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August 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Murder, Bombing and Mass Destruction in Sabah

an illegal fishing method becomes a deadly diving hazard

from the August, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Even though fish bombing is illegal in Malaysia, it has been widespread in the state of Sabah, a popular place for divers, for ages. But the method is getting more attention now, since it was apparently used to deliberately kill divers last month.

Divemaster Ab Zainal Abdu, 30, and Chinese divers Zhao Zheng and Xu Ying Jie, both 26, were diving near the island of Pulau Kalapuan on the afternoon of July 5 when the incident took place. They went out with a boat driver and another dive guide, who later told the police they had dropped the trio off at the dive site at around 2:30 p.m. When they returned an hour later to pick the divers up, they found sea foam around the area (a sign of fish bombing) but no divers, so they called for assistance. When police arrived, they found a lot of dead fish, damage to nearby coral, the divers' equipment, and finally the diver's bodies, at 20 feet deep, which were sent to the hospital for a post-mortem.

After indications pointed to fish bombing, Sabah police said the deaths were homicide, with Abdu most likely the murder target, and the Chinese divers tragically as collateral damage. The police launched a manhunt, and the next day, they arrested two suspects: the boat driver and the guide who took Abdu and the divers to Pulau Kalapuan, as well as 10 others, including sea gypsies.

Fish bombing, also known as dynamite fishing, is a widespread and severe problem in many tropical coral reef areas around Southeast Asia, as well as in East Africa and Central America. Some fishermen use unexploded grenades left over from previous conflicts, but most make their own explosives from chemicals in fertilizer and other easy-to-access ingredients, which they place inside beer bottles. The explosions create shock waves that stun or kill fish, causing them to float to the surface or sink to the bottom for easy collection. The bombing also causes massive damage to the coral reefs and marine life -- the nonprofit foundation Reef Check cites studies showing that reef sites blasted more than a decade ago still have little to no signs of recovery. Blast fishers expose themselves to serious injury and possible death, but that apparently isn't much of a hindrance for poverty-stricken people.

The joke among Malaysian dive operators is that those engaged in fish bombing do it openly in daylight, because there is no legal enforcement. One Malaysian dive guide told us about an incident last October while helping two divers look for hawksbill turtles and pygmy seahorses in Tun Sakaran Marine Park. He heard loud booms while underwater, and when surfacing, he saw a speedboat with three youths in it. His boat driver headed over so he could remind them fish bombing in the marine park was prohibited, but he was rewarded with threats to light another bomb to be thrown at his boat. He and the boat driver wisely decided to withdraw, then reported the incident when they got back to Semporna, 22 miles away, but no action was taken.

Semporna is the departure point for divers going to Sipadan and staying at the Mabul island resort. Jacques Cousteau described Sipadan as one of the most precious marine ecological places on the planet, but unfortunately now, it's a place where you can hear fish bombing nearly every day, even though the explosives may be detonated two or three miles away from where they're diving.

Dive instructor Emmanuele Girellie told the New Straits Times last month that it's common to hear bombing sounds while diving at Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, a marine area under the jurisdiction of Sabah Parks. "The sudden loud sound scares everyone, even the instructors! When it is closer, we sometimes think one of our O-rings has just blown, until a few seconds later, when we realize that it was due to a fish bombing.

Tourist Suraidah Roslan also told the newspaper she was shaken up when she heard the sound of a fish bomb exploding for the first time, while diving in Kota Belud. Despite the shock, she remained calm due to instructions and assurance from her guide to stay underwater. "There were two or three continuous sounds of explosions. If they [had been closer to us], I think our eardrums would have been damaged."

Charles Mawan, who runs the Blue Fin dive shop in Kudat, told the New Straits Times that fish bombing activities have increased since last year. He recalled hearing three or four blasts during each dive. "They drop the fish bomb some four or five kilometers away from diving areas, but [the shock wave] makes our hearts jump each time. When we emerge at the water's surface, the [fish bombers] would be nowhere in sight."

Mawan said that after dive operators in Kudat lodged reports to authorities, there was a significant reduction in fish bombings. Sabah's marine police said 30 arrests were made between January and June.

On the other hand, David McGuire, director of Shark Stewards, a conservation nonprofit that has operations near Pulau Kalapuan, employs people from that island where the deaths occurred. He told Undercurrent that Shark Stewards has documented scores of bombings, petitioned the government to enforce the law, and is now working with a group called Stop Fish Bombing ( His goal is to help prevent bomb fishing everywhere, saving marine ecosystems and the livelihoods of the communities that rely on them.

Now that murder charges have put a spotlight on fish bombing, Malaysia's Maritime Enforcement Agency has publicly vowed to work closely with Sabah officials, sending them more vessels and helping the police track down the suspects in the deaths of the three divers. A few days after the arrests, officials inspected boats near the Turtle Islands, and the fish market at Sandkatan, looking for fish caught in the bombing style. Hopefully they'll continue their efforts.

--Vanessa Richardson

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