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Battle of the Coral Triangle | Pierre Fidenci | By Mark Sy

Hong Kong°«s love of fish fuels the dynamite and cyanide fishing that is destroying reefs in Southeast Asia. Pierre Fidenci°«s trying to bring the reefs back.

WHEN PIERRE FIDENCI was 10 years old, he realized his passion for plants and animals. At 18, he left for the Amazon in French Guyana and Surinam and lived with the indigenous Wayana and Arawak tribes, studying the rainforest. There, he learned that the preservation of biodiversity was paramount to the survival of all species. After working with conservation NGOs, Fidenci became disillusioned at their waste of resources, a lack of innovation and openness, and, in some cases, bureaucratic corruption.

That spurred Fidenci to set up Endangered Species International, an NGO dedicated to preserving vital ecosystems. Fidenci is currently based in the Philippines, where he is trying to stop the destruction of Southeast Asia°«s immense Coral Triangle, focusing his efforts on identifying and stopping dynamite fishing in Mindanao.

What are your main concerns in the Asian region? 
We focus our conservation efforts on endangered species and critical habitats such as rainforests, mangroves and coral reefs. We have projects on studying and saving critically endangered animals such as the Philippine forest turtle, restoring coral reefs and fighting illegal fishing.

Coral reefs seem to be a primary worry.
Definitely. Coral reefs have been our main concern in the Asia-Pacific for a simple reason: they are under immense pressure from human beings and we have already lost too many. We know that about one third of coral species are threatened with extinction. Losing them is not acceptable as they provide tremendous benefits to local communities and the ocean as a whole. On a personal note, every time I go into the water to look at coral reefs, I see reef cemeteries and well-damaged reefs. We cannot waste more time!

What are the biggest dangers to the coral reefs in order of importance?  
The biggest threats are over-fishing and illegal fishing, sedimentation and land-based source pollution. Other threats include climate change and unsustainable coastal development. Destruction of reefs can be due to particular local conditions, such as nearby water pollution. But the impact of the destruction is global. We estimate that the world has lost 20 percent of its original area of coral reefs; 15 percent are seriously threatened with loss within the next 10 to 20 years.

About 85 percent of the reefs have been damaged or destroyed in the Philippines, 75 percent in Indonesia, 60 percent in Malaysia, and 90 percent in Singapore. In Papua New Guinea, the lack of reef data does not enable us to have a good estimate, but we absolutely need to intensify our effort as coral reefs are known to have a high biodiversity. 

Battle of the Coral Triangle | Pierre Fidenci | By Mark Sy

Those areas are known as the Coral Triangle, right?  
TheCoral Triangle harbors more than 75 percent of all known coral species, but it is occupied by over 120 million people and covers six countries that depend heavily on the ocean, so it is a very challenging task to protect and restore coral reefs. The current state is gloomy. We may lose more corals through bleaching, which is caused by increased water temperatures. That is the kind of event we can expect on a regular basis if average global temperatures rise more than two degrees Celsius. During the last few years, the condition of coral reefs slightly improved in the Philippines and Singapore, but declined in Indonesia and Malaysia.

What are you doing exactly to stop this from happening? 
We are working on many fronts. We push the creation of marine reserves, encourage livelihood alternatives, conduct reef assessments and boost conservation awareness. We have to develop new approaches and extend our partnerships to go beyond the conventional ones, even though new approaches are often the hardest to implement. For example, we visit local markets and trade centers to stop the selling of fish caught with dynamite, and then illegal fishermen start to find themselves with a non-lucrative market. We hope they°«ll stop using dynamite.

Hong Kong has traditionally been a center for consumers and purchasers of fish caught by these practice.  Are we the problem?
Hong Kong is a main problem, true, but the problem is also middleman in other parts of Southeast Asia. Many of the live fish that end up in restaurants in Hong Kong come from cyanide fishing. Sadly, this scenario has expanded to mainland China in the last few years and the fierce appetite for live reef fish is killing significant fish populations in the Coral Triangle. The Hong Kong government needs to tackle this issue seriously.

Consumers need to be aware of the devastating impacts of dynamite fishing and the slow and difficult recovery of reefs. We need to conduct bigger awareness campaigns. If we could return the reefs to excellent or good condition, then we could increase the fish population and diversity. That°«s the message! Nowadays, low-income fishermen in Southeast Asia struggle more and more to earn an income. By protecting and restoring reefs we can improve the life of people through ecotourism and better fishing. The immense beauty and richness of the Coral Triangle support the livelihoods of people living in this area and beyond.   

How do you persuade fishermen to abandon dynamite fishing 
It isn°«t an easy task since we need to address a lot of issues such as poverty and lack of education. We need to empower them to become responsible fishermen. To convince them, we conduct conservation awareness and develop sustainable alternatives incomes in local communities. I always tell them: °»You are the solution and dynamite fishing is a short-term suicidal practice. What will you do after you°«ve killed all the fish and corals in your area?°…

Has cyanide fishing emerged as a problem in response to the increasing restrictions on dynamite fishing?   
That°«s a good question, but the answer is no. Cyanide fishing has a different purpose, which is to get live fish from the ocean to restaurants or into the aquarium trade. Cyanide fishing can be more profitable if fishermen are well connected with networks since exporters will pay a higher price for live fish like groupers than dead ones. Let°«s face it, those criminal practices are still very lively due to the lack of enforcement, corruption control, awareness, and sustainable economic alternatives. At ESI we work hard at the local level to stop both cyanide and dynamite fishing.

Are there artificial methods marine biologists can employ to rehabilitate coral reefs?
The main goal is to assist the recovery of a coral reef ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed. It shortens the natural recovery times. However, the artificial methods can only be used successfully when the factors that have destroyed reefs are gone or controlled.
Marine biologists use artificial methods such as the transplantation of corals and other organisms. The methods of coral reef rehabilitation include reattachment of coral fragments, providing artificial substrata and coral cultivation. Artificial methods are not a magic bullet; what is important is to improve the management of reef areas.

How long would it take a reef to rehabilitate itself and regain its ecological balance?
First, natural recovery is not always possible and we might lose coral reefs forever. Natural recovery for badly damaged coral reefs can take between 30 and 100 years. Of all the damaged reefs I have seen, I will probably never see them in a healthy state.