Fishing with explosives harvested from old munitions is a threat to coral reefs globally, education and support for alternative livelihoods are needed to tackle it.
Pacific island communities including Palau and the Solomon Islands, remain littered with explosive remnants of war from the Second World War. The conflict left a legacy of land, marine and coastal contamination with munitions containing unstable explosives and other toxic substances. Kendra Dupuy and Linsey Cottrell examine some of the environmental consequences of this contamination, which includes the harvesting of explosives for destructive blast fishing.
A history of contamination
Palau experienced heavy fighting between US and Japanese forces during the Second World War, with an estimated 2,800 tonnes of ordnance dropped or fired across the islands. These explosive remnants of war (ERW) include sea mines and ordnance that either failed to detonate or was abandoned after the war. The remnants includes chemical agent munitions, and ERW contamination is spread across many of Palau’s 200+ islands. While the government of Palau recently created a centralised database with information on the location of ERW contamination, data collection is still ongoing and there is not yet a reliable estimate of how much contamination remains on the land or at sea.
The situation is similar in the Solomon Islands, with heavy ERW contamination mainly concentrated in six of its provinces, but information about the exact location and extent of contamination is limited. The Solomon Islands comprise more than 900 islands and many locals rely on subsistence farming and fishing. Because ERW are found both on land and at sea, they impact the daily lives and livelihoods of islanders.
As well as the risk of physical injury or death from encountering any unexploded ordnance, direct contact or exposure to toxic munition components can adversely impact the health of people and marine species. Over time, corrosion causes the release of explosives, chemical warfare agents and toxic heavy metals into the marine environment, and there is a risk of indirect exposure from the consumption of contaminated fish or seafood.
Evaluating the risks to human health and the marine environment from sea-dumped munitions is complex. The long-term behaviour and environmental fate of munition-related compounds varies depending on their physico-chemical characteristics, and the prevailing environmental conditions such as water temperature, pH and salinity. NATO held a workshop in 2016 to address existing gaps in the understanding of these environmental risks, concluding that greater effort was needed to advance knowledge and mitigate the risks from sea-dumped munitions. Significant gaps in the understanding of the behaviour of munition components in marine environments remain.
Immediate environmental threats
Work by international mine action organisations to survey and remove ERW from Palau and the Solomon Islands has taken place, but it is a challenging task. Work by Safe Ground and early investigations during Norwegian People’s Aid’s humanitarian disarmament programme in the Solomon Islands indicated that illegal ‘blast fishing’ is one of the most immediate dangers to people and a serious environmental threat.
Blast fishing, also called fish bombing or dynamite fishing, uses explosives to cause an explosion at sea to kill or stun fish. Fishermen lacking money to invest in proper fishing equipment often resort to blast fishing as an easier and cheaper alternative. This makes abandoned munitions a valuable commodity. But blast fishing reduces market prices for fish, making it more difficult for small and conventional fishing communities to compete and make a living.
In the Solomon Islands, it is estimated that up to 500 local fishermen regularly harvest explosives from abandoned Japanese and US munitions to use in blast fishing. Harvesting explosives is itself extremely hazardous. The explosives are typically very unstable due to degradation over many decades, and can be toxic. Accidents from harvesting explosives often go unreported since using explosives for fishing is illegal and causalities risk being prosecuted. In addition, the geography and poverty levels of the Solomon Islands often prevents injured people from reaching medical facilities.
A common practice by explosive harvesters is to use the primary explosive detonator (typically lead azide) from a 20mm calibre round and combine this with the harvested secondary explosive, such as HND, trinitroanisole or TNT. These are then placed in a bottle for throwing and detonation in the sea. The shock wave from blast fishing is indiscriminate. As well as killing all adult and juvenile sea creatures within a few metres, the blast damages fragile corals. Damage to the coral reef can cause a significant decline in marine biodiversity and fish stocks. The coral reef’s physical structure also buffers waves and, once destroyed, there is an increased risk of coastal flooding and damage from waves and storms.
In deeper waters, blast fishing is used to target larger shoals, such as tuna. Most fish killed by the blast will sink and only a small proportion are retrieved by the fishermen. In addition to being incredibly wasteful and destructive, blast fishing threatens the long-term productivity of fishing areas and fishing-dependent livelihoods.
In spite of regional schemes by conservation agencies such as WWF and the Coral Triangle Initiative to prevent blast fishing, the problem persists. For the Solomon Islands, marine conservation has been focused in its remote and less populated Western Province. This province has one of its richest marine ecosystems but luckily, is not yet an area where blast fishing is practiced.
Initiatives to control blast fishing are often better established where there is greater reliance on lucrative tourism. Unlike Palau, the Solomon Islands is much less reliant on tourism. The use of monitoring systems such as Shotspotter, which uses triangulated acoustic equipment to detect the site of an explosion, have had limited success as a deterrent in the Solomon Islands. This is because any monitoring system needs to be supported by effective law enforcement, with the capacity to respond to an incident in a timely manner. This is difficult to do with limited resources and across such a large geographical area like the Solomon Islands.
Supporting local communities
Rather than policing, effective engagement with local communities is a better way to address blast fishing and create sustainable behavioural change. Any engagement strategy needs to be developed by local people and be flexible enough to work across all ethnic groups – there are more than 80 different languages spoken across the Solomon Islands. Targeting the explosive harvesters and retraining them to deliver environmental awareness training and information on sustainable fishing practices would raise community understanding about why blast fishing is so damaging and socially unacceptable.
Lessons from some of the methods being used to engage with people elsewhere may also be useful. In Malaysia, the University of Malaya has created an educational booklet for schoolchildren. The booklet uses cartoons to explain the impacts of blast fishing on local ecosystems and the marine environment. They will be used for engaging with the public, while a study will evaluate any subsequent changes in behaviour or practices within the local community.
Other areas of abandoned munitions
ERW and threats to sensitive marine habitats extend beyond the Pacific. For example Libya has both the problem of large uncontrolled ammunition stockpiles and contamination from recent hostilities, as well as a legacy of ERW on its coastal strip, which was occupied by British, Italian and German forces during World War II. Although environmental legislation was put in place under the former Gaddafi regime that prohibited the use of explosives for fishing, sensitive marine areas remain at risk from the practice, even more so now that environmental governance is weak. This includes a 100km stretch of sandy beaches on the Gulf of Sirte, the southernmost point of the Mediterranean Sea, an understudied region but believed to be important for sea turtles, seagrass communities and as a nursery for fish.
What can be developed for the Solomon Islands could also be adapted for other affected parts of the world. We encourage international donors of humanitarian disarmament programmes in regions such as the Solomon Islands to support broader community initiatives that can help address the health risks and environmental damage caused by blast fishing.
Kendra Dupuy is Norwegian People’s Aid Senior Environmental Advisor and Linsey Cottrell is CEOBS’ Environmental Policy Officer.