It is sometime in the mid-1970’s. Two men sit smoking Camels in a longtail fishing boat about fifty metres off the white sands of Gili Trawangan, a small tropical island off the North-West coast of Lombok. Looking down at the clear turquoise waters they see the coral reef that sits just below the surface. Despite the fact that the reef is teeming with fish today’s pickings have been slim.
Fisherman 1: This is Bullshit. There has to be an easier way.
Fisherman 2: Yeah. I have been thinking about that.
Fisherman 1: Well surprise, surprise. Brainboy has been thinking again.
Fisherman 2: Fuck off dickhead. You know how my brother Putu is in the army.
Fisherman 1: So?
Fisherman 2: Well I was talking to him the other day and he reckons he can get us a crate of dynamite for 15000 rupi.
Fisherman 1: Why the fuck would we want a case of dynamite?
Fisherman 2: That is what I have been thinking about. I reckon if we were to throw a stick of dynamite into the water, the explosion would stun the fish. They would float to the surface and we could just paddle around picking them up. Easy money.
Fisherman 1: Sounds alright.
Fisherman 2: Sounds alright.
A couple of weeks later the previous scene is reenacted, only this time a crate of dynamite sits between them.
Fisherman 1: Ok brainiach, what now?
Fisherman 2 selects a stick of dynamite from the crate, lights the fuse on the cigarette in his mouth, then tosses it about fifteen metres from the boat. The explosion sends a spout of water twenty metres up into the air. A couple of seconds later dozens of fish begin floating to the surface. They paddle over and begin hauling their catch into the boat.
Fisherman 1: Fuck me! This is great.
Fisherman 2: Told you.
Fisherman 1: Hang on a second. Looks like we blew fuck out of the reef.
Fisherman 2: So what?
Fisherman 1: Well we just wiped out entire underwater ecosystem, which took thousands of years to evolve.
Fisherman 1: So?
Fisherman 2: If we keep blowing up the reef it won’t be long before there isn’t any left. And no reef means no fish.
Fisherman 1: What the fuck are you babbling about. The reef will be right. All I know is that this a shit load easier than regular fishing.
Fisherman 2: Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know what the fuck I was banging on about.
And that is how kilometre upon kilometre of underwater wastelands were founded along the coasts of South East Asia.
Don’t get me wrong, I have built a life around taking the easy option and it’s all too easy to sit back and pontificate through the lens of affluence about irresponsible fishing (farming, logging, whatever) practices in developing countries. What would I know about hacking out an existence on the poverty line? Faced with a choice between feeding my family and preserving a coral reef, I would be putting grub on the table.
It is a sad sight though. You are snorkeling or diving the warm tropical waters expecting to see colourful coral gardens teeming with a thousand different fish and crustaceans. But a lot of what you find is large tracts of white grey coral graveyard. You have to dive down to 10m before you see anything of interest.
Despite suffering substantial damage, the diving around the Gilis is still very good. The practice of dynamite fishing has been banned around the islands and there is a substantial reef rehabilitation project underway. The water is warm and the visibility is exceptional.
We stayed at the Gili Eco Villas on the northern tip of GT, it was spartan but cool and we had some of the best snorkeling on the island at our doorstep. There were coral gardens, crustaceans, fish and turtles in abundance.
The island has a relaxed island charm; you can walk around the island in about an hour, all the locals seem constantly stoned and even better: motorised transport has been overlooked in favour of horse and cart. I really liked the place and the people there, but still no matter how many fictitious conversations I invent I will always struggle to comprehend the rationale of dynamite fishing.