Manila Bulletin


Cyanide fishing, though not common anymore, is still being practiced


IF you love eating lapu-lapu (grouper), mameng (humphead wrasse), and other fishes residing in the coral reefs, you better watch out. Those kinds of fish may be tasty but they may not be healthy to eat at all. The reason: they may be loaded with cyanide.

“Cyanide fishing may not be as rampant as in the 1970s and 1980s, it is still being done in the Philippines,” said Dr. Alan T. White, who used to be the chief of party of the Coastal Resource Management Project in Central Visayas. Currently, he works part time on selected Asian marine conservation projects for Nature Conservancy and as independent consultant.

Even during the time of the pandemic, fishermen still practice cyanide fishing.


Dr. White assumes that the catch from cyanide fishing would end up in restaurants. “I believe that most cyanide used presently is for food fish and it is difficult to know how widespread its use is,” pointed out Dr. White, who founded the Cebu-based Coastal Conservation and Education Foundation, Inc.

Vince Cinches, of the marine wildlife watch of the Philippines policy campaign advisor of the World Animal Protection, thinks so, too. “(Cyanide fishing is) still happening, as it is associated with Aquarium and Live Reef Fish for

Food Trade,” he said, adding that the practice is “spread throughout the country.”

According to Dr. White, cyanide fishing “is still a major problem in Palawan and other areas where the live food fish trade is important.”

Cyanide fishing used to be rampant in the three municipalities of the Calamianes Group of Islands in Palawan. According to a study, there were 316 fishermen in Coron who were engaged in cyanide fishing in 1999, 328 in 2000, 340 in 2001, and 353 in 2002.

The same study showed 113 cyanide fishermen in Busuanga in 1999, 121 in 2000, 130 in 2001 and 139 in 2002. In

Culion, there were 153 fishermen who were engaged in cyanide fishing in 1999, 158 in 2000, 163 in 2001 and 168 in 2002.

There are also many fishermen in Quezon Province who are engaged in cyanide fishing as the province is “one of the sources of marine aquarium fish,” Cinches reported. “Dati sa Batangas, but most of them are shifting to hand nets instead of using cyanide to catch fish.”

An extensive study, “An Overview of Destructive Fishing in the Philippines,” listed cyanide fishing as one of the illegal fishing methods being practiced in the country. Other destructive fishing practices (DFPs) cited in the study were dynamite fishing and muro-ami.

The authors reviewed available scientific literature reporting the DFPs in the country from 1979 to 2022. Cyanide fishing, along with the two others, “were prevalent and remained a lingering problem in the Philippines from the 1930s up to this date.”


Cyanide is found naturally in plants like cassava and sorghum. However, there are two types: organic (called nitrites) and inorganic (salts of hydrocyanic acid, a volatile weak acid). Both are highly toxic. The lethal sodium cyanide was first widely used in the extraction of gold and silver.

Using cyanide in catching fish is not a Filipino discovery but an American ingenuity. A certain Bridges first used sodium cyanide to stun and capture tropical fish in 1958 in Illinois. And it happened that a Filipino aquarium fish collector learned about it.

When he returned to the Philippines, he employed the practice. It spread throughout the country in no time. Earl Kennedy, an American exporter from the Philippines, was surprised by a sudden increase in aquarium fish from Lubang Island off Batangas.

“When local collectors started using cyanide, we didn’t realize at once that was happening,” Kennedy said. “We were happy that there was so much supply for everybody, and there was an export boom. But after a while, we smelled something fishy. Then we found out that the collectors were using cyanide.”


In the 1960s, the Philippines was one of the suppliers of the international aquarium trade. Most of the ornamental fishes were exported to the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

The Philippines is home to 70% of the world’s ornamental fish. The 7,107 islands are home to an estimated 2,000 species of fish. In comparison, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has only 1,500 species of fish.

The Philippines is a major player in the ornamental fish industry being one of the largest exporters of marine ornamental fish species in the world. “No other country can match the diversity of colorful species desired by the marine aquarist,” said Peter Rubec of the International Marinelife Alliance (IMA).


But since the early 1980s, a much bigger business has emerged: supplying live reef fish for the restaurants. The demand for live fish from the reefs in restaurants in Beijing, southern China, Hong Kong, and other countries where Chinese abound has made the practice prevalent not only in the Philippines but other Asian countries as well.

The reason for its popularity among poverty-stricken fishermen: higher income. Dr. Michael Fabinyi, a researcher with Australia’s James Cook University who studied the live reef fish trade in Palawan province for several years, cites the case of leopard coral grouper.

“From approximately 50 cents per kilo in the late ’80s when the trade began,” he explained, “the price of leopard coral grouper has risen gradually and consistently. In 2011, a good-sized leopard coral grouper in good condition fetched a price of between P700 and P1,000 per kilo for fishermen.”

“The total retail value of the live reef food fish was around $350 million per year from 1997 to 2001,” said Dr. Andrew Bruckner, an American coral reef ecologist who works closely with government and nongovernment groups in the United





Manila Bulletin Publishing Corp