DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — A figure in snorkeling gear and flippers peers into the translucent blue of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. As he scans the depths, a school of reef fish pass underneath. He signals his colleague on board a small dugout canoe who is holding a 500 milliliter plastic bottle full of explosives. The snorkeler scrambles back to the boat as the man lights a fuse and launches the bottle into the ocean. Moments later an explosion rocks the tranquil waters and sends a large column of ocean spray towards the sky, releasing a thunderous boom. After a few seconds the snorkeler is already back in the water scooping up dozens of dead fish.
Dynamite fishing, a brutally effective and destructive form of fishing, is on the rise in Tanzania.
Last spring, a Wildlife Conservation Society census of whales and dolphins in Tanzania using acoustic recordings inadvertently picked up dynamite blasts, revealing for the first time just how rampant the problem has become. The WCS collected 231 hours of acoustic data from over 1,600 miles of Tanzania’s coastline. The results show blasts going off in every region along the coast with a heavy concentration around the country’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam. At some intervals, the data recorded more than nine blasts an hour.
“When it explodes there’s a kind of shock wave,” said Matt Richmond, a marine biologist based in Dar es Salaam. “That will pretty much knock out any fish in five or 10 meters of the blast.”
Dynamite fishing is also devastating the country’s coral reefs. “It’s bad news,” said Richmond. “The corals are quite fragile and the blast from an explosion like the ones they’re using now would probably flatten an area of coral garden of a radius of 10 meters.”
Fishing is a massive industry in Tanzania and fish is one of the most important food sources. But fishermen are struggling to make ends meet. “The sea is empty,” said Bakari Mayola, a trap fisherman in Songo Songo an island 200 kilometers south of Dar es Salaam. “Because of dynamite fishing, there are no more fish.”
Catches are so inconsistent that Mayola can no longer afford to send his four children to school. “Ten years ago, we made a good living from the ocean” he said, “but it’s become much more difficult.”
Fishermen like Mayola say they feel powerless to stop the practice. In the past fishermen who’ve spoken out have been threatened and say in some cases their homes have been set on fire.
Many of the fishermen who use dynamite said they recently turned to the practice after they were no longer able to catch enough fish using traditional methods like nets and cages.
Snorkeling off Songo Songo, one of the areas identified as a hotspot in the WCS report, reveals reefs badly damaged by repeated explosions. Rubble fills huge stretches of the ocean floor where coral gardens hundreds of years old once bloomed. Some of the coral may regenerate after several years or decades, but much of the destruction is irreversible.
Dynamite fishing has been illegal in Tanzania since 1963, but the law is rarely enforced and explosives are readily available in most towns along the coast and near the port of Dar es Salaam.
One dealer in Dar es Salaam who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he sells explosives to 20 to 30 people a day.
The homemade bombs are comprised of a plastic bottle filled with fertilizer and gasoline. The key ingredient is a waterproof explosive called Explogel V6 which is attached to the side of the bottle and ensures the bomb will go off underwater. Explogel V6 is produced in South Africa by Sasol Nitro. The material is imported legally into Tanzania for mining purposes, but eventually makes its way to the black market where it is then bought by dealers and sold to fishermen for seven dollars a pack. The whole bomb including fertilizer, wick, and gasoline costs around $10, which is about one-fifth of what a fisherman will make on a decent day.
“You have a lot of these mines where people have got dynamite storage facilities and they’ve stopped mining long ago, but they’re still buying and they sell illegally,” said JD Kotze, a marine investigator with Smartfish, an agency working to crack down on dynamite fishing.
Last June, Smartfish joined forces with Tanzanian authorities to form the multi-agency task team (MATT). The group conducts spontaneous patrols along the coast hoping to catch dynamite fisherman in the act.
“Every person you arrest becomes a deterrent to anybody else doing illegal things on the ocean,” said Kotze, “whether it be bomb fishing or spear fishing or what.”
To date MATT has had limited success, but the organization is determined to conduct thorough investigations into dynamite fishermen and dealers and to see the process through to the courts, which historically have failed to punish those caught.
Tanzania is the only country in the region where dynamite fishing is a serious problem. In Kenya, its northern neighbour, police have cracked down on illegal dynamite and frequently patrol along the coast.
Richmond hopes Tanzania’s new president John Pombe Magufuli will adopt similar methods as Kenya. “The thing about dynamite fishing, is it’s so obvious,” said Richmond. “It takes place during broad daylight, it makes an enormous bang, you can see it and hear it for miles—everybody knows where it’s going on.”
Richmond is convinced if the government decides to stop it, the practice could be eradicated within one month.