Please visit our Sponsors
Related FAQs: Cyanide and Marine Livestock Collection, Sources of Reef Mortality,

Related Articles: Cyanide Use, Marine Livestock Collecting Methods, Sources of Reef Mortality

'Cyanide Usage in the Aquarium and Live Food-Fish Industries:

Causes, Impacts and Management of a Pervasive Practice.'



By: Ivan Steward


Prepared by: Ivan Steward 236352

For: Wildlife Management 250-650


This research examines the causative factors, scope and impacts of cyanide fishing practices that are being used to supply the aquarium and live food-fish industries. Further, it seeks to evaluate the steps that are being implemented in order to deal with the associated impacts occurring in sensitive coral reef environments. The primary methodology involves the analysis and evaluation of relevant literature and case studies pertaining to this issue. Despite being prolific, the impacts are seen to be less destructive upon coral formations than activities such as blast fishing, yet they require urgent steps at mitigation due to the massive amounts of incidental and unreported mortality which results from collecting fish using cyanide.

Even though the application of cyanide is widely illegal in the trade, most countries involved have not used or developed testing and certification systems; hence, control methods have been largely ineffectual until recently. Further, while the establishment of several conservation and management methods has eventuated, the success of these is yet to be fully determined and considerable damage has already occurred. Much promise exists however for a multifaceted approach that necessarily instils an ethic of self-governance within fishing communities and the realisation that millions of people rely solely on the health and sustainable management of coral reef environments for their livelihood as an imperative for averting destructive fishing practices; coupled with appropriate measures including testing, certification and exportation/importation restrictions where necessary.


A plethora of human activities are presently degrading coral reefs globally. These threats include, but are not limited to, overfishing, the alteration of coastal habitats such as mangroves for charcoal production and aquaculture, pollution by industrial, agricultural and urban wastes, fertiliser and pesticide runoff, climate change, sedimentation related to deforestation, coral mining, tourism impacts and other destructive fishing activities such as blast fishing (McManus et al, 1997; Bryant et al, 1998, Pet et al, 1999). To many however, cyanide fishing is one of the major threats and takes place primarily in Southeast Asian/Indo-Pacific regions. These areas are home to approximately 70% of the world's coral reef habitats and currently possess the greatest diversity of marine species anywhere (Barber & Pratt, 1998). Granted the lethal characteristics of sodium cyanide (NaCN) that are discussed below, the squirting of such a substance at coral reef fish may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to being an effective means of catching them alive. However, the activity is widespread in Indonesia and the Philippines, whose harvesters catch and supply approximately 40 million tropical marine fish annually to inhabit aquariums (Barber & Pratt, 1997; 1998). It is also employed to supply a vast live food fish trade, the hub of this industry being Hong Kong (Chan, 2000). This report first looks to examine the background and causative factors of cyanide fishing activities, which like other illegal activities stem from an array of socio-economic incentives. Further, it investigates the environmental and biological impacts of cyanide application upon coral reef habitats and their inhabitants, with the intention of illustrating the need to develop an effective array of management options with which to curb the spread of this destructive practice in favour of sustainable, poison free harvesting alternatives.


The use of cyanide in collecting fish for aquariums dates back almost to the beginning of the ornamental fish trade in 1957, when the first live fish was sent to the United States via tin can. Since the early 1960's, the coral reefs in the Philippines have subsequently been exposed to over one million kilograms of the substance, according to approximations by the International Marinelife Alliance (IMA) who were founded in 1985 to combat the spread of destructive fishing activities in these regions (Barber & Pratt, 1997). Regional surveys indicate only 4.3% and 6.7% of Philippine and Indonesian reefs are considered to be in excellent condition respectively (Bryant et al, 1998; Simpson, 2001), yet it is these relatively pristine areas that collectors generally target, as returns relative to effort are highest. Further, 85% of species exported to aquarium destinations originate in these two areas alone, with an estimated 75% of these being caught using cyanide (Barber & Pratt, 1997). Approximately 35-40 million fish are collected from the Indo-Pacific region annually and exported to wholesalers, retailers and aquariums around the world, primarily those in Europe and North America, who together generate over 90% of world demand (Wood, 2001).

The practice has been employed more recently to supply a rapidly expanding restaurant-based market primarily for species of wrasse (Labridae), groupers (Serranidae) and snappers (Lutjanidae). This includes coral trout (Plectropomus spp.), rock cod and grouper (Epinephelus spp.), Napoleon wrasse (Cheilinus undulatus), barramundi (Cromileptes altivelis) and lobster (Panulirus spp.) (Johannes & Riepen, 1995; Erdmann and Pet-Soede, 1996). These captured species are shipped to central holding points then distributed to markets in Hong-Kong, mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. Estimates exist of between 25,000-30,000 tonnes being caught annually for this industry, with a wholesale value of circa U.S. $500 million in Hong Kong alone in 1998 (Chan, 2000). Assuming that Hong Kong accounts for 60% of the trade, the global value is estimated at U.S. $830 million, with values for certain species increasing along with scarcity (Mous et al, 2000). 'First-class' species such as the Napoleon (Maori) wrasse fetch values of US$9-11/kg by fishers in Indonesia, US$40-50/kg by local exporters, and US$70-90/kg by wholesalers to restaurants (Jones et al, 1999).

