Fish Bombing: These fishermen use dynamite to put food on the table


The coast of Malaysian Borneo is renowned for its coral reefs and world class diving. But because of plummeting fish stocks, local fishermen desperate for a catch are resorting to dangerous and illegal strategies - even using explosives.

Above: Fishermen are bombing one of the world’s most valuable coral reefs, as they desperately seek food. Watch 'Malaysia's Fish Bombers' tonight on SBS at 9:30 or On Demand.

The seas off Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo, are known for their rich coral reefs and variety of reef fish species.

Considered one of the top places to dive in the world, the reef is home to 600 types of coral and hundreds of species of fish.

Most of the island’s coastal communities live off the sea – fishing to put food on the table.

Struggling to compete with industrial trawlers, the use of dynamite bombs to kill or stun fish has gained popularity with small-scale fishermen.

With some potassium nitrate in the form of fertilizer, gasoline, a beer bottle and phosphorus from matchsticks mixed with the strike-strip to make a rudimentary fuse. Lobbed into a shoal, these bottle bombs rupture fishes’ swim bladders, causing them to float to the surface where they are easily collected.

The bombs are cheap and effective – one $5.50 AUD bomb is enough to provide fishermen with enough fish to feed their family for weeks.

But these blasts also decimate coral reefs – a single beer bottle can blast a crater two to three meters in diameter, while the accompanying shockwaves and rubble suffocates surrounding corals, preventing recovery. Sometimes they explode prematurely, maiming or even killing fishermen.

“We know that fish bombing can be deadly but what can we do?” one fisherman tells Dateline.

“It’s been our source of life for years.”

Tom Gibson, a marine biologist working for Borneo’s Tropical Research and Conservation Centre says the region could rival one of Australia’s top tourist attractions.

“Before blast fishing this reef would be comparable to the Great Barrier Reef,” he says. “It could even be better.”