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Komodo seascapes killed by illegal fishing

KOMODO ISLAND, Indonesia -- Coral gardens that were among Asia's most spectacular, teeming with colorful sea life just a few months ago, have been transformed into desolate gray moonscapes by illegal fishermen who use explosives or cyanide to kill or stun their prey.

The site is among several to have been hit inside Komodo National Park, a 500,000-acre reserve in eastern Indonesia that spans several dusty volcanic islands. The area is most famous for its Komodo dragons -- the world's largest lizards.

But its remote and hard-to-reach waters also burst with staggering levels of diversity, from corals in fluorescent reds and yellows to octopuses with lime-green banded eyes.

Dive operators and conservationists say Indonesia's government is not doing enough to keep illegal fishermen out of the national park, a UN World Heritage Site. They say enforcement declined greatly following the exit two years ago of a U.S.-based environmental group that helped fight destructive fishing practices.

Local officials disagree, pointing to dozens of arrests and several deadly gunbattles with suspects.

Michael Ishak, a scuba instructor and professional underwater photographer who has made hundreds of trips to the area, said he's seen more illegal fishermen than ever this year.

When Ishak returned last month to one of his favorite spots, Tatawa Besar, known for its colorful clouds of damselfish, basslets and hawksbill sea turtles, he found that a 600-square-yard section of the reef had been obliterated.

Many smaller patches were also destroyed.

"At first I thought, 'This can't be right. I must have jumped in the wrong place,' " he said. "But it was true. All the hard coral had just been blasted, ripped off, turned upside down. . . . I've never seen anything like it."

The national park's corals are supposed to be protected, but fishermen are drawn there by locally popular varieties such as fusiliers and high-value export species such as groupers and snappers.

Fishermen can be seen in small wooden boats, some using traditional nets or lines. Others are blasting sites with "bombs" -- fertilizer and kerosene mixed in beer bottles. Breathing through tubes connected to air compressors at the surface, young men plunge to the bottom and use squeeze bottles to squirt cyanide into the coral to stun and capture fish.

Dive operators are increasingly seeing dead fish on the sea floor or floating on the surface.

Sustyo Iriyono, the head of the park, said problems are being exaggerated and denied claims of lax enforcement. He said rangers have arrested more than 60 fishermen over the past two years.

He added that the park is one of the few places where fish bombing is monitored with any regularity in Indonesia, a nation of more than 17,000 islands.

Divers, however, say enforcement has dropped dramatically since 2010, when the government reclaimed sole control of operations.

For two decades before that, The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based nonprofit, had helped the government confront destructive fishing practices there, but that arrangement ended in a financial dispute.

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