The practice characteristically involves crushing 1-2 (for aquarium fish collection), or 3-5 (for live food-fish collection) 20g tablets of sodium cyanide into a one-litre squeeze bottle (Rubec et al, 2001), however other methods of application do exist (Jones & Steven, 1997). Divers then squirt a saturated solution containing hydrogen cyanide and undissolved particles of sodium cyanide directly at fish or into the corals where they hide. The fish within reach of the plume ingest the cyanide ions through their mouths or the soft membranes of their gills. Essentially, the disabling of otherwise evasive targets is employed to facilitate their capture before they hide amongst coral or rock crevices and to prevent the escape of those in retreat (Wabritz et al, 2003).

The Adoption and Spread of Cyanide Fishing Practices

In order to appreciate the processes involved with the trade, familiarity with the assorted players and the incentives that encourage their activities should be recognized, especially if seeking to regulate a practice as pervasive as cyanide fishing. The primary influence upon collectors is that of improved economic prospects, particularly when coupled with a distinctive lack of alternative livelihood opportunities - 'cyanide divers' have been found to generate incomes that eclipse those of the university professors in their respective countries (Barber & Pratt, 1998). Essentially, fishermen perceive the benefits to outweigh the related health, safety and legal risks - evidenced by the relatively rapid acceptance of the practice.

The establishment of cyanide fishing activities closely follows the process of innovation adoption (Halim, 2002), as fishermen gained awareness and knowledge of the techniques after witnessing them elsewhere. Despite the skills required being reasonably difficult to perform, cyanide-fishing activities are companionable with traditional fishing tasks and suitable scope for training and observation has generally been available, subsequently aiding the facilitation of the practice (Halim, 2002). In 1975 a presidential declaration made it illegal in the Philippines to possess cyanide on a boat and to catch or sell fish obtained by using it; Indonesia implemented these measures ten years later (Barber & Pratt, 1997). Yet, despite its illegality in the vast majority of the regions that it takes place, support lent by corrupt civilians and military officers, combined with the temptation of profits serve as irresistible catalysts to fish collectors (Johannes & Riepen, 1995). Further, cyanide has many legitimate industrial uses such as extracting gold from ore and this subsequently has meant that importation is not stringently regulated. The cyanide is usually purchased as a tablet or powder and between 1991 and 1995; nearly 300,000 tonnes was legally imported into the Philippines (Barber and Pratt, 1997). Unlike other environmental problems, poverty is not considered to be the basis for these activities - albeit many practitioners are relatively poor (Mous et al, 2000). Conversely, most cyanide fishermen are in fact reacting to particular incentives - in this case, an innovative technology exists which will help fishers supply the 'product' to a potentially vast market and prospects of this are enhanced by the aforementioned desire to engage in unlawful activity, as government corruption and political conflict have further made regulation of cyanide usage extremely difficult, coupled with the slack enforcement of anti-cyanide laws (Johannes & Riepen, 1995; Halim, 2002).

The spread of cyanide use has seen it confirmed in at least 15 countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, Guam, Kiribati, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Malaysia (Sabah) and Thailand. It is also suspected to take place in Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon, Marshall and Palau Islands and also the Red Sea (Eritrea) and Tanzania (Barber & Pratt, 1997; Bryant et al, 1998; Jones et al, 1999; Wood, 2001). In due course, the practice is likely to persist until a more effective technique becomes established, or the risks of engaging in the practice supersede the benefits, as has occurred in some places with the establishment of cyanide testing procedures and other management initiatives, which are discussed below.

