- Blast fishing is widely practiced in the seas around Sri Lanka, even marine parks and historic shipwrecks are not immune to this illegal practice.
- Authorities say blast fishers work as part of a network to evade capture and obtain explosives, including smuggling them by sea from India.
- The easy availability of explosives transcends conservation issues and raises serious national security concerns, experts say, pointing to the use of explosives in a coordinated terror attack on churches over Easter 2019.
- Blast fishing also poses a threat to recreational divers, with serious injury or even death spelling the end of Sri Lanka’s dive tourism industry which is already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. and the current economic crisis.
COLOMBO – It was a perfect morning in Pigeon Island National Park in eastern Sri Lanka, where a group of boat tourists were enjoying the rich marine life in the water around them. Suddenly, there was a loud explosion nearby. As silence settled again, they saw the fish, now fluttering nimbly either floating dead on the surface or struggling to swim. Through the clear water, they could see more dead fish on the seabed.
Hans-Georg Kehse, the leader of the tour group, realized that they had just narrowly escaped an explosive intended to catch fish.
“Fish bombs or dynamite fishing have become commonplace in and around Pigeon Island National Park, where sounds of such explosions have become frequent,” said Kehse, who operates a dive center near the park.
He estimated that the recent explosion only occurred about 400 meters, or a quarter of a mile, from his tour group. Closer, Kehse said, it could have been a human tragedy, dealing a devastating blow to Sri Lanka’s already beleaguered maritime tourism industry.
No sites prohibited for blast fishing
Dynamite fishing relies on an explosive to kill or stun large numbers of fish. The shock waves from the underwater explosion can kill a fish or rupture its swim bladder, causing the fish to lose buoyancy. They then become easy prey for fishermen, who just have to take them out of the water. But this practice indiscriminately kills or injures any nearby sea creatures and damages marine habitats such as coral reefs.
In a marine park like Pigeon Island, corals are the primary underwater life support system, and repeated blasts can shatter the substrate of this coral growth, preventing its recovery, said Arjan Rajasuriya, a leading coral expert at the Sri Lanka and former researcher with the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA).
Most of the corals in southern Sri Lanka are already bleached and those in other areas are threatened. The east coast, where Pigeon Island is located, has the greatest cover of live corals, but blast fishing poses a serious threat to them, Rajasuriya told Mongabay.
Wreck sites, which attract large numbers of fish, have also become targets for blast fishing, according to Dharshana Jayawardena of Dive Sri Lanka, a diving tour operator. This is of particular concern, given that dive tourism is seen as essential in helping Sri Lanka’s tourism industry recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and the current economic crisis, Jayawardena said.
At the rate at which blast fishing is taking place, including at dive sites, it is only a matter of time before a tourist is injured, which would spell the end of the tourism industry. diving in Sri Lanka, Jayawardena told Mongabay.
Among the sites where blast fishing is common, Trincomalee in the east of the country, Galle in the south, and Mannar and Jaffna in the north of Pigeon Island are of particular concern as it is one of Sri Lanka’s three marine national parks – a supposedly protected area. administered by the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC). A naval camp is located nearby, from where the explosions can be clearly heard.
Keep explosives out of circulation
DWC chief executive Chandana Sooriyabandara said department officers on the ground are working hard to tackle blast fishing whenever possible. Officers stationed near Pigeon Island said they try to pursue the perpetrators whenever they hear an explosion, but these activities are so well coordinated that fishing boats at sea are quickly warned of approaching patrol boats, which gives them time to escape.
The Sri Lankan Navy has apprehended several fishermen involved in blast fishing in recent years, seizing explosives including TNT, C4 and gelignite. The latter, a water-based blasting gelatin, has increasingly become the explosive of choice.
In 2017, the Navy seized 52 kilograms (115 pounds) of hand sanitizer. In the first months of 2019, they seized 63 kg (139 lb). Following the April 2019 Easter church bombings, the circulation of explosives was massively suppressed, leading to a decline in blast fishing during this time.
The distribution of explosives in Sri Lanka is regulated by the Navy. Explosives that end up being used in blast fishing leak out of this distribution chain or are smuggled into the country by sea from neighboring India. The Navy says it has intensified its patrols on this maritime route to suppress the smuggling of explosives and other contraband products.
But even these efforts are being undermined by the ongoing economic crisis, the worst in Sri Lanka’s history. Acute shortages mean that fuel for DWC patrols is rationed. The navy, meanwhile, is focused on another pressing issue: stemming the flow of desperate Sri Lankans trying to migrate to India.
Coral expert Rajasuriya said it was impossible to identify the number of people with access to explosives. The blast fishing problem has shifted from a conservation issue to a national concern, he said. He called for strict vigilance and intelligence gathering, similar to the situation following the 2019 terrorist attacks, to identify the origin of these explosives.
Political intervention and poverty
Blast fishing is particularly prevalent in Mannar, in the northern region of Sri Lanka, according to SSM Peramunagama of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Agriculture, who has conducted research on destructive fishing activities there. It is widely believed that blast fishing in Mannar is done by fishermen from other areas, but the reality is that local fishermen do it, Peramunagama said.
When the fish arrives on the market, it is difficult to determine whether it has been killed by an explosion, even for fisheries inspectors. “Another difficulty in applying the law is the degree of political interventions that often have [led to] the release of arrested fishermen,” Peramunagama told Mongabay. He also pointed to the personal risk that blasters themselves face, with the loss of limbs being a very real danger whenever they handle explosives.
A 2021 review of the existing scientific literature on blast fishing shows that it is a global problem that is driven by more than poverty. “Blasting fishing has occurred in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe since the beginning of explosives [becoming] relatively freely available in the late 19th century,” said lead author Melissa Hampton-Smith of the University of New England, Australia. The study identified particularly destructive practices in parts of Southeast Asia, Tanzania, the Red Sea and many other parts of Asia.
Although poverty is often cited as the main factor pushing anglers to resort to blast fishing, the biggest contributor is easy access to explosives, Hampton-Smith said. Access to credit and the prospect of increased catches were also identified as more important factors than poverty, she added. The review also indicated that blast fishers tend to be wealthier than non-blast fishers.
Peramunagama, S. SM, & Thusyanthini, R. (2021). The importance of involving community organizations to prevent destructive fishing activities in Mannar, Sri Lanka. Advances in technology, 1(1), 177-190. doi:10.31357/ait.v1i1.4850
Hampton-Smith, M., Bower, DS and Mika, S. (2021). A review of the current global blast fishing situation: causes, implications and solutions. Biological conservation, 262109307.doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2021.109307
Banner image of corals and colorful reef fish at the Wallet Wreck off Colombo, courtesy of Dharshana Jayawardena.