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Asia Dive News : Andamans losing battle with marine poachers

The fragile maritime ecology of India's Andaman and Nicobar archipelago is under threat from widespread illegal fishing, poaching of rare species and the collection of rare coral, a top official said on Friday.

The navy and coastguard have detained nearly a hundred poachers this year, as they step up a battle with an increasing number of boats from nearby Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka using dynamite and other explosives in search of handsome rewards.

Environmentalists say its a fight they are losing.

"The navy and coastguards already have too much to do in terms of the security of the region," said Samir Acharya, secretary of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology.

"Only a coordinated effort with the police and local administration can make any difference. It's a losing battle."

The list of prey is long: tuna and other species of prized fish, sea cucumbers that fetch $100 a kilogramme in Japan, China and Thailand where they are prized for their supposed medicinal properties, rare turtles, and salt-water crocodiles whose skins sell for $25,000.

The 91 people arrested so far this year, many of whom were armed, marks a dramatic rise from the 26 who were taken into custody last year, said Arun Kumar Singh, a navy commander in charge of maritime security in the region, 1,200 km (750 miles) to the east of the Indian mainland.

But at least as many are thought to be getting away.

"They dive into the sea to get rare sea cucumbers and corals which are sold at exorbitant prices in other countries. This is destroying the ecology," Singh said.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, home to some of the world's most isolated tribes whose territory is off limits to outsiders, were badly hit by the 2004 Asian tsunami. Thousands of people were killed and considerable damage done to the region's rich marine life.

Vast forest areas were submerged and the natural habitats of many marine animals disappeared, environmental activists say. One island broke into three.

The archipelago is located close to the Malacca Strait -- the main sea-lane between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and leading to the Pacific.

India has air and naval bases across the islands as it considers the sea routes vital to its security, and to guard against what some defence experts say is China's increasing strategic interest in the region.

Source: Reuters