Problems Associated with Cyanide Fishing

Impacts of Cyanide on Fish

Physiologically, cyanide salts act upon mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase (Metzler, 2001), preventing the conveyance of electrons and diminishing oxidative metabolism and subsequent oxygen utilization (Buchel & Garab1995). The process of lactic acidosis then takes place as an outcome of anaerobic metabolism. As such, cyanide is an extremely effective inhibitor of respiration - by halting an organisms' oxygen transportation capacities it begins suffocating tissues almost immediately (Way, et al 1988; Mak et al, 2005). Exposure has been found to acutely impair heart function, cease electrical processes in the brain and accumulation in the liver is also documented (Mak et al, 2005). As marine fish maintain fluids within their bodies longer than freshwater species, any ingested cyanide has increased scope to cause damage prior to being metabolised and subsequently excreted. Studies carried out upon freshwater fish have also revealed cyanide damage to the spleen. Hydrogen cyanide concentrations of 5mg/l have proven fatal to a number of fish (Rubec et al, 2001) - this is an extremely dilute dosage when compared with cyanide containers seized in 1998 holding concentrations greater than 1,500 mg/l. Analyses of bottles seized on cyanide fishing vessels in Indonesia indicated concentrations of 2000mg/l (Pet & Djohani, 1998) and these results may even underestimate cyanide concentrations due to the bottles possibly being used before seizure. Dosages have been found to vary greatly, but include 13,000 mg/l (Pet, 1997), 100,000 mg/l (Barber & Pratt, 1997) and 30,000-120,000 mg/l (Johannes & Riepen, 1995).

The above factors, when combined with the numerous other stressors encountered in collection, transportation and acclimation activities help explain the extreme mortality rates of captured fish. Although the intention of divers is to merely stun the fish they target, in reality the indiscriminate and imprecise application of cyanide has generated evidence indicating that 50% of the affected fish perish on the reef almost instantly and as many as 40% of the survivors are dead prior to reaching their desired destinations (Barber & Pratt, 1997; 1998). Such high (90%) mortality rates place considerable pressure on the populations of many species, with the majority of affected fish not even targeted and essentially wasted. This staggering mortality rate, especially when bearing in mind the volume of fish captured annually, does not take account of the mortality rates of other corals, invertebrates, larvae the non-target fish species exposed to the cyanide plume. Further, a deficiency of field data hinders the accurate quantification of this non-target biota (Jones, 1997; Mous et al, 2000). Mortality in non-target fishes caused by cyanide fishing is even more difficult to quantify though it is believed that due to higher metabolic rates, smaller fish in the direct vicinity of the target fish at the moment of capture most probably die (Metzler, 2001). Mortality rates depend on the speed of dilution of the squirted cyanide and on the number of fish in the direct vicinity of the target fish (Pet & Djohani, 1998). Hence, this unknown collateral damage and the fact that many operators are typically targeting pristine and isolated reefs far from already degraded areas; in addition to food-fish operators almost eradicating important species such spawning aggregations of groupers in many areas creates a considerable threat to the future of the reefs (Mous et al, 2000).

Impacts of Cyanide on Corals

During cyanide fishing, corals are exposed initially to considerable and rapidly changeable concentrations of cyanide that eventually diminish leaving minimal levels, over the course of seconds to hours. The concentration experienced by corals is also generally dependent on the original concentration, their proximity to the initial dose and the local hydrological conditions (Pet & Djohani, 1998). Despite the likelihood of considerable dilution occurring, dyed-water experiments have shown that plumes of liquid can remain in one place for considerable lengths of time before being thinned or flushed out - with dye remaining in a stagnant area behind a coral head one-metre in diameter for 30min (Buchel & Garab, 1995). Situations in which a coral is exposed to cyanide directly from a squirt bottle and where the cyanide concentration decreases logarithmically, have resulted in a disruption of the relationship between corals and their zooxanthellae - the symbiotic algae that provide corals their colouration, feed them through photosynthesis and process coral wastes by converting them into amino acids (Jones, 1997; Jones et al, 1999; Cervino et al, 2003; Mak, 2005). It should be noted that the response of a coral exposed very briefly to a high concentration might differ to the response of a long exposure to a very low concentration. As such a 'threshold' dose to initiate the loss of zooxanthellae is likely to be more time-dependent at lower cyanide concentrations (Jones & Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). In spite of this, high concentrations resulting in the expulsion of zooxanthellae can take place after very short (1-min), and the inhibition of photosynthesis and calcification can occur before 30-min of exposure to very low doses (Jones et al, 1999; Cervino et al 2003).

Although cyanide does not affect the physical formation of reefs, even low doses (50mg/l) have caused zooxanthellae to exit corals in globs of mucus, resulting in bleaching. Further, despite the non-branching coral species proving more resistant to the cyanide exposure, the outer tissues of these species are often lost as a sloughing effect is demonstrated (Jones & Steven, 1997). Pulse amplitude modulation (PAM) chlorophyll fluorescence techniques have also been used to examine photo-inhibition and photosynthetic electron transport in the symbiotic algae in the tissues of the corals (Jones et al, 1999). These measurements were made in-situ and in real time using a recently developed submersible PAM fluorometer (Jones & Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999; Jones et al, 1999). Results suggested that direct exposure to a cyanide plume caused the immediate disruption of photosynthetic electron flow in zooxanthellae, possibly resulting from cyanide effects on Calvin cycle enzymes. In turn, algae' experiencing continual photo-inhibition leads to their expulsion and again results in bleaching - the loss of zooxanthellae is recognised as a sublethal stress response in corals, with significant and ecological and physiological consequences. In a bleached condition corals demonstrate reduced growth rates and are incapable of completing gametogenesis, often perishing rapidly (Jones et al, 1999). The evidence of bleaching is supported by the observations of Erdmann & Pet-Soede (1996) who report bleached and dead corals surrounding holes or recesses on reefs where cyanide fishing has occurred.

