Where conservation exists in name only

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 September, 2007, 12:00am

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is an anachronism. Agriculture hardly exists in Hong Kong any longer. Fisheries have collapsed for lack of any effective management by the department responsible for it. As for conservation, one is often left wondering why it continues to keep such strange bedfellows.

The supposed champion of conservation in the government is a mere section within a department, sharing space and a budget with an activity that is effectively redundant (agriculture) and an industry (fisheries) with which it is often in conflict.

The department responsible for both fisheries and the conservation of the marine environment has, over the decades, subsidised the increasing productivity of the fishing fleet with little thought for the health of the fish stocks. It has taken no action to introduce effective fisheries management in the 10 years since an independent report - which it commissioned - spoke of our fisheries 'in a state of crisis'.

It has never introduced a fisheries licensing system (in contrast to all our neighbours) and continues to allow unfettered bottom trawling in Hong Kong waters, despite the huge environmental destruction this causes. It is responsible for the management of marine parks yet issues fishing licences in those parks, with the result that there has been no discernible increase in fish biomass in them since they were created.

It had no opinion in the recent debate on the treatment of harbour-area sewage, and views the establishment of an LNG terminal on the Soko Islands as compatible with a marine park earmarked for the surrounding waters. It's a dismal record.

Two years ago, the government did take a run at breaking up the department and splitting off the conservation function. The proposal was initiated by the Environment Protection Department and strongly endorsed by the Advisory Council on the Environment. But it was strenuously resisted by some in the AFCD, and was eventually dropped. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the department does not see itself as particularly influential. This, in turn, is a reflection of the scant attention that is given by the government as a whole to the areas for which the department is responsible. Its timidity is reinforced by the habit of rotating its director every couple of years.

The directors are administrative officers, generalists who are moved from one department to another. By the time they have mastered their brief and begin to champion solutions, they are rotated out. The specialist, permanent departmental staff are left to nurture their frustrations.

As a result of recent changes, we now have a bureau dedicated exclusively to the environment. This is a step in the right direction and reflects the increasing environmental concerns of the community.

The secretary for the environment, Edward Yau Tang-wah, is highly regarded. One hopes that he will be kept in his post long enough to become a champion of conservation and the environment.

Our government has been in large part responsible for the development model of the past 40 years, which is the foundation of the city's success. But the community now has concerns about the model's sustainability.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has attempted to recognise this - for example, in his election 'manifesto' - but his actions belie his words. He seems instinctively and temperamentally wedded to the old development model on which his career, and the success of Hong Kong, was founded.

This is entirely natural. But, in these circumstances, it is more important than ever that conservation and the environment have a strong and effective champion within government - someone who can put a case forcefully and convincingly, and who will be respected for doing so by the chief executive and his senior ministers and advisers.

Markus Shaw is chairman of WWF Hong Kong