This paper was written as part of the 2011 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Effects of Cyanide Fishing on the Coral Reefs of Wakatobi Marine National Park


Jonah Jeffries
Alonzo Gage
Chris Erickson
Aspen Milton
Shayla Jordan

Team Tiger Sharks

Mat-Su Career and Technical High School
2472 North Seward Meridian Parkway
Wasilla, AK 99654


The coral reefs of Wakatobi Marine National Park in Indonesia are under siege: cyanide fishing is destroying the reefs and decimating the species inhabiting them. This highly illegal form of capturing fish for the live fish trade (such as exotic fish aquariums) brings in millions of dollars annually, but it is devastating the reefs' existence. Two species of fish in particular are being captured in mass quantities without regard for age, size, and the health of the ecosystem they come from; they are the giant grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus) and the humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulates). The giant grouper and humphead wrasse are both being taken to sell in fish markets for food, often live. Both of these species are endangered or threatened as a direct result of over-exploitation by human activity and their numbers are dwindling. The foremost way to prevent their decreasing populations is to more strictly enforce the prohibition of cyanide fishing, but this is more easily said than done. Organizations such as the International Marine Alliance and the World Resources Institute have attempted to ameliorate the situation, but lack of support from other organizations have prevented them from making any significant progress in enforcing the laws prohibiting the use of sodium cyanide as a tool for capturing fish live. However, an effective management plan entails experimentation with groupers and using this knowledge to educate local fisheries, locating funding resources through various organizations, use of electronics for locating occurrences of cyanide fishing, and policing the areas deemed restricted from the use of sodium cyanide for capturing fish for the better health of the ecosystem.


At the southeastern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia, there are four main islands: Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia, and Binongko; these islands, and a few others compose, the Tukang Besi Archipelago, a 3.4 million-acre area known as Wakatobi (Wakatobi, Indonesia). (Figure 1)

Wakatobi was named a national park in 1996, after it was recognized as one of the world's most biologically diverse ecosystems (Wakatobi, Indonesia). The park harbors an abundance of coral reefs, which are recognized for their remarkable diversity. However, in 2003, a Rapid Ecological Assessment of Wakatobi National Park revealed that many of the reefs were, and continue to be, devastated by destructive fishing techniques, specifically cyanide fishing (Haapkylä et al., 2006).

Cyanide fishing is defined as injecting sodium cyanide (NaCN), an inorganic compound, into coral reefs for the capture of live fish for the live fish trade and fish market industry. Sodium cyanide stuns fish, which allows for easy capture. The sale of live, exotic aquarium fish is popular in the countries embodying Wakatobi National Park and cyanide fishing. Although highly illegal, it is an easily performed but hard to detect form of fishing, which accounts for its popularity. Cyanide fishing threatens the coral reef, from the corals to their inhabitants, such as fish and microorganisms. (Figure 2)

The giant grouper and the humphead wrasse are two organisms specifically threatened by cyanide fishing either because of the huge demand for them, both for the live fish trade and the fishing industry in countries such as Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Reef Ecosystem

Coral reefs are underwater structures formed from ions collected from the seawater and synthesized into the mineral aragonite by the various coral species. Coral reefs are complex marine systems; some experts have equated them with old growth forest ecosystems on land. A coral reef is made up of many coral polyps. A coral polyp is the shape of a tube; it has a stomach, a mouth, and tentacles around the mouth. Inside the polyp's tissue is a classification of algae referred to as zooxanthellae. The polyps and algae have a mutual relationship where the coral provides an environment that is protected and provides the compounds needed for the algae to perform photosynthesis, and the algae produce oxygen for the coral and remove waste. From the algae's photosynthesis, the coral also obtains glucose, glycerol, and amino acids. The coral uses these products to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, as well as produce calcium carbonate. The relationship between the algae and coral polyp facilitates a tight recycling of nutrients in nutrient-poor tropical waters. In fact, as much as 90 percent of the organic material produced by the algae is transferred to the host coral tissue. This is the driving force behind the growth and productivity of coral reefs (Coral Reefs).

The stony coral exoskeletons form ideal homes for a variety of organisms such as various fish, seahorse, sponges, cnidarians (simplest organisms that have attained a tissue level of organization), worms, crustaceans, mollusks, echinoderms, sea squirts, sea turtles and sea snakes (Cnidarians). Some of the coral reefs are so diverse—because of temperature, climate, and currents—that the inhabitants of the reefs cannot be found anywhere else in the world but in that system of coral. The organisms and populations living in and around coral reefs are dependent on their habitat for energy and matter to support life. The survival and reproductive success of coral reef ecosystems are influenced by several factors, including the kinds and numbers of organisms in the food web, natural and human influences, pH that is either too high or too low, and most importantly, sunlight ("Coral Reefs").

