Jul 20, 2009

Dropping the F bomb

It’s funny to think of my grandfather sitting in a boat in the middle of an empty Ohio lake. No bait, no tackle…not even a fishing pole. Just a net, a lit cigarette, and some TNT he borrowed from the family coal mine. I imagine him taking a puff off of an unfiltered Lucky Strike and lighting the stick. I would bet that no matter how familiar you are with dynamite, even if you’ve used it a thousand times, you would still get a rush watching the sparks fly off of that fuse. I see him lobbing that bomb in the air and hearing a distinct but satisfying,


I bet his chest felt like it was going to burst as he witnessed the water spout. And I can only imagine the look of all the creatures that made their way up to the surface, ready for the picking. I have a feeling that dinner was easy to catch that day. I’ve also heard a tale or two about some other activities with the boom sticks that didn’t turn out so well for him during his adolescent years.

What can I say, my grandfather was a pyro.

Believe it or not, but people around the world still fish with the stuff. Some artisanal blast fishing still exists in parts of Southeast Asia, the Aegean Sea, and Africa. It’s extremely destructive to marine habitats, especially coral reefs. Fishermen typically use homemade bombs made of potassium nitrate or ammonium nitrate/kerosene mixture poured into glass soda bottles. Mmm…just like momma used to make. They then throw the bombs directly over shallow coral reefs to kill fish, only to leave a car-sized hole in the reef as an unfortunate side effect. While the local communities often support law enforcement of this damaging fishing practice, it’s almost non-existent in these remote areas.

In the Gulf of Mexico, something similar is happening. Instead of a fisherman with a homemade molotov, it’s an engineer using explosive charges with the intent to decommission an artificial habitat. A massive fish kill is the consequence.

Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas platforms

A whole bloody mess of them

There are two ways in the Gulf of Mexico to decommission a platform, non-explosive severance and explosive severance. Non-explosive methods involve cutting (sand jet, rotary, diamond, arc torches, etc.) facilitated by commercial divers. This method can be potentially dangerous for the divers, and has very little impact to the marine environment. The explosive method uses charges to achieve severance. The explosive method is much safer for offshore workers; however, the pressure waves and acoustic energy that is produced is extremely damaging to the local marine life that are attracted to the structure.

Tens of thousands of fish surround these structures at any given time. The detonation produces intense concussive effects on fish and marine mammals, imploding gas filled organs and causing massive internal damage to the body. The animals close to the blast tear into pieces; while the fish further away turn into jelly, even further away the fish suffer concussion, and then just a really bad headache at about half a mile or more from the blast.

Here’s a photo taken by a fisherman after the decommissioning of an oil rig off of Dauphin Island, Alabama last month. Article here.

Most of the fish you see floating on top are red snapper, but the vast majority of the bodies are lying on the bottom. Divers reported a mass of red snapper, amberjack, spadefish, and cigar minnows on the seafloor. This was only a 5 pound explosive charge, which is considered a small blasting scenario. A standard blast uses 20-80 lbs. And a specialty blasting can use up to 500 lbs of charges. Take the kids, you could go fishing with a baseball glove.

According to a report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Gulf of Mexico contains nearly 4,000 offshore oil and gas platforms. Many have already been decommissioned and most of the remaining platforms need to be removed by year 2020. On average, there are about 80-100 decommissionings in the Gulf of Mexico per year using explosive methods. If one blast can kill 500 red snapper, that’s 50,000 of them killed every year from oil and gas platform removal alone. That’s 25,000 recreational limits of red snapper…and snapper don’t top the species list for the highest kill count. Atlantic spadefish and blue runner take the most beating. Other snappers, grouper, red fish, triggerfish, and numerous other species in low abundance are also rubbed out. It’s just a little too much to ignore, in my opinion.

Vernon Minton, the director of the state of Alabama’s Marine Resources Division, after seeing the floating snapper photo stated that he would bring this issue up at the next Gulf Council Meeting. Looking forward to it, Vernon.

As for my grandfather fishing with dynamite. I'm not sure if it was a one time thing or what. Maybe my dad can elaborate. But, I'm pretty sure he was using the tools at hand to feed the family. He taught my father to fish, and a little later he taught me a few things.

About fishing...not explosives.


  1. I'm not sure how many times he used dynamite for fishing, maybe just once as a kid. You know how those stories get "blown up". Love the article. -Aunt T.

  2. I always learn so much from you! Good post.

  3. What a great post!

    I like the way you go into all the details. I wasn't even aware that people fished with explosives or about how the use of explosives was affecting marine life.

  4. This is quite disheartening. Despite the world's deteriorating fisheries, people (in this case oil companies) are willing to overlook this for the quick and dirty clean-up. What has happened to accountability nowadays?