Local firms still trading cyanide-caught fish

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 February, 2000, 12:00am

We refer to the letter headlined, 'Sustainable fishing possible through education' (South China Morning Post January 8), about the live reef fish trade, which we found to be both misleading and incomplete.

This trade is centred in Hong Kong which, last year, imported an estimated 30,000 tonnes of live reef fish. These fish include many large reef species easily depleted by overfishing. In some areas, especially Southeast Asia, these species are caught with the poison sodium cyanide.

Cyanide kills living corals, thereby degrading coral reefs, and is a wasteful 'fishing' method: it is almost universally banned for fishing. There is no evidence that shows any significant decline in cyanide use since 1995, as suggested by the letter. In fact, there are clear indications of continuing cyanide use over the past five years in Southeast Asia. Thus, while we applaud the recent efforts of the Hong Kong Chamber of Seafood Merchants to encourage members to eschew destructive fishing methods, it is premature to say that cyanide-caught fish are no longer traded by Hong Kong companies.

Even more serious is the high volume of fish caught, which causes many of these vulnerable species to rapidly become overfished; calculations suggest that sustainable production of these reef fish has been exceeded for Southeast Asia. This is one reason why importers of live reef fish have been forced to seek supplies far from Hong Kong; now fish are brought in from the Seychelles and Fiji.

The live reef fish trade, if practised sustainably, should be a high-value fishery bringing a good livelihood to small-scale fishing communities throughout the region, as well as to Hong Kong businesses. However, as currently practised, the trade does not always benefit impoverished fishermen in exporting countries, as claimed. Some Hong Kong companies, for example, may furnish their own labour and managers, or use local people for only a few years until fishing grounds are depleted. These companies then move on to more pristine areas, leaving local fishermen with a few years of 'benefits' but empty reefs and negligible options for future incomes.

Sustainable fishing in the live reef fish trade, as in any fishery, is possible, but does not only depend on education, as the authors suggest.

Education may be used to train fishermen to use alternatives to poisons, we do not dispute this point. But overfishing can only be tackled by legislation, control of fishing activity, enforcement, monitoring and compliance with local regulations.

We can have our fish and eat it too but a sustainable trade will not be easy and needs commitment from both exporting and importing economies.

YVONNE SADOVY Associate Professor Department of Ecology and Biodiversity KIMBERLEY A. WARREN Researcher Civil Engineering Department The University of Hong Kong



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