Most coral reefs were formed after the last glacial period when melting ice caused the sea level to rise and flood the continental shelves. This means that most coral reefs are less than 10,000 years old (Coral Facts). As coral reef communities were established on the shelves, they built reefs that grew upwards, keeping pace with the rise in sea level. Reefs that didn't keep pace could become drowned reefs, covered by so much water that there was insufficient light for further survival. Coral reefs are also found in the deep sea away from the continental shelves, around oceanic islands. Some form as atolls. The vast majority of these ocean coral islands are volcanic in origin. The few exceptions have tectonic origins where plate movements have lifted the deep ocean floor on the surface (Evolving Earth: Plate Tectonics). (Figure 3)

There are a few types of coral which are resistant to cyanide ions, but they don't live in Indonesia. Acropora valenciennesi, or Stag Horn Coral, is an Indonesian coral species which lives in the Wakatobi Marine National Park area. As a coral which is more resilient than most, this coral is a common species which many types of aquatic life depend on for food and shelter. This coral is also under threat from humans. On the ICUN Red List, it is listed as a "least concern" species, but it is deteriorating (Aeby, G. et al., 2008). One of the main causes is cyanide fishing.

Another more vulnerable species of coral is Stylophora pistillata, more commonly known as the cat's paw coral. Listed as "near threatened", this coral's greatest threat in WMNP is over-exploitation by humans. This refers to cyanide fishing, blast fishing, and coral mining, which is removal of large sections of the reef for economic benefit. According to a case study in Lombok, Indonesia, the money lost in tourism and fisheries is approximately 24.5 times as great as the net profit (Challenges for Sustainability in Cultures Where Regard for the Future May Not be Present). This is a huge loss; for every 20 dollars gained from the coral mining industry, about 500 dollars are lost. Both the humphead wrasse and the giant grouper are being obtained for their expensive meat in the fish market. Our two target species are being specifically targeted by cyanide fishing, and are becoming endangered because of it.

Giant Grouper

The giant grouper (Epinephelus lanceolatus), is also referred to as the jewfish and the goliath grouper. (Figure 4)

These massive groupers weigh in at up to 600 kilograms and measure two meters in length; these fish can live as long as 50 years (What is a Giant Grouper?). The giant grouper's body decreases in circumference from head to tail. This species of grouper are bright yellow when they are young, and turn gray as they mature and become adults. Young turtles, fish, crustaceans, and small sharks are a few of its most common foods, which it ingests whole. These fish are primarily found in the Pacific and Indian oceans. Giant groupers spend most of their time in estuaries and coral reefs. They usually stay in brackish waters between four and 100 meters in depth.

Currently, the giant grouper is listed as vulnerable, but many places are continuing to serve them in restaurants. They are most commonly caught with cyanide and kept alive in large tanks until served. Some giant groupers sell for $187.22USD in Hong Kong (Pearce, Fred). Because they are taken as juveniles, many of them do not have time to reproduce, thus also decreasing the giant grouper numbers. They also mature very late in their lifetime; it takes about seven years for them to become sexually mature. These groupers are easy targets because they all spawn in one spot and stay in the same area. Fishermen are learning of these areas and are catching them in very high numbers because of it.

If the giant grouper were to go extinct, it would have negative effects on top predators such as tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier), blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus), and whitetip reef sharks (Triaenodon obesus). Other animals depending on their role in the ecosystem would begin to suffer, which would then begin to cause a downward spiral of the entire ecosystem.

Humphead Wrasse

The humphead wrasse (Cheilinus undulates) is also known as the Napoleon wrasse. Living mostly in the Indo-Pacific, the humphead spends most of its time in the coral reefs of Indonesia in waters between 1-100 meters deep. When the fish are young, they tend to hide around branching corals and shallow lagoons, whereas adults stay in deeper lagoons, drop-offs, and steep coral slopes. They come near the shore only to feed, and then head towards deeper waters. (Figure 5)

Humphead wrasses have a life span of over 30 years, and reach sexual maturity between the first 5-7 years of life. Their colors change depending on age—when young, they are blue or green, and sometimes take on a purple tint. As they mature, males develop a stripe of black along their side, blue spots on their scales, and blue markings on their faces. Females are a red/orange color with some white. These fish are distinctive because of their thick mouth and a "hump" that protrudes from their head. It is similar to a Napoleon hat, or a large forehead. They weigh around 190 kg, and are around 230 cm long (Humphead wrasse).

