Vision of a sustainable HK fishery welcome

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2008, 12:00am

Our fishing industry has long harvested a greater catch from Hong Kong waters than they can sustain, in order to satisfy diners' demand for seafood. As a result fish stocks are severely depleted, the marine ecosystem is dangerously stressed and the industry faces an uncertain future. Action to turn this situation around is long overdue. The government's sweeping proposals to modernise the industry are therefore welcome. They deserve support because they tackle the root of the problem of overfishing - bottom trawling.

The Committee on Sustainable Fisheries has recommended banning trawling in local waters and buying out the boats. As we report today, it will consult the fishing trade, green groups and other stakeholders before issuing a final report.

Bottom trawling harms the seabed environment and yields an indiscriminate catch including infant and immature fish. Since most Hong Kong waters are breeding and nursery grounds, it seriously disrupts the reproductive chain. The proposal to ban it is bound to meet resistance from local fishermen and their supporters, who cite poor government management of the industry as a factor. But the modernisation plan offers the industry a more sustainable future.

Oceans the world over are being overfished to meet soaring demand - particularly in Asia which, with the Pacific, constitutes the world's biggest fishery.

In Hong Kong, where we eat three times as much fish per head as the average person, the problem is magnified by the lack of regulation, conservation measures or even reliable surveys of fish stocks. Water pollution and coastal development add to it. Fishermen do not need licences to operate, and can use trawlers with drag nets that scoop up everything from the seabed to the surface - a practice common in Southeast Asia but now illegal in many places compelled to practise conservation.

The city now has about 4,000 fishing vessels, of which about 1,200 trawlers account for most of the catch. About 550 of them operate within Hong Kong waters. Even so, most of the seafood we consume comes from other sources. The local industry meets only 20 per cent of local demand.

However, fishing has played an important part in Hong Kong's cultural history. And the industry still employs about 12,000 Hongkongers and 8,000 mainlanders. It is important, therefore, that the government's final restructuring blueprint presents a clear vision of how our marine environment can be rejuvenated and what the future holds for the people in the industry. If there is to be a ban on trawlers, the committee supports a phased buy-out option at reasonable prices and retraining assistance. This could include the opportunity to learn aquaculture and financial assistance to set up new enterprises.

Serious attempts at conservation can no longer be put off. The committee has revived proposals for fishery protection zones in Tolo Harbour and Port Shelter off Sai Kung, with fishermen to be encouraged to switch to leisure fishing businesses. It also proposes redeeming all 430 fishing permits for marine parks and banning all commercial fishing in marine parks. These measures should mark the beginning of a strong management and conservation regime.

The committee's recommendations are a blueprint for restoring a marine environment that can sustain marine resources and a viable fishing industry. It is sobering to think it could take a decade or two to rehabilitate the ecosystem. There is no time to lose.