Cyanide-induced bleaching has been documented in numerous species of corals including Pocillopora damicornis, Porites lichen, Plesiastrea versipora, Acropora aspera and Stylophora pistillata (Jones et al, 1999). These species encompass 4 (Acroporidae, Faviidae, Pocilloporidae, and Poritidae), of the 17 families of zooxanthellate scleractinian corals and include massive, branching and encrusting growth forms (Cervino et al, 2003). A further 10 species of coral have been exposed to cyanide concentrations in laboratory experiments to the order of several thousand times less than those applied by fishers. Results showed that eight of the corals perished straight away and the remaining two species expired inside of three months (Jones, 1997). Acropora spp. and other branching stony corals are considered to be particularly vulnerable, as they are common fish retreats. This means they are more commonly targeted by fishers for cyanide application and are often torn or smashed apart with crowbars as a means of retrieving stunned fish seeking refuge (Barber & Pratt 1997; Jones & Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999; Mak et al 2005).

The risk of damaging, long-term effects from cyanide fishing on the environment is thought to be low, with bio-magnification or cycling of cyanide in living organisms not documented (Mous et al, 2000). Cyanide rarely persists in surface waters due to microbial metabolism, loss from volatilisation and sedimentation (Eisler, 1991). Proximal to the areas where cyanide induced coral bleaching has been observed, little evidence has been documented indicating mortality in other biota, or benthic organisms aside from those directly affected by the cyanide plume, yet a distinct lack of data is apparent (Mous, et al 2000).

Despite the impacts, it is important to note that within the category of destructive fishing practices for food fish, blast fishing accounts for a loss in live coral cover of 3.75m2 per 100m2 of reef yearly (Pet et al, 1999). This is about 75 times greater than the data of Mous, et al 2000) which indicates that after nearly a century of cyanide fishing at present levels, live coral cover loss of only 0.4m2 per 100m2 would result. It is also 5-6 times greater than the 'worst-case' estimate which shows that it would still take the live reef fish trade approximately 40 years to remove live coral cover by 25m2 per 100m2 of reef (Mous, et al 2000). Hence, blast fishing is considered by some to deserve a higher degree of conservation effort than cyanide fishing, though this statement should be interpreted tentatively, as these areas would still be in far less than 'pristine' condition despite the data (McManus et al 1998).

Human Health Impacts

The health of divers using cyanide is considered to be seriously impacted due to the air they breathe underwater being from compressors and subsequently less filtered than that of SCUBA tanks. The inhalation of air contaminated with ignition pollutants including carbon monoxide (CO) is common and the impacts of this chronic exposure are unknown (Barber & Pratt, 1998). Inadequate health care facilities in most fishing communities are seen to further hamper investigation of this problem. Numerous fishermen, untrained as divers, have also died or been paralysed as a consequence of attempting to chase valuable species in deep water (Halim, 2002). An interview of 200 Filipino divers indicated that about 30 suffered serious cases of the bends in 1993, one third being fatal; a further 10 fatalities were recorded in South Sulawesi (Johannes & Riepens, 1995). Many more similar incidents happen which are regrettably reported inaccurately; if at all and some fishers have also been witnessed biting cyanide tablets to break them into smaller pieces (Jones et al, 1999).

Cyanide fishing broadly threatens the livelihood of poor coastal people in many regions, where dependence on fish protein is very high and fishing provides millions of people with income. However, degradation of the environment has drastically reduced the productivity and abundance of fish in these areas (Barber & Pratt, 1997) Further, because only a small number of fish species that are considered valuable are sought, the fortunes of the aquarium and live food fish industries - and of the fishers involved - rely almost solely upon safeguarding healthy, productive reef environments.

Management of Cyanide Activities

The impacts of cyanide fishing have lead to the development of several measures aimed at managing its usage. The apparent impacts of reef degradation, fish mortality and the popularisation of the aquarium and life reef food fish trades has generated public attention, placed pressure on policy makers to halt cyanide fishing and created a greater readiness among environmental organisations to become involved in the issues (Barber & Pratt, 1997). The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) currently prohibits the trade of thousands of stony coral species, however the vast majority of the targeted fish species are not listed, or subject to any ongoing population monitoring at all. Further, only a small number of the relevant countries involved have taken action, short of implementing weak, unenforacble bans seen by many as paying lip service to the issues (Barber & Pratt, 1998).

