Cyanide Fishing in the Philippines
November 15, 2001
Introduction to Coastal Management
The Philippines is a beautiful tropical archipelago situated in Southeast Asia just
north of Indonesia. This archipelago consists of over 7,000 islands with many being so
small they are uninhabitable. A tropical nation with great biodiversity, the Philippines
has an abundance of management issues. One of the Philippines’ major management
issues is cyanide fishing.
Fisheries are important both economically and socially to the Philippines.
Filipinos receive over half of their protein from the sea (IDRC, 1997) making it a very
vital part of their diet. Most Filipinos eat fresh fish, those that are not close enough to the
sea eat dried fish. Over 600,000 people are employed by the fisheries and fisheries
related businesses (CIDA, 1998) making it a very vital part of their economy as well.
Those that are not fishermen directly work for companies that are supported by these
fisheries. It is expected for an island nation to take advantage of its surrounding
resources. The Philippines, along with other developing nations, are raping their
Cyanide is really very simple. It requires little equipment or skills. A fishermen
or boy dives to the corals with a squirt bottle filled with dissolved cyanide. He squirts the
cyanide into the corals. This stuns the fish and invertebrates which then float to the top.
Half of the fish die from this initial exposure. They are easily scooped up into baggies at
this point. The fishermen keep the fish in baggies until they are able to sell them to
dealers in Manila. By the time they sell them over 30% of the fish they caught have died,
mostly due to cyanide poisoning (Cyanide-free).
Cyanide fishing started in the early 1960s in Batangas in Southern Luzon and
spread throughout the islands (Cyanide-free). Since then the practice has spread
throughout Southeast Asia and into many other areas of the world. In the 1960s there
were only three companies that bought marine aquarium fish and none that bought live
food-fish. By the 1990s there were 45 marine aquarium fish dealers and eight live food-
fish traders (Cyanide-free).
Coral reefs are home to many beautiful marine fish. The Philippines is the home
to 33,000 square kilometers of coral reefs. Fifteen years ago only 6% of this coral
environment was in excellent condition. By 1998 Newsweek had placed 90% of corals
on a deterioration or killed status (Dead Corals). Most all of this death and deterioration
is due to fishing with cyanide. This fishing is done by Filipinos to catch marine aquarium
fish and fish for the live fish-food trade.
The culprit is cyanide in the form of sodium cyanide (NaCN) or hydrogen cyanide
(HCN). It takes about 5,204 milligrams per liter for 10, 20, or 30 minutes to kill corals
(Cyanide-free). The corals will die within seven days with this amount of exposure. If
the coral is exposed to cyanide for several minutes the concentration can be as low as five
milligrams per liter to be lethal. Only 520 milligrams per liter will result in a loss of
zooxanthelle and impair photosynthesis and can cause death. Marine aquarium fishermen
use one to two 20gram cyanide tablets per one liter bottle. Food-fish fishermen generally
use three to five of these tablets. The general concentration of hydrogen cyanide that is
released from the bottles is 1500-2000 milligrams per liter. Around 29 million kilograms
of cyanide was illegally imported into the Philippines between 1991 and 1995, with seven
million kilograms in 1995 alone. The cyanide stuns the fish which brings them out of the
corals and into the waiting bags of the fishermen. The fish and other invertebrates
enzyme systems are impaired. In the fish the spleen, liver, heart, and brain are also
damaged. Cyanide fishing can also be harmful to humans if they are exposed to high
enough amounts for long periods of time. Diving with old or makeshift equipment can
also harm the fishermen. Approximately, 150,000 kilograms of cyanide is spread in the
Philippines every year (Cyanide-free). It is thought that more than one million
kilograms of cyanide has been used since the 1960’s in the Philippines alone (State
For a Filipino this business is fairly profitable. A fisherman will get around P350
per kilo of live lapulapu (grouper) and P700 per kilo for mameng (humphead wrasse).
Compare that to the mere P70 a fisherman would receive for dead and frozen fish. The
live reef food-fish trade in 1995 in Asia harvested 20,000-25,000 metric tons of fish,
accounting for over $1 billion. The marine aquarium fish trade acquired 10-30 million
specimens, accounting for $200-$750 million (State Department, 1998).
Until 1986 net fishing was illegal (Dead Corals). Cyanide fishing seemed the
only way to get these fish. The Philippines was the first nation to begin cyanide fishing
and it has been the first to try and stop it. Starting in the mid-1980s people began to see
the effect cyanide fishing was having on the Filipino coral reefs. Private groups were
developed to combat the problem. The government began to join in the fight against
fishing with cyanide. Together they set up programs to move the fishermen away from
cyanide fishing and on to more environmentally friendly fishing techniques. Among the
first tasks was the legalization of fine-mesh nets for collecting aquarium fish. Then
trainers were gathered to teach fishermen techniques without the use of cyanide. Net-
skills were a large part of this training program. Social programs were created to help
fishermen and their families. A test for detecting cyanide in fish tissues was also created
as a way to enforce the no cyanide policy (Policy, 1998). Specific areas, such as the
island of Palawan, formed their own management policies. Palawan placed a five year
ban on live fish collection in 1993. Unfortunately, after only one year all fish were
exempt except live groupers and other food fishes (Dead Corals). The Philippines, like
many other governments, has corruption issues which strongly effect policies and
In spite of the corruption, 1,000 fishermen have been trained in net fishing and
another 500 in hook-and-line capture (Cyanide-free). Mortality rates for these non-
cyanide caught fish is much lower than the those caught using the toxin. Six cyanide
detection test laboratories are currently at work having tested 32,000 marine fish since
1993. The levels of cyanide detected have been on a steady downslide from 80% in 1993
to 47% in 1996 to a much better 20% in 1998. It seems as though education is working
for some of these fishermen.
Having been to the Philippines, I can understand that these fishermen are just
people trying to feed their families. Been able to make enough to feed your family for a
month of one kilo of fish is hard to pass up. I also believe that these people want to keep
their beautiful coastal areas and for them to be their for their children. They must been
given an alternative. This has been shown by the acceptance of alternative techniques for
catching fish. The nets and other means of fishing must become more economical for
these fishermen. I also think that hobbyist should get involved by not only refusing to by
fish caught with cyanide but by supporting those fishermen and agency that are against
Alvarez, Aquilino Jr. Dead Corals in exchange for live fish exports?
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Chapter 8: Policy Reform and Community-Based Programmes to Combat Cyanide Fishing in
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Canadian International Development Agency. Sustaining the Environment: CIDA programs in Asia-
Pacific economic cooperation developing countries. http://www.acdi-
Eberlee, John. Fishing Softly on Coral Reefs. International Development Research Centre.
Rubec, Peter J., Ferdinand Cruz, Vaughan Pratt, Richard Oellers and Frank Lallo. Cyanide-free, net-
Caught fish for the marine aquarium trade. http://www.spc.org.nc/coastfish/News/Irf/7/LRF7-
U.S. Department of State. Coral Reefs: Cyanide Fishing and the Live Reef Fish Trade.
World Resources Institute. Cyanide Fishing: A Poison Tide on the Reef.
World Resources Institute. Destructive Fishing Reform Initiative. http://www.wri.org/marine/dfri.html.