Fishermen blast premier dive sites off Indonesia

Apr 20, 2012 By JACOB HERIN , Associated Press
Fishermen blast premier dive sites off Indonesia (AP)
In this May 15, 2010, a Pinnate batfish swims among other fish in Tatawa Besar in the waters of Komodo islands, Indonesia. Coral gardens that were among Asia's most spectacular, teeming with colorful sea life just a few months ago, have been transformed into desolate gray moonscapes by fishermen who use explosives or cyanide to kill or stun their prey. (AP Photo/Robert Delfs) NO SALES

(AP) -- Coral gardens that were among Asia's most spectacular, teeming with colorful sea life just a few months ago, have been transformed into desolate gray moonscapes by fishermen who use explosives or cyanide to kill or stun their prey.

Dive operators and conservationists say the government is not doing enough to protect waters off the Komodo Islands in eastern Indonesia. They say enforcement declined greatly following the exit of a U.S.-based conservation group that helped fight destructive fishing practices.

Local officials disagree, pointing to dozens of arrests and several deadly gunbattles with suspects.

Michael Ishak, a scuba instructor and professional underwater photographer who has made hundreds of trips to the area, said he's seen more illegal fishermen than ever this year.

The pictures, he said, speak for themselves.

When Ishak returned last month to one of his favorite spots, Tatawa Besar, known for its colorful clouds of damselfish, basslets and hawksbill , he found that a 200-square-meter (240-square-yard) reef had been obliterated.

"At first I thought, 'This can't be right. I must have jumped in the wrong place,'" he said, adding he swam back and forth to make sure he hadn't made a mistake. "But it was true. All the hard coral had just been blasted, ripped off, turned upside down. Some of it was still alive. I've never seen anything like it."

The site is among several to have been hit inside Komodo National Park, a 500,000-acre reserve and U.N. World Heritage Site that spans several dusty, tan-colored and is most famous for its - the world's largest lizards. Its remote and hard-to-reach waters, bursting with fluorescent reds and yellows, contain staggering levels of diversity, from iridescent corals and octopuses with lime-green banded eyes to black-and-blue .

They are supposed to be protected, but fishermen are drawn there by locally popular fish like fusiliers and high-value export species like groupers and snappers.

Fishermen can be seen in small wooden boats, some using traditional nets or lines. Others have been captured on video blasting sites with "bombs" - fertilizer and kerosene mixed in beer bottles. Breathing through tubes connected to air compressors at the surface, young men plunge to the bottom and use squeeze bottles to squirt cyanide into the coral to stun and capture fish.

Dive operators are increasingly seeing dead fish on the sea floor or floating on the surface.

"The biggest problem is that fishermen seem to be free to come into Komodo, completely ignoring the zoning and resource use regulations," said Jos Pet, a fisheries scientist who has worked with numerous marine conservation groups in the area in recent years.

He said they are "quite simply fishing empty this ."

Sustyo Iriyono, the head of the park, said problems are being exaggerated and denied claims of lax enforcement. "It's only part of the black campaigns against us by those who are hurt by our rules and orders," he said without elaborating.

He said rangers have arrested more than 60 fishermen over the past two years, including a group of young men captured last month after they were seen bombing waters off Banda island in the western part of the park.

One of the suspects was shot and killed after the fishermen tried to escape by throwing fish bombs at the rangers, Iriyono said. Three others, including a 13-year-old, were slightly injured.

"You see?" said Iriyono. "No one can say I'm not acting firmly against those who are destroying the dive spots!"

He added that the park is one of the few places where fish bombing is monitored with any regularity in Indonesia, a Southeast Asian nation of more than 17,000 islands.

Divers, however, say enforcement has dropped dramatically since 2010, when the government reclaimed sole control of operations.

For two decades before that, The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based nonprofit, had helped the government confront destructive fishing practices there. "No-take zones" were created, protecting spawning areas, and coastal areas also were put off limits.

Patrols using park rangers, navy personnel and local police were key to enforcement.

In 2005, the government gave a 30-year permit to Putri Naga Komodo, a nonprofit joint venture company partially funded by The Nature Conservancy and the World Bank to operate tourist facilities in hopes of eventually making the park financially self-sustaining.

Entrance and conservation fees - just a few dollars at the time - went up several tenfold for foreign tourists. With around 30,000 local and international visitors annually at the time, that would have given the park a budget of well over $1 million, but outraged government officials demanded that the funds go directly into the state budget. The deal collapsed in 2010, when Putri Naga Komodo's permit was yanked.

"They had no right to directly collect the entrance fees from the tourists," said Novianto Bambang, a Forestry Ministry official.

Dive operators and underwater photographers have asked The Nature Conservancy and similar organizations like WWF Indonesia, to return to Komodo and help with conservation efforts there.

Nature Conservancy representative Arwandridja Rukma did not address that possibility, saying only that the organization operates in Indonesia upon the invitation of the government.

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User comments : 4

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Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Apr 20, 2012
Economic efficiency is paramount. Should the fish be eradicated, then economic theory holds that alternatives will be developed.
Peter Mous
not rated yet Apr 20, 2012
We have a choice here: Do something about unregulated fishing or watch short-term interests take over. This is not about too many people, not even about poverty. This is about allowing indiscriminate fishing to continue, harming those interested in long-term prospects in fishing and in responsible tourism.
Au-Pu
not rated yet Apr 21, 2012
The only way to influence corrupt local officials in the area is to declare it a banned area for all tourism and research.
Watch the attitudes change when the dollar stream halts.
When that happens they will try to get tourists back.
That will give negotiating power back to those who wish to protect the area.
The US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan have to all agree to walk away until the local officials are on their kneess begging for a retur of tourism. Each of those countries can discourage tourism to the area by showing the destruction being caused and asking their people to boycot the area.
gregor1
not rated yet Apr 21, 2012
This is totally tragic and is a great example of what happens when people are struggling. The biggest threat the environment faces is a decline in the economy, a simple fact that green groups choose to ignore.

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