Local village governments in the Philippines have experimented with bans on certain live reef species such as the Napoleon wrasse, which has been subject to export restrictions in Indonesia since 1995, although these restrictions served only to drive fishermen to become involved in other illegal activities (Halim, 2002). The Philippines also has a program aimed at eliminating cyanide fishing, with governments granting fishing licenses as an alternative way to regulate collection. Unfortunately though, because most efforts to reform the destructive aspects of the industries have fallen primarily on the shoulders of the underdeveloped export countries, limited success has resulted. Reef-conservation workers in these areas have also not had the assistance of the countries importing life fish to support their efforts, as retailers are generally not subject to any significant pressure ensuring that the fish they buy are cyanide-free, with little economic incentive existing to take action on the issue (Barber & Pratt, 1997; 1998).

In 1991 however, the Philippines Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) contracted the International Marinelife Alliance (IMA) to instigate testing of confiscated fish. The first detection laboratory subsequently opened in Manila the following year in response to the need for an effective tool to scrutinize the live reef fish trades and regulate the use of cyanide. Currently, no testing procedure is able to detect cyanide in living fish, although the cyanide detection test (CDT) developed in the Philippines also in 1991 (Barber & Pratt, 1997) tests about 6,000 samples of randomly seized fish from fishers, local buyers and exporters annually. Essentially, (Mak et al, 2005) the internal organs of the fish are homogenized with water in a blender and the homogenate is acidified in a 1-h reflux distillation. Cyanide present in a sample is liberated as hydrogen cyanide (HCN) and absorbed into a solution of sodium hydroxide. Ion selective electrodes (ISE) are then used to select for cyanide ions in the solution, enabling the detection of cyanide in parts per million. Between 1996 and 1999 in the Philippines, the proportion of fish detected with cyanide fell from 43 to 8 percent - potentially indicating that this strategy is having success and providing the basis for a 'cyanide-free' certification system (Barber & Pratt, 1997).

Numerous government agencies and NGO's throughout the Indo-Pacific region have subsequently taken action by requesting assistance with managing, monitoring and policy-making of their own quickly expanding live reef-fish industries. The Indo-Pacific Destructive Fishing Reform Initiative (DFRI) was launched in 1998 as a result (Barber & Pratt, 1997). The DFRI, a partnership between the IMA and the World Resources Institute (WRI), is a network that has grown to include both enduring and developing collaborations with numerous governments, NGOs and research institutions throughout the region - their primary objective is eliminating the use of cyanide in live reef fish collection and developing a genuinely sustainable fishery, with certification a necessary aspect of this. Compared to the significant tribulations of creating a certifiable chain of practice in the Philippines (Barber & Pratt, 1997; 1998), the necessary standards are believed to be less demanding to maintain in areas such as Hawaii, Australia and regions that presently contain high-quality aquarium operations for instance. Once a chain of certification is established in exporting countries, demand for certified fish must exist from importers, wholesalers and retailers, who are also required to adhere to the handling practice guidelines, set forth by the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC). Not withstanding the cooperation of importers, turning the 'poison tide' in Indonesia, where only a small number of fishers are adequately educated, is a further challenge.

After a certification system is established, import restrictions may further aid control of the cyanide caught fish species. The U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, established in 1998 has contributed to the drafting of legislation, which aims to ensure that consumer demand does not further add to the dilapidation of reef ecosystems. These trade proposals support the MAC notion that conscientious and sustainable trade can be fostered via certification and stipulate that after an unspecified period, the United States should ban the import of any coral reef species unless it is accompanied by official documentation that the animal was not collected through the use of destructive fishing practices (Barber & Pratt, 1998). As industry certification schemes are often slow to be adopted, legislation requiring this is likely to hasten the process. Further, certain retailers view the trade recommendations as a means of ensuring that all traded species are collected in a humane, sustainable manner to additionally ensure that responsible retailers trading certified livestock are not disadvantaged by lower prices (Barber & Pratt, 1997). The efforts of the IMA and MAC are considered to provide the scientific verification necessary for convincing the industry that fish caught with nets constitute a cost-effective alternative to those captured using cyanide. Additionally, the data collected in CDT allows the Philippine government to monitor the total amount of certain fish species in transit through domestic and international air and seaports, as well as the activities of exporters, and other pertinent information (Barber & Pratt 1997; 1998)

Partnership within the stakeholder community is viewed as a core strategy that could put a stop to cyanide fishing activities and as result approximately 2,500 of the 4,000 aquarium-fish collectors in the Philippines have been retrained in new techniques, such as setting up nets in gullies or splits between coral heads with which to chase and capture fish (Barber & Pratt, 1997). It should be recognised that any law, policy or technology that excludes fishers will not adequately address the problem of cyanide fishing, hence the need to incorporate improved organisation, training and other capacity building steps which will increase incomes and give rise to community-based management systems in areas that are currently using cyanide or are vulnerable to its introduction (Barber & Pratt, 1997). Creating strong incentives for local fishermen to be responsible for managing their own reefs is thought to be the definitive step for conserving reef environments and their biota. Situations where these areas can be developed into sustainable tourist areas for divers or protected parks are seen as ideal but due to economic and political barriers, only a small number of reefs will ever fall into these categories (Mous et al, 2000).

