It has been estimated by a United Nations FAO report that as much as 30% of global fishing is IUU, or Illegal, Unreported or Unregulated. Shark finning and the shark fin trade is an egregious example of this, but all around are other terrible examples of overfishing generated by greed, negligence or desperation.
One of the components of Shark Stewards work in SE Asia has been to provide support to facilitate enforcement to stop fish bombing. Successful testing of new technology by the NGO Stop Fish Bombing in the Tun Mustapha Marine Park offers a hopeful tool to combat this form of IUU fishing.

Typical fish bombs, composed of manure, kerosene and triggered by illegal blast caps. Photo Stop Fish Bombing

The tragic death of three recreational Scuba divers off the Island of Kalapuan on July 5 is another example of the lack of fisheries management and enforcement in Sabah Malaysia. Last year with the Sabah Shark Protection Association, Shark Stewards authored a report on the Catch and Trade of Sharks and Rays in Malaysia. IUU, and enforcing fish bombing, which is still rampant in the country and in the Coral Triangle. Among the recommendations include banning shark finning in Malaysian waters, reducing the significant shark fin trade, minimising bycatch of sharks and rays and protecting endangered marine species by banning some fishing outright (endangered species e.g. hammerhead sharks). With these is a recommendation to increase enforcement by making serious crackdowns in known areas where fish bombers act with impunity, banning the small fast “Pump Boats” and cracking down on middlemen who traffic the recognizably bloated or damaged fish.

In June of 2017 Shark Stewards attended the United Nations Oceans Conference and helped support Malaysia’s one commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 14 in the marine environment: to stop fish bombing. The country did not send any delegates, but filed a formal commitment. Tiny neighbor Timor Leste sent 6 representatives, committing as many SDG goals to protect their ocean life and habitat including a condemnation of fish bombing.

Bloated fish and destroyed reef from recent fish bomb event in Semporna. Photo Scubazoo

In the case of Malaysia, fish bombing is illegal but ignored.  Fishermen in small boats use illegal blasting caps and mix a home-brew of nitrate fertilizer and fuel in bottles to make home-made fish bombs. Craters in the coral exist all over Semporna and at nearby Pom Pom Island, our conservation partners TRACC have recorded and reported scores of events, although located right across from a major marine protected area in the Tun Sukarran Marine Park in Semporna. Mangled reef fish have been documented in fish markets in Kota Kinabalu; indicators of the practice. Unscrupulous middlemen peddle this illegally caught fish to consumers and everyone loses.

The government must do more than decry this loss of senseless life, the potential impact of a dive tourism industry that generated nearly 16 million USD in Sabah alone in 2017, and the loss of the beautiful biodiversity that is Sabah’s major food source and great economic hope in dive tourism. Enforcement and intervention are critical to protect future jobs and livelihoods dependent on healthy marine ecosystems.

Overfishing sharks, damaging reefs and IUU fishing are destroying Sabah’s future, and now is the time to act. Here, we respectfully remind the Malaysian government of their international commitment to sustainable oceans and stop IUU Fishing, specifically to stop fish bombing.
The injury from fish bombs to uninvolved divers on Kalapuan Island is not the first incident with injury, but is the most egregious. Perhaps the deaths of tourists (not just local fishermen) will catalyse the new government to act in a thoughtful and planned fashion, and uphold the commitment to Stop Fish Bombing and IUU Fishing.