HK role in death of reefs 'ignored'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 1995, 12:00am

MARINE ecologists have accused the Government of ignoring illegal regional devastation of coral reefs by Hong Kong companies.

They say the destruction threatens to remove some types of garoupa from the territory's tables within a few years.

The author of the first extensive report on the subject has reported alarming destruction of reefs and marine life throughout Southeast Asia due to Hong Kong-supplied fishermen using illegal cyanide to stun their catch.

The world's richest area for species of corals and shallow-water fish - 'the Brazilian rainforest of the seas' - was being turned to grey graveyards by the fishermen's actions, said marine biologist Dr Joseph Johannes.

He and the United States-based Nature Conservancy, which funded the year-long study, have urged officials to crack down on importers.

They want a cyanide detection laboratory set up to test the thousands of tonnes of fish brought into Hong Kong - the world's biggest market for live reef fish.

Dr Johannes presented his study last week at the Jakarta meeting of the United Nations-affiliated Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Indonesia and the Philippines are particularly worried that coastal communities are losing their livelihoods as reefs die.

Yet Hong Kong Government officials - including Secretary for Planning, Environment and Lands Bowen Leung Po-wing and Agriculture and Fisheries Department director Lawrence Lee Hay-yue - had not attended the meeting or replied to invitations, said Carol Fox, Nature Conservancy director of programme development in Asia-Pacific.

Instead, the Government said it could do little about illegal activities outside Hong Kong and that local firms were not involved.

About 150 Hong Kong fishing firms import 18,000 tonnes of reef fish - compared with a world market of 25,000 tonnes. They sell for up to US$180 (HK$1,391) a kilogram .

Divers catch the fish by squirting deadly sodium cyanide to stun them. But though they are not killed, smaller fish, reef animals and the coral itself die.

'These Hong Kong firms are giving local fishing communities cyanide and encouraging highly illegal activities,' said Dr Johannes during a visit to the territory yesterday.

Local firms had told him that after moving south from fished-out Hong Kong waters in the 1960s, they expected Indonesian stocks to run out 'within two to four years', when they would concentrate on more distant Papua New Guinea reefs.

'We have to encourage the Government to take it more seriously,' he said.

Initial measures should include monitoring the number and sources of imports to gain data, and setting up a cyanide detection laboratory to analyse incoming fish.

The Government said fish entered through various points, the poison might not be detectable after some days and they could not be sure that the importer was responsible.

But Dr Johannes, in Taiwan today studying research on farmed fish, said a solution had to be found.

'We don't want to ban the trade, just make it sustainable. We are not yet at the stage of going to CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] to get these animals listed, but we could be,' he said.