Cyanide fishing accusation unfounded

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 November, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 November, 1995, 12:00am

I REFER to the article headlined 'HK role in death of reefs 'ignored' '(South China Morning Post, November 13). This article is based largely on a report recently issued by the US Nature Conservancy and South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency entitled 'Environmental, Economic, Social Implications of Live Reef Fish Trade in Asia and the Western Pacific' and prepared by Drs R Johannes and M Riepen.

Your article accuses the Hong Kong Government of ignoring the devastation of coral reefs in the region through cyanide fishing.

This accusation is unfounded. Hong Kong has long established fisheries protection legislation prohibiting the possession and use of toxic substances, including cyanide, to capture fish. There is a presumption in this legislation that should a toxic substance be found on board a vessel then it shall be deemed to be possessed or used for the purpose of fishing and any fish found in the vessel deemed to have been caught by using the toxic substance.

Reef fish are associated with coral reefs in tropical coastal waters. The control of inshore fisheries is a matter for the authorities of the country concerned. In this regard, we wrote to the Indonesian authorities in January this year, seeking clarification of the legal requirements for the export of reef fish from Indonesia and requesting further information regarding destructive reef fishing. However, we have not received a reply.

The study report made 19 recommendations, most of which are not applicable to Hong Kong.

One recommendation which could apply to Hong Kong, and was mentioned in the article, is the establishment of a cyanide detection laboratory to test live fish imported into Hong Kong. A testing programme for live marine fish is being evaluated but this may not solve the problem because even with appropriate detection facilities, fish could be held for a sufficient period before being imported so that body cyanide falls below detectable levels.

According to the Department of Health's food surveillance programme, all foods for sale, including locally-produced or imported fish, are subject to inspection and sampling for bacteriological, chemical and biotoxin examination. Detection of cyanide in fish is also covered by the programme. Of the fish samples taken for cyanide analysis between January 1994 and September 1995, none detected cyanide.

Your article states that 18,000 tonnes of reef fish are imported into Hong Kong by traders and implies that they are all caught by squirting cyanide to stun them. It is misleading to infer that all reef fish are caught by such illegal cyanide methods. The majority of reef fish species, for example, coral trout, are easily caught by hook and line fishing methods. Only a small percentage of the trade involves fish such as the Napoleon Humphead Wrasse (So Mei), which are difficult to catch by conventional non-destructive methods, and therefore susceptible to cyanide use.

There have been occasional incidents of Asian fishermen found fishing illegally in the waters of countries in the Indo-Pacific region. However, we believe that Hong Kong fishermen are very rarely involved in illegal fishing for reef fish. The live reef fish industry in Hong Kong is sustained by legitimate trade between overseas local reef fishing communities and Hong Kong traders. Most fish are imported into Hong Kong by specially adapted carrier vessels and not by Hong Kong-based fishing vessels. The rest are air freighted to Hong Kong.

If the study's findings that many species of reef fish are under immediate threat are accepted, then the best approach is to effect controls on trade through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We have already recommended to the authors of the study and to the US Nature Conservancy that the most pragmatic and effective way to control international reef fish trade and protect any species considered endangered would be to list them under CITES.

RICHARD YIP Assistant Director (Fisheries) for Director of Agriculture & Fisheries