Because of illegal fishing of these fish by cyanide, they are now on the "red list" and are endangered (Humphead wrasse). Many upper-class restaurants rely on the meat of the fish for revenue. Some humphead wrasses in Hong Kong, which is the largest known retail sector for humphead wrasse, are going for as much as $100 per kilogram (Statement of Concern: the Humphead Wrasse is a Threatened Reef Fish). Due to overfishing of these species in the span of 10 years, the annual import of humphead wrasse into Hong Kong has decreased over 100 tons (Sadovy De Mitcheson, Y., M. Liu, and S. Suharti, 2009). This overfishing doesn't even account for the unforeseen damage illegal fishing can do to Hong Kong's imports. (Figure 6)

When they are caught young, they are grown in cages until they have reached a certain size and can be sold. Caught older, they can be sold for immediate resale. But because they also don't reach sexual maturity until about five years of life, it is very hard for the population of fish to increase due to the severe over fishing of juveniles. In the past 30 years, this species of fish has decreased in numbers by 50%, and if these fishing habits continue, it may become severely endangered, or even extinct. It has been recorded that the maximum of adult density is only 20 fish per 10,000 square meters (Roberts and Glynnis, 2010). If the humphead wrasse were to go extinct, the smaller fish that it tends to feed on will have to ability to over populate and take over coral reefs. If this happens, the whole ecosystem will become unbalanced causing other fish to be harmed as well.

History of Management Plan

The International Marine Alliance and World Resources Institute, using the funds from United States Agency for International Development and Asian Development Bank, has been developing a plan since the late 1980s to prevent the use of cyanide for fishing in the seas around Indonesia (Barber, Charles, 1999). This plan has five components. Indonesia used six CDLs (Cyanide Detection Laboratories) around the country to check samples from imported species for presence of cyanide. Training programs have been produced to teach fishermen how to fish cyanide-free and to encourage the further development of other fishing techniques. The government has stepped in to pass laws on banning the use of cyanide fishing (this motion alone does not eliminate it). Attempts of educating the public of cyanide fishing and its effects have been made through public campaigns and incorporated through educational systems. The mentioned industries have also made collaborations with live fish traders from the USA to receive support from consumers and importers (Pet, Jos, and Lida Pet-Seode, 1998). As this plan needed a lot of cooperation, it cannot be fully executed unless there is sufficient enough support from the area's government, fisheries agencies, local and national NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and the communities that initiate the management plan. This management plan, however, should use adjustments that would easily resolve the management plans' issues, which include funding, information deficiencies, and suggested alternatives that should be incorporated in our management plan.

Management Plan

The main ideas that will fix the problems of this ecosystem are gaining knowledge through experiments involving groupers and using this information to educate local fisheries, associate with possible organizations for funding resources, use of electronic detection for pinpointing locations of cyanide fishing occurrence, the potential problems that could occur during these implementations and stating how to fix those problems.

One key factor that is preventing the execution of this plan, besides industry support, is the "inadequate" knowledge of groupers such that there would be enough to develop fishery management (Pet, Jos, and Lida Pet-Seode, 1998). From this information, one possible action to assist in this management plan is collaborating experiments and surveys on groupers to further extend current knowledge, which includes life history characteristics, length of life, how many young survive at birth, and exact age of maturity (Roberts and Glynnis, 2010). Specific results that the surveys and experiments should find include current and predicted population, corals' effect on the species, and the number of groupers lost per year due to fisheries in what areas (this isn't limited to cyanide fishing). The previous management plan already created public awareness of cyanide fishing, but the fishery management plan should also educate local Indonesian fisheries alternatives based on these experiments to determine how to develop a safe environment for these groupers. Scientific research is very crucial for developing policies on fishing and to specify details on how one would go about fishing in and around coral reefs.

The optimal method for earning funding for this management plan is through several grants between organizations that are based on environmental and ecosystem development. The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) is a US agency that provides funding for local governments, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations through their plan for grants management (Grants Management Plan 2009-2013, 2008). This organization could potentially dedicate grants to the World Resources Institute and the International Marine Alliance, which are both non-profit organizations. The Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA) is a collaborative institute between several Eastern Asia countries (including Indonesia) that manages the seven million square kilometers of sea area mainly around the Philippines and Indonesia (The Seas of East Asia and PEMSEA Sites). Their reasons for managing the area are the large economic value the waters offer, mainly to the surrounding communities; they also serve some importance internationally. The group is a growing institution since 1994 that would benefit from focusing their efforts toward the Indonesian seas. If the institution was more informed of the cyanide fishing abuse, their actions could be reasoned to work with the WRI and the IMA to better manage the Indonesian seas.

