Dynamite and Cynanide: Destruction in the Togian Reef
I remember flopping under water like a stupefied dolphin with haemorrhoids for hours, staring at the sea floor as sunlight penetrated the turquoise sea and illuminated fields of coral. Miniscule creatures lurked within – some of the rarest aquatic beings discoverable to man – as octopi and cuttlefish hovered nearby.
“What is this?” I pondered, gaping at sea turtles and sharks drifting past without giving two fucks about my presence, before reminding myself that this was not an acid trip.
Five years later, when I returned to the distant paradise of the Togian Islands in Indonesia, it seemed that the world above sea level had remained untouched by the threatening fangs of over-tourism. But within minutes of my first snorkel I realised that, beneath the surface, shit had hit the fan.
I floated motionless on the salty surface, the contents of my rice-filled belly becoming shaky despite calm seas, wondering where all my old friends had gone.
Moments later, I was stomping my way up to Ali Gogo, a local dive master and dedicated drinker of tuak (palm wine), fighting back the urge to roar profanities into the blistering sun as the Togian Sea evaporated off my sunburnt shoulders. I arrived at his feet, my face contorting into the shape of an upside-down kidney bean. “What the fuck happened?”
As we sat on the golden shore lined with coconut trees, in a rickety wooden shack that looked like it might collapse onto us, Ali gave me the low-down. Dynamite fishermen and trawlers in the area have decimated large segments of the Togian reef, which appeared as bled out wounds with sand settling over the gashes like scar tissue. Meanwhile, cyanide poisoning has resulted in the massacre of sizable stretches of coral, transforming chunks of the sea floor into graveyards of ghost-white bones.
The surrounding ecosystem – once an underwater Times Square – now appeared as an aquatic nursing home in the midst of a shingles outbreak.
Ali went on to tell me how the local Togian fishermen, who have access to very limited resources and earn around $2USD a day, were capable of obliterating these 1000-year-old coral habitats.
They start by diving 10-20 metres, using garden hose to supply oxygen through air compressors (often tire pumps for cars). Then they implant homemade Coca-Cola-bottle bombs in the reef. Metallic cables stretching to the sea surface are attached to the bombs, and an electrical surge is sent down from a power generator to ignite the blast. The blast produces a shock wave that ruptures the swim bladders (controlling buoyancy) of nearby fish, most of which sink to the bottom as a result, whilst the few that float to the top are collected using nets. A necropolis of coral is left behind.
The obliterated coral is often collected and transformed into bricks used in construction and road fill (which brings a whole new meaning to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot”), or for jewellery and souvenirs. In rare cases, coral is even transformed into calcium supplements or used for medical research in clinical bone graph trials. Coral reef organisms are even being used in the treatment of diseases like cancer and HIV.
Dynamite fishermen have suffered strange cramps after diving for extended periods of time, or phantasms underwater as the ocean’s colour mysteriously transforms from blue to yellow. Togian fishermen believe these visuals to be a spiritual phenomenon – namely the embrace of Allah – but they are actually experiencing symptoms of nitrogen narcosis, which occurs when the body absorbs high amounts of nitrogen at deep depths underwater. Before you go thinking this could be a cool and creative way to get high, I should probably tell you it could easily kill you.
Ali believes that cyanide fishing is a more destructive practice than dynamite fishing, as local fishermen crush tablets of sodium cyanide into plastic bottles, squirting the toxic mix into the faces of large groupers and barramundi to make them “drunk” and easy to catch. Because coral is such a fragile life form, it is killed when it comes into contact with almost any alien substance, especially chemicals or sediments. According to marine biologist Sam Mamauag, a square metre of reef is destroyed for every live fish caught using cyanide.
To top it all off there exists, of course, the inescapable threats of climate change. According to Ali’s sexy dive master watch, ocean temperatures have risen from an average of 29 to 31 degrees Celsius in the last ten years, intensifying the rate of coral bleaching throughout the Togians. Add to the mix trawlers who fit their nets to giant tires or rollers, which can pass over jagged surfaces as deep as 2000 meters and are capable of moving boulders weighing 25 tonnes, and things start to go pear-shaped.
Although the natural aquarium has become somewhat depressed in the last five years, the reef is still bustling with life. The octopuses still have their gardens, pygmy seahorses still coalesce with gorgonian coral whilst nibbling on miniscule crustaceans; and the reef still flourishes in a myriad of shapes and colours.
The Togian Islands are a marine protected area, but the Indonesian government does not bother spending money to prevent destructive fishing practices going ahead. The most likely reasons for this are laziness, disorganisation and lack of giving a shit. Ali believes if a visitors’ tax applied, funds could be fed into protecting and rejuvenating the reef; however, Indonesian officials are corrupt and often pocket money for themselves.
It would fall into the hands of local activists like Ali to mobilise the Togian community and take action to ensure the right agents for change are put in place, but it also comes down to education. Local fishermen do not understand how fragile and vital coral habitats are to oceanic ecosystems, on which they depend for their survival. If they realised that their food source could be diminished within a matter of years, they might think twice before blowing it up.