, the dead fish that are decomposed by this time, surface to the top of the water. This is a waste of resources as the fish are not used for consumption but left to rot. In the past, fishermen used a lesser quantity of dynamite to kill fish. The small blasts resulted in the required quantity of fish dying but no harm was caused to the coral reefs and the other fish. However, due to an income drop in the fishing industry, fishermen started using larger quantities of dynamite to kill fish,” Weerakkody explained.
He says the increase in the amount of dynamite used has destroyed the coral reefs and other types of rare fish, adding that the shock waves of the explosives can even blow off the intestines and ears of people when underwater.
Dolphins and other protected species have died due to fish dynamiting. The humpback dolphin is one of the critically endangered marine mammals in the world, with the World Conservation Union (IUCN) status as “Critically Endangered”. The global population of the dolphin is also reported to be on a rapid decline.
“A pair of rare large Dugongs were killed as a result of dynamiting close to Mannar. Dynamite fishing, also known as blast fishing, stuns and kills schools of fish for easy collection. The dugong is also a protected species, and reported to be on the verge of extinction in Sri Lanka,” Weerakkody stated.
The dugong is the only extant plant-eating mammal that spends all its life at sea and has the ability to convert marine higher plants into meat palatable to man. The IUCN has listed dugongs as vulnerable to extinction on a global scale.
“In the Gulf of Mannar is a fishing village with seagrass beds, mangroves, migrant birds, and very rich fishing industry. Fishermen coming from Pallimunai and Panankaddikoddu are damaging the fishing industry by using dynamite to kill fish. The coral reefs are located within the Vedithalathivu nature reserve area. There is a naval attachment with boats at Vedithalathivu, but still, fish dynamiting is happening in Mannar. From 5 am to 7 am fish dynamiting takes place,” Environmentalist Edison Marynathan said.
He says normally they use the explosive in an empty tin fish can with cement and detonator clips and locally produce the dynamite. “The explosives come from outside with the support of somebody. The Police, the Army are all there, but still, explosives are brought in and used to kill fish. Fishermen come to the coral reefs and use dynamite to kill the fish, and the coral reefs are damaged. Cuttlefish lay eggs in these coral reefs and seagrass areas. With the shock waves, all eggs are destroyed. The Vedithalathivu fishing community and the Vedithalathivu Eco-Tourism Society are always complaining to the police. But nothing happens,” Marynathan explained.
He says a former Government Agent of Mannar came to the coral reef area to see the situation, there was some dynamite fishing taking place, and he took some fish for his meal. “The Environmental Foundation Ltd. (EFL) and the Turtle Conservation Project (TCP) are talking about this but nothing can be done. The SLN can stop this. If the SLN wants assistance and information we can help them. We don’t have the weapons, but the SLN does,” Marynathan said.
“We have to check if fish dynamiting is taking place within the area protected by the DWLC. If we find people engaged in illegal activities such as fish dynamiting, we make sure to take action against them and stop them immediately,” the Director-General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) Chandana Sooriyabandara said.