In general, four characteristics of cyanide fishing put forth by Barber & Pratt (1997) offer hope that the spread of this pervasive activity can be stopped or at least significantly reduced faster than some of the other threats to coral reefs, with the evidence above supporting this notion. Firstly, activities are generally focused on isolated reefs far from the effects of coastal habitat conversion and sedimentation, meaning that once ceased, these environments will not simply succumb to more omnipresent threats. Secondly, the practice is a relatively new technique and consequently not yet deeply embedded in local cultures and economies, offering considerable scope for alternative methods to be adopted without unmanageable societal disruption resulting. Further, the, 'high-end' nature of the market is easily identifiable, with some food species selling for up to US$180/kg and some aquarium species fetching in excess of AU$500 per individual (Chan, 2000). Consumers and their suppliers are therefore a fairly limited group that can easily be identified. Lastly, with

the correct incentives in place, combined with the development of partnerships among fishing communities, exporters and importers of live fish, scientists, and NGOs, as is the case in the Phillipines; the necessary steps are clear and not considered to be overly complicated (Barber & Pratt, 1997).

Limitations and Threats to Abatement

In spite of CDT procedures, legislative developments and shifting consumer demand favouring certified fish imports working together; reef habitats may still be threatened in many areas. A secondary impact of the live food fish trade, is the depletion of grouper stocks in their fishing grounds (Bentley, 1999; Mous et al, 2000) is more worrying from both conservation and fisheries perspectives. The nature of the live food-fish industry dictates that species rarity raises the price to a level justifying (in economic terms at least) harvesting the very last specimen, and this places the targeted stocks at considerable high risk (Sadovy & Vincent, 2002). Fishers are able to easily locate grouper spawning sites and the life-history characteristics of groupers (longevity and size-dependent sex change) leaves these species even more vulnerable to overexploitation (Mous, et al 2000). Hence, fishing methods employed that are size selective inhibit the reproductive ability of targeted species dually: by removing the larger, more fecund individuals and by altering the ratio of males and females (Johannes et al, 1999). Further, due to the fish generally being top predators, the trade has the potential to indirectly alter the community at lower trophic levels through cascading effects in the marine food web (Mous et al 2000). To compound this, the issue of over-exploitation is not solvable simply by stopping cyanide fishing on its own, as grouper stocks are caught using fishing practices other than just cyanide (Bentley, 1999).

Generally, collectors for the aquarium trade also tend to be individuals from local areas who have relied upon the same reef systems as a source of livelihood for generations (Rubec, et al 2001). In conjunction, a further measure incorporated into MAC certification standards requires that local fishermen initiate protective activities such as patrolling coastal regions and preventing 'poaching' from invasive foreign fishermen from the live food-fish trades who often venture into areas lacking any awareness or concern for the long-term wellbeing of either the local inhabitants or the environment. This group of fishers is viewed as a considerable threat to achieving sustainable reform (Sadovy & Vincent, 2000).

A further threat to protecting reef environments in the face of cyanide reforms is the example of Kona, Hawaii, where although aquarium-fish collectors do not use cyanide, it was discovered in late 1999 that the harvesting activities were severely reducing the populations of seven fish species, three of which are prolific herbivores (Johannes & Riepen, 1995). Without these grazing species present to limit algal growth, algae proliferation eventually suffocated the coral in certain regions. It should be noted that due to the complexity and species diversity in most coral reef areas however, a substitutable species is normally likely to fill the niche created by removal of other species with similar grazing patterns, though as evidenced above this is not always the case (Sadovy & Vincent, 2000).


Driven by lucrative short-term gains, illegal and destructive fishing practices such as those involving cyanide deprive both people and ecosystems and are performed at great cost to social, economic and environmental sustainability and management. The results of this research contest widespread claims by collectors of aquarium and live food fish that cyanide application has little or no impact upon coral reef environments. Evidence clearly illustrates that cyanide prevents the transport of respiratory electrons and disrupts the relationship between corals and their symbiotic zooxanthellae. Extremely high mortality rates among captured fish further illustrate the destructive impacts cyanide fishing has as a means of supplying lucrative markets worldwide. Although generally not as physically destructive as blast fishing, cyanide fishing is damaging coral reefs irreversibly and there is a pressing necessity for governments, institutions, NGO's and communities across the globe to develop and instigate collaborative policies with local stakeholders and wildlife managers that will prevent destructive practices including, but not limited to, those that employ cyanide.

