On many nights at sea off this Pacific port, Aaron Medina drops bombs that cause dozens of fish to soar into the air.
Like a drug dealer advertising his goods, the 23-year-old fisherman rubbernecks to ensure no police are around before pulling a 1-pound bomb from his pocket. It's an old sardine can wrapped in a cement bag filled with gunpowder, sugar and sulfur. It is lit with a waterproof wick.
"It's the only way to survive in fishing today," said Medina, who has been fishing with explosives off Corinto, Nicaragua's largest port, since he was 12 years old.
Medina is part of the nation's booming blast fishing industry, which is quickly spreading across Central America's Pacific coast. The practice is also common in El Salvador and Honduras, environmental groups say.
Blast fishing is an illegal but lucrative practice in which fishermen throw small homemade bombs into the marine habitat, killing entire schools of fish and wiping out everything else within the blast zone - including coral reef habitats - thus depleting fisheries.
"In a few years, blast fishing will be everywhere if it continues like this," said Reinaldo Bermuti of Nicaragua's Fisheries Institute in the capital, Managua.
Other authorities fear the practice is fueling a black market for increasingly potent explosives that could fall into the hands of gangs or terrorist groups.
"That's why we're constantly working on intelligence," said police investigator Lester Gomez.
40,000 bombs a week
Unlike many of Nicaragua's coastal areas, Corinto's rocky shoreline hasn't attracted international surfers or real estate investors. But over the past decade, blast fishing has grown because poverty is rampant, homemade bombs are increasingly available and law enforcement is lax. Local authorities estimate fishermen drop 40,000 homemade bombs into the sea every week.
Often working undercover, police confiscated about 1,000 bombs last year, most of which were seized at highway checkpoints. In 2007, Corinto police confiscated 650 bombs from a clandestine bomb factory. The Nicaraguan navy often cruises Pacific waters at night with no lights, hoping to catch fishermen red-handed. Last year, naval officials say they caught five boats blast fishing, and seized about 400 bombs. Navy Capt. Francisco Gutierrez concedes that's just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of bombs used each year.
Blast fishing is considered an environmental crime under Nicaraguan law, punishable by up to four years in prison. Prosecutors can increase jail time by tacking on illegal weapons possession charges. But prosecuting cases is difficult because evidence is easily destroyed at sea. Gutierrez said five fishermen are currently being processed for alleged blast fishing, but he couldn't recall the last time anyone went to jail.
"They have a system. It's almost impossible to arrest them. When they see us coming, they just sink the bombs in the sea with rocks," Gutierrez said.
Widespread corruption among local police officers hinders enforcement efforts, police investigator Gomez said. Many fishermen say police officers routinely take bribes from bomb manufacturers and their distributors.
But Gutierrez is hopeful that a one-year program to educate fishermen about the pitfalls of the practice is finally paying off. In June, for the first time, fishermen turned in more than 311 bombs.
"We've been trying to persuade them in meetings," Gutierrez said.
But Medina believes blast fishing is more widespread than authorities suspect. He says virtually every fisherman he knows has traded in traditional nets, lines and hooks for explosives. And the handful of clandestine bombmakers who sell explosives for about $2 apiece are making more powerful explosives, he adds.
Most recently, Nicaraguan police caught two fishermen with 10-pound bombs wrapped in cement bags - more destructive and risky than the usual sardine-can-size bombs. Medina says even 15-pound bombs are now available on the black market.
Injuries and deaths
Medina also says some bombs have exploded while being handled by colleagues, causing loss of life and limbs. In the past three years, Corinto authorities have reported two deaths, nine cases of lost limbs and two men who were blinded by explosions.
Medina only works at night, where he and his colleagues stick a flashlight into the water to attract fish- usually sardines - before dropping bombs anchored by rocks. The explosion, which kills everything within a 10-foot radius, sends a few dozen sardines into the boat that are later used as bait to attract larger fish such as snapper. Fishermen jump in with snorkel masks to net remaining fish that float around the boat. Bigger explosives cause an even greater radius of dead or stunned fish and require scuba gear to dive deep into the ocean.
"They go out to sea with one bomb and bring in 400 kilos (880 pounds) of fish," Medina said of fishermen who use larger bombs.
As the resource is depleted by blast fishing, fishermen are now lucky to bring in 100 kilos of fish on a given trip instead of 400 kilos a decade ago, Medina says.
While Medina and other local fishermen claim they have little choice but to use explosives, Helen Fox of the World Wildlife Foundation says they are motivated by making a quick buck.
"It's a case of greed rather than need," said Fox.
But Medina says he has little recourse in a nation with the second-lowest annual per capita income in the Western Hemisphere at $3,000.
"We're deteriorating the fauna," he said. "But there's no other way to bring money home."
Blast or dynamite fishing stuns or kills fish for easy gathering. This illegal practice indiscriminately kills large numbers of fish and other marine organisms and can damage or destroy surrounding ecosystems such as coral reefs.
Although outlawed, the practice remains widespread in some 40 nations in Central America, Southeast Asia, the Aegean Sea and Africa, environmental groups say. In the Philippines, blast fishing dates to before World War I. During World War II, dynamite-wielding Japanese troops popularized the practice in Indonesia.
Nicaraguan fishermen say the practice was introduced by bomb-wielding rebels of El Salvador's Farabundo Marti Liberation Front seeking a new livelihood after a 12-year civil war in that country ended in 1992.
Fishermen typically use commercial dynamite or homemade bombs with glass bottles or cans layered with powdered potassium nitrate and pebbles or ammonium nitrate and a kerosene mixture.
- Blake Schmidt
E-mail Blake Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org.