Destruction by Cyanide

I have never been one to preach about what people should eat, how they should live, or where they should spend their money. But for myself, I try to make as little impact on this world and its inhabitants as possible. I try to remain informed about where my food comes from and how my actions affect those (human and not) around me. So when I started reading the book Song For The Blue Ocean by Carl Safina, I knew it wasn’t going to be a happy story. But as a citizen of this earth who uses her resources, I thought it was my duty to be informed about the practices taking place in and around the oceans. And I was right. It’s not a happy story (even less so when I saw that it was written in 1997 – 14 years ago. How much worse has it gotten since then?). Safina begins his story with the bluefin tuna, who have been overfished to almost extinction. Then he moves on to salmon, which have declined over 90 percent in some areas and even become locally extinct in others due to overfishing and habitat loss (aka deforestation). His final section is on a little South Pacific archipelago called the Palau Islands where he hoped to find the last remaining intact coral reefs and healthy fish populations. Instead he found cyanide poisoning. Here are a few excerpts.

“Divers armed with squeeze bottles chase fish into coral crevices and caves, then squirt ‘medicine’ into the holes. In a few moments crazed fish start looping out. This medicine is the same sodium cyanide used to execute prisoners. If a particularly desired animal the diver has dosed does not come out, the diver begins ripping away pieces of live coral, widening the hole enough to grasp the stricken creature.”

Why do they do this? There is a growing market in the live-fish trade. The fish don’t always die after being dosed with cyanide, so if they live they are shipped to distant markets in China, Hong-Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Safina goes on to describe the horrors cyanide inflicts on the reefs and its inhabitants.

“Cyanide is a broad-spectrum poison that acts on enzyme systems involved in respiratory metabolism. Exposure to it damages the liver, stomach, intestines, and reproductive organs. Fish that do not die right away from the acute toxicity usually succumb from complications several months later.” One study says that 90 percent of fish overcome with clouds of cyanide are unmarketable and sink or float away and die.

“Even worse than the fish it kills, cyanide kills corals. Within seconds of exposure, coral polyps begin emitting a thick mucus, trying to purge the irritation. After a few hours the mucus disappears, and all seems well. A few weeks later, the corals are dead, their skeletons bright white. Because big coral heads can be several hundred years old, we can expect to see living corals if this size again no later than the year 2300, if recovery commences immediately.” This was written 14 years ago.

Although the cyanide poisoned fish aren’t marketed for consumption (they’re marketed for the aquariums and fishtanks), divers in the South Pacific have unknowingly eaten contaminated fish and died from the results. Because of the high demand and substantial prize money for live-fish, divers will take any risk to bring back a highly sought after specimen, even if it means diving without the right equipment or safety knowledge.

I realize that this was written 14 years ago and things may have turned around for the better (I hope so), but it also makes me realize how little we really know about what is happening in the world. It’s a big place and there are so many of us, but I also think we should be aware as possible of things like this so we cause as little harm as possible.

If you would like to read it, the book is called Song For the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina. You’ll learn many things about the oceans and our impact on it’s inhabitants.

If you’d like to learn more about cyanide use in the live fish trade, check this site out.


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