Grim Reapers

© Lynn Funkhouser / Peter Arnold, Inc.

Divers armed with plastic squeeze bottles, wearing masks that make them look like grim reapers, swim through shimmering coral fish in Southeast Asia. They select among the colorful prey and squirt a solution of sodium cyanide on the fish, stunning them.

Most big fish survive the poison, but some small fish sink to the bottom, trembling from the shock, and soon die. When the surviving fish recuperate in the holding pen on the surface, the fishermen take them to port. The destination: Asian “live fish” markets, where the catch retails for as much as $40 a pound. A delectable dinner plate of Napoleon wrasse or grouper may go for up to $800 in a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong, and a bowl of live fish soup can go for $1,000. Some diners reportedly want to see the fish's beating heart before they make their selection.

Why the emphasis on “live fish”? According to Michael Aw of Ocean and Environment Unlimited in Sydney, Australia, “Chinese people believe that the older the fish, the more undesirable the taste.” Eating live fish is also a symbol of wealth.

The gourmet treat is taking a heavy toll. According to the World Wildlife Fund, cyanide divers squirt an estimated 150 tons of dissolved poison on some 33 million coral heads annually, killing coral polyps, symbiotic algae and other small reef organisms along with the coral fish. Once enough of these elements are destroyed, the entire ecosystem of the reef collapses. If the practice continues, it is estimated that by the year 2020, all coral reefs in affected regions of Southeast Asia will be destroyed. Return to Where the Land Meets the Sea…