In Tanzania, the fight against bomb hunting is on the rise
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The sun sparkles off the gently flowing Tanzanian waters when suddenly a jet of water shoots skyward. The blast wave rushes outward, shattering the delicate coral below. Fish that were busy grazing or dozing are tossed back and forth, startled by the fleeting pressure pulse. From above, a net descends and sweeps them up. Most people have heard of shooting fish in a barrel. This is the real-world equivalent: explosive fishing.
Bomb fishing, also known as bomb fishing or dynamite fishing, is a critical problem in Tanzania, says Kennedy Osoka, a fish ecologist at the University of Liverpool in England. Osoka spent seven years studying Tanzanian coral reefs reduced to rubble by blast fishing. For those concerned about the country’s marine habitats, artisanal fisheries, or tourism industry, “stopping fishing with explosives is of paramount importance,” Osoka says.
Since its invention in the late 1800s, hunters from all over Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe and South America have used this devastating technique. The phenomenon has declined in many places, but in recent years blast fishing has remained a problem, especially in Malaysia, Indonesia, Tanzania and the Philippines.
In Tanzania, blast fishing first appeared in the 1960s. Explosions increased dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, peaking in the 2000s at an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 explosions per year. Their prevalence is due to the affordability and accessibility of illegally sold explosives, usually obtained from the mining and construction industries.
Blast fishing became popular because it provided anglers with a large catch with relative ease, despite its significant risks. However, over time, as successive explosions tore apart the reefs, life found it increasingly difficult to return.
Large-scale government enforcement initiatives around 2000, and again around 2020, brought the bombings to a halt. But blast fishing is on the rise again.
“When blast fishing starts to pick up again, previous experience has shown it picks up very quickly,” says Jason Robbins, an independent fisheries and marine conservation specialist who has worked in Tanzania for more than 25 years. Robbins has spent time documenting the country’s explosive hunting history. “We are now back to the beginning of the improvement,” he says.
To respond, the Tanzanian government has partnered with community members, NGOs, USAID, and the private sector to launch the $25 million Hashimu Bahari “Respect the Ocean” Project in 2022. This effort has been five years in the making. The program aims to strengthen the network of marine protected areas in Tanzania, address resilience to climate change, and combat poaching and illegal practices.
However, stopping explosive fishing is complicated. Explosive hunters know they’re breaking the law, Robbins says, so it’s not a matter of education. Criminals can evade capture by disposing of their explosives, and small-scale corruption can undermine law enforcement efforts and make community members afraid to speak out. Even the fruits of blast fishing – the fish – can be difficult to identify. Once fish is frozen, it is difficult to know how it was caught, so evidence in the supply chain disappears.
“The majority of the community doesn’t want to see explosive fishing; they know very well that it’s bad for the marine environment, it’s bad for their fishing, it’s bad for their livelihoods,” he says. “But they are intimidated by a minority who will tolerate it,” he says. Efforts by a few community leaders who have had local success in combating blast fishing over the years.
So the key to the government’s approach is to disrupt the availability of explosives. Restricting the supply of explosives and detonators is how Tanzania was able to deal with explosive fishing the last time it was tackled. Tighter controls on explosives and significant prison sentences for possession without a license are also part of how neighboring countries, including Kenya and Mozambique, are dealing with the same problem.
In addition to cracking down on the availability of explosives, Robbins says projects like Hishimu Pahari can help by supporting better monitoring of explosive fishing activity so the government can track where it is occurring and how rates change over time. This is vital information for planning future operations.
“Ultimately, it is the government that can and will stop fishing with explosives,” Robbins says. “I think it will be under control again soon.”