The confiscation and testing of random samples of live fish from export warehouses has demonstrated promising results in curbing the proliferation of cyanide usage in the Philippine experience, in conjunction with training programs designed to teach aquarium fish harvesters proper collecting techniques, such as hand nets as opposed to chemicals and other destructive methods (Barber & Pratt, 1997). Further, the combination of labelling cyanide-free fish enables buyers to support activities that safeguard reef environments and subsequently encourages fishing communities to prevent foreign interests and illegal activities from compromising local protection schemes. Other steps involving the licensing of aquarium collectors in export countries and placing restrictions on the import of live coral-reef species that do not include documentation confirming their harvest free of poisons have also been implemented.

In spite of these significant improvements, under the pressure of escalating demand, these destructive practices have expanded to numerous regions, which are generally lacking environmental and educational awareness and the means to address them. An effective strategy for combating the problem must fundamentally address three imperatives, namely, policy reforms within source countries combined with a bolstering of institutional efficacy. Secondly, the governments of importing countries taking actions to augment the former and thirdly, the critical need to create strong partnerships with the fishing communities and individuals where cyanide fishing takes place. Potentially, creating and nurturing the climate toward reform in this area will have flow on effects for dealing with other unsustainable, damaging fishing practices.


Barber, C.V., & Pratt, R.V. (1997) 'Sullied Seas: Strategies for Combating Cyanide Fishing in Southeast Asia and Beyond.' World Resources Institute and International Marinelife Alliance, Washington, DC. 57p.

Barber, C.V., & Pratt, R.V. (1998). 'Poison and profits: cyanide fishing in the Indo-Pacific.' Environment 40: 5-34.

Bentley, N. (1999). 'Fishing for solutions: can the live trade in wild groupers and wrasses from Southeast Asia be managed?' TRAFFIC Report downloaded from http://www.trophia.com.

Bryant, D., Burke, L., McManus, J. & Spalding, M. (1998) 'Reefs at risk. A map-based indicator of threats to the world's coral reefs.' A joint publication by the World Resources Institute Intstitute (WRI), Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), World Conservation Monitoring Centre (WCMC) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Buchel, C., & Garab, G. (1995) 'Evidence for the operation of a cyanide-sensitive oxidase in chlororespiration in the thylakoids of the chlorophyll c containing alga pleurichloris meiringensis (Xantho-phyceae). Planta 197: 69-75.

Cervino, J.M., Hayes, R.L., Honovich, M., Goreau, T.J., Jones, S. & Rubec, P.J. (2003) 'Changes in zooxanthellae density, morphology, and mitotic index in hermatypic corals and anemones exposed to cyanide.' Marine Pollution Bulletin 46: 573-586.

Chan, P.S.W, (2000) 'Food fish market system in Hong Kong,' Proceedings of the Second Asia-Pacific Seminar Workshop on the Live Reef Fish Trade Hotel Miramar, Hong Kong (2000).

Eisler, R. (1991) 'Cyanide hazards to fish, wildlife, and invertebrates: a synoptic review.' U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Biological Report 85: 54 p.

Erdmann, M.V. & Pet-Soede, L. (1996) 'How fresh is too fresh? The live reef food fish trade in Eastern Indonesia.' NAGA, The International Centre for Living Aquatic Resource Management (ICLARM) quarterly 19: 4-8.

Halim, A. (2002) 'Adoption of cyanide fishing practice in Indonesia.' Ocean & Coastal Management 45, (4-5): 13-323.

Johannes, R.E. & Riepen, M. (1995) 'Environmental, economic, and social implications of the live reef fish trade in Asia and Western Pacific.' Honolulu, Hawaii: The Nature Conservancy. p. 82.

Jones, R. J. (1997) 'Zooxanthellae loss as a bioassay for assessing stress in corals.' Marine Ecology Progress Series 149: 163-171.

Jones, R.J. & Steven, A.L. (1997) 'Effects of cyanide on corals in relation to cyanide fishing on reefs.' Marine and Freshwater Research 48: 517-22.

Jones, R.J., Kildea, T. & Hoegh-Guldberg, O. (1999) 'PAM Chlorophyll Fluorometry: A New in-situ Technique for Stress Assessment in Scleractinian Corals, used to Examine the Effects of Cyanide from Cyanide Fishing.' Marine Pollution Bulletin 38 (10): 864-874.

Jones, R.J. & Hoegh-Guldberg, O. (1999) 'Effects of cyanide on coral photosynthesis: implications for identifying the cause of coral bleaching and for assessing the environmental effects of cyanide fishing.' Marine Ecology Progress Series 177: 83-91.