Through practices such as cyanide fishing, which bleaches coral colonies until they cannot survive, and dynamite fishing, the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region, and the WMNP area, are being slowly but consistently removed. Blast fishing creates barren craters on the ocean floor which can take ten years or more to settle into livable coral conditions. "Wilkinson (2004) estimated that 20% of coral reefs globally have been destroyed and show no immediate prospects of recovery, 24% were under imminent risk of collapse through human pressures and a further 26% were under long-term threat of collapse" (Scaps, P., V. Denis, and J. Haapkyla, 2008). This is grim picture, painted six years ago, is not much better now. Due to regulation standards falling and corruption in the government, coral health in the WMNP area is rapidly degrading. One suggestion would be to GPS tag each key threatened reef with a small machine capable of operating for multiple decades. Another would include scheduling twice-monthly visual checks on the reefs' health by trained professionals. A system of small electromagnetic sensors would be installed in a buoy to monitor the area for boats of any reasonable size, and small, light-detecting cameras, underwater and facing the surface, would monitor for smaller, wooden boats which would block the sunlight. These cameras would only need to detect the presence or absence of light, so they would be less expensive. A government-run system would need to be staffed by dedicated professionals only, to avoid the danger of corruption. This 'division of oceans' would need to have a well-trained and capable police-like group that would be responsible for apprehending and prosecuting offenders when dealing with ocean specific matters.

There are many problems that could come up during the execution of the management plan. In this case, the problems that could be foreseen are the difficulties in maintaining the GPS trackers. The various sensors may be damaged by various environmental factors. Damaging of these devices would of course hinder their effectiveness at detecting nearby ships. A simple solution would be an operator to come with the dedicated policing group to check the quality of the device. The electromagnetic sensors could also detect other things in the ocean besides surrounding boats. This problem could potentially be fixed by adding sensors for image capturing. The need for this is going to be made crucial in the funding in this project. All other issues during the execution of this management plan are easily remedied.

As the management plan proceeds, values will need to be obtained from testing to regulate the process. Specific variables that should be monitored for coral reefs are the depth at which it is located, area covered by coral, and the amount of zooxanthellae calculated to determine the potential health of the coral. Variables that will be considered include the population of groupers in the corals compared to areas without coral and the ratio of coral to groupers. The numbers will determine the areas of the management plan that need attention.


The coral reefs of Wakatobi are lush and wild. However, they will soon be a stripped, barren waste if cyanide fishing is not more strictly prohibited. (Figure 7)

Sodium cyanide is being illegally used by fishermen to capture fish for both the aquarium and fish market industries. Every year an estimated 6,000 divers use 150,000 kg of cyanide on approximately 33 million coral heads (Cyanide Fishing: A Poisonous Business). This seems very high, but just how extreme are these numbers? Fish are about 1,000 times more sensitive to cyanide than humans, and while most species' lethal dose is 0.2 mg/L, some sensitive species cannot handle more than 0.03 mg/L (Cyanide Fishing: A Poisonous Business).

In addition, the side effect of capturing these fish is the destruction of the coral reefs they inhabit as a result of toxic poisoning. Many times, the fishermen further destroy the reefs when they are forced to pry and break apart the hard coral to reach fish hiding in its crevasses. Careful placement in technology and policing around the area will ensure that the prevention of cyanide fishing is enforced. The proposed management plan, which addresses what research needs to be conducted and all anticipated problems so the situation can be resolved. If cyanide fishing is left to run rampant as a highly illegal, yet very successful business, the Wakatobi National Park that can be seen today will deteriorate to coral-bleached ruins. The ecosystem will become unbalanced to the point that it cannot survive and will collapse; some species, such as the smooth seahorse, giant grouper, and humphead wrasse, will disappear from over-exploitation of humans by means of cyanide fishing. Once those key species are absent, species that are lower on the food chain will thrive and ultimately become so over-populated that they completely consume the organisms they feed on and will eventually extinguish the species that is necessary for the survival of their species, which will continue in the food chain in a vicious cycle.

The photo in figure 8 depicts the daunting future of Wakatobi Marine National Park if cyanide fishing is ignored any longer. Although cyanide fishing brings in massive annual revenue, the havoc and destruction that its practice is creating is more impactful than its reward. Coral reefs are finite; they are slow-growing and are not immune to the relentless attacks of humans. It is important that we conserve the world below us; it cannot protect itself.


map of the tukan besi archipelago

Figure 1. Tukang Besi Archipelago, a 3.4 million-acre area known as Wakatobi.
Source: Wakatobi, Indonesia

picture of a person cyanide fishing

Figure 2. Cyanide fishing in a coral reef

diagram showing how a volcano forms a coral reef

Figure 3. The process of which a volcanic coral reef is formed.

giant grouper

Figure 4. Diver with a giant grouper.

picture of humphead wrasse

Figure 5. A humphead wrasse.

graph showing Hong Kong's decreasing number of imports between 1997 and 2008

Figure 6.

picture of a diver in a coral reef

Figure 7.
Source: Tukangbest Diving

picture of a bleached coral reef

Figure 8. A bleached coral reef.