PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2006, 12:00am

EVEN AFTER DECADES of trawling local waters for a good catch, Fung Yung-mui is amused by what she hauled out recently: a rattan couch. Now part of the armada charged with clearing refuse from Victoria Harbour, her motorised sampan is cluttered with the usual plastic bags and detritus from the marine industry.

But Fung shakes her head at the sight of the couch - a three-seater that was in pretty good shape even after the dunking. 'We pulled this one off Sai Ying Pun - and believe me, it took some work dragging it out,' says the former fisherwoman. Fung steers the sampan while colleague Fook Puk-kei stands on deck and surveys the water for the next bit of trash.

Having worked as a harbour cleaner for five years, Fung has cleared all manner of flotsam bobbing on the waves, from furniture to bloated animal carcasses. Thankfully, so far she hasn't encountered any corpses. Apart from the couch, the haul that day included half a rotten watermelon, an empty cement bag, styrofoam lunchboxes and a condom wrapper. Nothing too difficult - until her partner sees a metre-wide wooden barrow floating just off Golden Bauhinia Square.

With heavy waves rocking the boat, Fook and Fung struggle to haul it out of the water. But their valiant efforts are appreciated: there are cheers from a group of mainland tourists in the square when the pair finally drag the piece on deck. 'Well, somebody's got to do it,' says Fung, returning to the vessel's controls, drenched but pleased to get attention for what she says is an overlooked service.

In fact, she's part of a significant squad: according to the Marine Department, which contracts out harbour cleaning, a flotilla of 30 vessels manned by 80 workers trawl Victoria Harbour daily.

And there's a worrying increase in the amount of rubbish collected from our waters. According to department statistics, the quantity has risen steadily from 4,930 tonnes in 2000 to 6,159 tonnes in 2003. There was a slight dip in 2004 to 6,056 tonnes, but the figure rose to a record high of 6,165 tonnes last year. The harbour haul typically accounts for more than half of the litter collected in Hong Kong waters, which rose from 8,713 tonnes in 2000 to 11,727 tonnes last year. Kam Sack-hung, of the Marine Department's pollution-control unit, attributes the increase partly to more resources being allocated to remove such blights in the harbour. Waterfront developments add to the pile. 'An increase in urban population [on both sides of the harbour] also inevitably leads to more garbage in the sea,' says Kam.

At the same time, expanded seaside promenades have resulted in more litter bins filled with plastic bags from fast food and drinks. 'At certain times of the year, when the weather is squally, rubbish bins are blown over [and] the contents get carried into the water,' says a Marine Department spokeswoman.

According to Kam, research from the Environmental Protection Department shows that nearly 80 per cent of the flotsam originates from the land, most of which is swept into the harbour by wind or rain. 'The monsoon season, which brings more typhoons and heavy downpours, results in water rushing down from the hilly areas through the urban districts and into the sea,' he says. 'Such surges of water carry any rubbish in their path into the harbour.'

Historically, the health of the harbour has been associated mainly with the treatment of effluent. Director of Environmental Protection Keith Kwok Ka-keung is proud of the government's sewage treatment scheme. Implementation of the first stage of the plan, which covers Kowloon and the New Territories, has led to improved water quality - at least on the eastern side of the harbour. But with phase two still in its nascent stage, raw sewage from Hong Kong Island is still pumped directly into the sea.

By comparison, environmental officials accord less weight to the problem of floating trash. That's wrong, says Thierry Chan Tak-chuen, a researcher at think-tank Civic Exchange. 'It's the most visible blight one can see,' he says. 'It's important that Hong Kong people realise that this is a problem they can and should help in alleviating.'

Greater civic consciousness and awareness of health issues has cured many people of the habit of dumping rubbish into the sea - a common sight on cross-harbour ferries as recently as the 1980s. However, such improvements may be offset by other factors, such as extensive reclamation work along the waterfront and new schemes to reduce the pressure on landfill.

Since construction waste charges were introduced in January, the Marine Department has received complaints about such material being dumped on shores near Sai Kung and on Lamma Island. A department spokeswoman insists there's been no change in levels of marine litter since charges were introduced, though the heavier haul from harbour cleaners seems to indicate otherwise.

Environmentalists lay the greatest blame for floating trash on reclamation activities. In an article entitled The Environmental Impact of Harbour Reclamation, green activist Lisa Hopkinson argues that reclamation can create 'dead spots' in the harbour due to throttled water flow, causing litter to accumulate. 'It's a labour-intensive task to clear the debris, which can choke fish and other marine life, and block oxygen,' she writes.

Dennis Lee, director of the Society for Protection of the Harbour, agrees. 'Planners tend to just straighten out the coastal lines in order to get rid of these dead corners - which I think is just chopping a toe off to save the foot,' he says.

Kam challenges that conclusion. 'For us, straight seawalls actually allow refuse to be pushed onwards along the shore rather than being caught in some corner where our vessels can't reach,' he says.

Even so, he acknowledges that the narrowed waterway has led to rougher waters, which creates difficulties for harbour cleaners. 'It's so much more difficult for them to conduct their work,' he says, watching Fung and Fook toil to haul the barrow from the waters off Wan Chai.

However, the Marine Department official is upbeat about the prospects of the harbour becoming cleaner. 'We certainly won't be going back to the 60s and 70s, when people would just dump garbage into the sea on the sly.'

Even so, there's enough trash bobbing in the waters to keep the harbour cleaners busy. Fung and her colleagues aren't about to go back to fishing anytime soon.