Mak, K.K.W., Yanase, H. & Renneberg, R. (2005) 'Cyanide fishing and cyanide detection in coral reef fish using chemical tests and biosensors.' Biosensors and Bioelectronics 20 (12): 2581-2593.

McManus, J.W., Reyes, R.B. & Nanola, C.L. (1997) 'Effects of some destructive fishing practices on coral cover and potential rates of recovery.' Environmental Management 21 (1): 69-78.

D.E. Metzler (2001) 'Biochemistry: The Chemical Reactions of Living Cells.' Academic Press, San Diego, 1129 pp.

Mous, P. J., Pet-Soede, L., Erdmann, M., Cesar, H.S.J., Sadovy,Y & Pet, J.S. (2000) 'Cyanide fishing on Indonesian coral reefs for the live food fish market - What is the problem?' Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin 7: 20-27.

Pet, J.S. (1997) 'Destructive fishing methods in and around Komodo National Park.' Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin 2, pp. 20-24.

Pet, J.S. & Djohani, R.H. (1998) 'Combating destructive fishing practices in Komodo National Park: ban the hookah compressor.' Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin 4: 17-28.

Pet, J.S. & Pet-Soede, L. (1999) 'A note on cyanide fishing in Indonesia.' Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin 5: 21-22.

Pet-Soede, C., Cesar, H.S.J. & Pet. J.S. (1999) 'An economic analysis of blast fishing on Indonesian coral reefs.' Environmental Conservation 26: 83-93.

Rubec, P.J., Cruz, F., Pratt, V., Oellers, R., McCullough, B. & Lallo, F. (2001) 'Cyanide-free net-caught fish for the marine aquarium trade.' Aquarium Sciences and Conservation 3: 37-51.

Sadovy, Y. & Vincent A.C.J. (2000) 'The trades in live reef fishes for food and aquaria: issues and impacts.' In: P.F. Sale (ed.). Coral reef fishes: new insights into their ecology. Academic Press.

Sadovy, Y.J., & Vincent, A.C.J. (2002) 'Ecological issues and the trades in live reef fishes.' In: P.F. Sale (ed). Coral Reef Fishes: Dynamics and Diversity in a Complex Ecosystem, Academic Press, Amsterdam.

Simpson, S. (2001) 'Fishy Business.' Scientific American 285, (1): 82-89.

Wabritz, C., Taylor, M., Green, E., Razak, T. (2003). 'From Ocean to Aquarium.' UNEP-WCMC: Cambridge.

Way, J.L., Leung, P., Cannon, E., Morgan, R., Tamulinas, C., Leong-Way, J., Baxter, L., Nagi, A., & Chui, C. (1988) 'The mechanism of cyanide intoxication and its antagonism.' Proceedings of the Ciba Foundation Symposium on Cyanide Compounds in Biology, Volume 140, Wiley, Chichester. pp. 232-243.

Wood, E. M. (2001) 'Collection of coral reef fish for aquaria: global trade, conservation issues and management strategies.' Marine Conservation Society, Herefordshire, United Kingdom.

Reply to cyanide article  8/5/07 Greetings Crew! <Ivan> A while back I sent a report regarding cyanide usage from my Masters studies into the site, which Bob Fenner graciously posted for all. I checked back not so long ago and saw the following comments from a hobbyist: http://www.wetwebmedia.com/hcnfaqs.htm I'd just like to say thanks to 'Mark' for picking up on the error, which I had actually corrected before it was handed up for assessment (I sent an earlier draft to WWM, not the final report sorry!). However I assure you and 'Mark' that the error was merely typographical and probably the result of to many late nights in the computer lab, nothing more sinister at all! <Happens for sure> It would also be appreciated if people like himself, rather than merely 'wondering' what else could be wrong with my work actually took the time to do research of their own, or at least checked my sources, as opposed to discrediting the well intentioned efforts of others. I certainly hope that he realises the complexities of the cyanide issue and the difficulties involved in monitoring and regulating it's usage, as well as the lengths people go to in procuring valid and reputable information. I approach all my work with rigour and due diligence, and by no means attempted to 'misinform' anyone. As an aside, I happen to have graduated with first class honours from one the most renowned universities in the world - and did not just throw a few words together for the sake of it. The motivation for sending the report to WWM was to further highlight the issue and provide readers with additional education and avenues to discuss things further. Cyanide usage continues to be a huge problem - all trivialities aside - and if 'Mark' has ever seen first-hand the barren seascapes that result after a solid dose of cyanide poisoning he may well get the idea. <We are in agreement all the way around here.> Thanks again for all the great work folks! Regards, Ivan Steward
<Cheers, Bob Fenner>

Become a Sponsor Features:
Daily FAQs FW Daily FAQs SW Pix of the Day FW Pix of the Day New On WWM
Helpful Links Hobbyist Forum Calendars Admin Index Cover Images
Featured Sponsors: