Fish farmers cry for help to stay afloat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

Bloated and foul-smelling, the fish began floating to the surface of Cheung Sha bay two weeks ago - victims of the near-record cold snap.

But the dying had only just begun. And Cheng Siu-wah was powerless to save his stock of tropical fish.

He did the only thing he could - rush as many of them as possible to market before the Lunar New Year holiday and sell them cheap to cut his losses.

Mr Cheng, 52, has lost 60 per cent of his fish - 30 tonnes - to the cold, costing him at least HK$1 million, and possibly twice as much. What's worse, as one of the bigger operators - his fish farm covers 2.8 sq km of the bay off Lantau, and daily operating costs exceed HK$4,000 - he is not eligible for emergency relief from the government.

'This is the greatest loss I have suffered in my life,' said Mr Cheng, who has farmed fish for 30 years. 'It has given me a big headache.'

He is one of 80 fish farmers at Cheung Sha to have suffered losses.

Tropical fish species, such as the cobia, green grouper, giant grouper and red snapper that are farmed at Cheung Sha, cannot survive water temperatures below 15 degrees Celsius. But the water temperature there has fallen as low as 13 degrees.

Since February 10, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has sent a boat to help farmers remove their dead fish. But what Mr Cheng most wants is help from the government - cash and fish fry - so he can resume farming.

Across the city, fish farmers have reported total losses of at least 300 tonnes because of the cold.

Wong Yung-kan, who represents the agriculture and fisheries sector in the Legislative Council, said: 'Due to the cold snap, to my knowledge more than 100 tonnes of fish have died at the Cheung Sha fish farms, with losses estimated at HK$20 million. I believe in the end there could be 400 to 500 tonnes of dead fish.'

Mr Wong has said that another 15 of the city's 26 fish farming zones have been affected, but has not put a figure on their likely total losses.

With so much stock having been killed by the cold, he estimates the price of farmed fish will rise 10 per cent. 'For example, cobia now costs about HK$28 per catty, but it may go up to HK$31 to HK$32 per catty.'

The government has said it will begin registering fish farmers for emergency relief funds tomorrow. Mr Wong, who will meet fish farmers' representatives today, said relief funds should be made available to all fish farmers, not just small operators.