Fish bombing allegedly kills 3 people in Semporna – here’s what it is, who uses it and why it’s illegal

According to environment conservation group Reef Check, fish bombing creates shock waves that kill or stun fish, causing them to float to the surface or sink to the bottom for easier collection by fishermen.
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Three divers have been killed in waters off Sabah’s renowned diving haven of Semporna, allegedly after fish bombs were detonated in the area, local media has reported.

According to reports by The Star, the deaths of the trio – two male Chinese nationals and a local divemaster – which happened last Friday (July 5) is believed to be the first case of its kind.

The deceased were identified as divemaster Ab Zainal Abdu, 30, as well as Chinese nationals Zhao Zheng and Xu YingJie, both 26, who were reportedly diving near the island of Pulau Kalapuan around 5pm when the incident took place.

The Star quoted unnamed sources as saying that initial investigations pointed to fish-blasting activities as the cause of the deaths due to the presence of “a lot of dead fish in the area where the trio were killed”.

Other telltale signs that alluded to fish bombing included damage to nearby coral and the divers’ equipment, as well as the limpness of the bodies found at a depth of 5.8m.

As a result of the deaths, a “massive” manhunt has been launched to apprehend the suspects involved as authorities announced plans to come down hard on the criminal activity. On Saturday (July 6), a 24-year-old boatman and a 23-year-old guide were arrested for connection to the deaths.

In the aftermath of the shocking incident, the practice of fish bombing has been condemned by several authority figures, including Sabah Association of Tour and Travel Agents president Datuk Winston Liaw and Sabah chief minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal, who have called for immediate action and stiffer penalties against those guilty of using the fish bombing method.

“Stern action must be taken. I also hope local residents who know those responsible (will report them to the authorities),” Shafie was quoted by The Star as saying. He added that the incident raised security concerns due to the unknown origin of the device used in the incident.

The Star also reported that coastguards are now working closely with the Eastern Sabah Security Command with the help of vessels sent by the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency. Assets from the agency have reportedly also been sent to the area to assist security forces tracking down the suspects.

What is fish bombing?

Environment conservation NGO Reef Check defines fish bombing, otherwise known as blast fishing, as a destructive form of fishing that involves the use of homemade explosives made from artificial chemicals derived from fertilisers.

The explosives are detonated to create shock waves which kill or stun fish, causing them to float to the surface or sink to the bottom for easier collection.

The organisation noted that the practice – which is illegal in Malaysia – often entails collateral damage to the environment as the explosions would destroy surrounding habitat for coral reefs and marine life, citing studies which revealed that reef sites blasted in 2006 showed little to no signs of recovery.

Reef Check also said that fish bombing has “severe” human impacts as blast fishers expose themselves to serious injury and possible death by using such practices. Divers are also not spared as some have reportedly gone temporarily deaf from underwater blasts, with one who went permanently deaf in a year after a fish bomb was detonated near him.

Who uses it in Malaysia?

According to New Straits Times, the method is “rampantly” practiced in Sabah’s waters, with bombing sounds being a common occurrence to divers in the area even though the explosive devices are often detonated some four to five kilometres away.

NST reported that from January to June this year, 30 arrests were made and items valued at RM100,113 (US$24,155) related to fish bombing were confiscated in Sabah alone.

It quoted Semporna Fisherman’s Association chairman Salleh Abdul Salleh as saying that illegal immigrants are to be blamed for fish-bombing cases as they are often enticed by the “fast returns” and would not be bothered about the impacts to the surroundings.

Nonetheless, Reef Check noted that local fishermen are also guilty of the practice as they are similarly drawn to the short-term gains of fish bombing.

“Economic models show that blast fishing is initially four times more efficient than non-destructive fishing methods. However, after 20 years, income declines to one-fifth of what would have been available by sustainable methods,” the organisation said.

The Malaysian branch of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) posted a statement on its Facebook page on Sunday (July 7) to “stress the dangers and seriousness of the recurring fish bombing cases that have been happening in Sabah for decades”.

“Fish bombing is a life or death issue which affects not only marine life but human beings as well,” the organisation wrote.

WWF also urged the stop to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, in particular to fish bombs and the ban of pump boats, which it claims are usually associated with illegal fishing activities.

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