Clueless on how to regain underwater paradise lost

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 May, 2009, 12:00am

In my annual update on our ongoing fisheries crisis, I am depressed again to report a lack of concrete progress. It is now 11 years since a government report of 1998 described Hong Kong fisheries as being in a state of crisis, and recommended urgent action.

The Committee for Sustainable Fisheries, set up in 2006, finally issued a draft report at the end of last year. Surprisingly, its proposals reflected the recommendations of the WWF conservation body: a licensing regime for fishing; and, the creation of no-take marine reserves and the eventual banning in all Hong Kong waters of bottom trawling - the most destructive of all fishing methods. The final report is still awaited.

In his last policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen called for the banning of commercial fishing in our marine parks. This announcement was greeted with enthusiasm by green groups as a small but significant step in the right direction - after all, what could be less controversial than the banning of fishing in a marine park?

The intensive fishing that currently takes place within our marine parks makes us a laughing stock of the international conservation community. And since marine parks account for a mere 2 per cent of Hong Kong waters, the livelihood implications of a fishing ban are minimal.

After much patient consultation and discussion by the Country and Marine Parks Board and the Marine Parks Committee, on both of which fishermen are well represented, the matter was taken to the Legislative Council panel on environmental affairs last January. The proposal was not received with sympathy by most legislators on the panel, who (with a couple of exceptions) were poorly informed of the wider issues involved.

Legislators should be aware that the critically degraded state of our fisheries and marine environment is the most important conservation issue in Hong Kong today. Even fishermen recognise that the current situation, in which the average size of fish caught in Hong Kong is less than 10 grams, is neither sustainable nor acceptable. Something must be done. If even something as simple as banning fishing in our marine parks cannot achieve the support of our legislators, then there is very little hope of substantive progress.

The fishing community is highly fragmented, with no clear leadership. Shouting matches are common; good sense is rare. In his many years as the legislator representing the Agriculture and Fisheries functional constituency, Wong Yung-kan has failed to come up with a single concrete measure to place his dying industry on a sustainable path. His strategy for dealing with all proposals for more responsible fisheries management is simple: 'No'. Consultation therefore represents something of a challenge for the government. There are deals to be done, but who do you negotiate with?

The only reef in Hong Kong with healthy fish life is in the aquarium at Ocean Park. Despite the fact that we have more species of coral in Hong Kong than in the Caribbean, our natural undersea world has been decimated. We have the lowest number of fish per square metre of reef in the world. Hong Kong waters are one of the most intensively trawled in the world: every day, the delicate marine life of our seabed is scoured by the heavy nets of trawlers.

None of this has to be. Hong Kong waters are potentially the most fertile in the South China Sea. A report by the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia in 2007 showed that an investment by government in effective fisheries management and in alternative livelihoods for fishermen yielded sizeable economic benefits.

For Hong Kong to regain its lost underwater wonderland, government, fishermen and legislators must work together to make it happen. As it is, the health of our entire marine ecosystem is being held hostage to the interests of a declining industry with fewer and fewer participants, paralysed by a lack of leadership.

Markus Shaw is a businessman and environmentalist