Proposed marine protection areas could be made smaller after pleas from fishermen

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 December, 2009, 12:00am

The size of proposed new marine protection areas around Hong Kong's geopark might be reduced after strong opposition from fishermen's groups against the banning of commercial fishing in marine parks.

Dr Kitty Poon Kit, acting secretary for the environment, hinted at the move at an environmental affairs panel meeting yesterday where she came under fire from fishermen, scientists and activists over the lack of a sustainable fisheries policy and ineffective measures to protect the marine environment.

The meeting was called to discuss a proposed ban on commercial fishing at four marine parks. The government wants to take back 380 fishing permits, granted when the parks were set up 10 years ago, at a total cost of HK$72 million.

A similar ban, which aims to revive fish stocks in local waters, would also be introduced to future marine parks in areas such as the Ninepin Islands, where fishermen say more than 2,000 fishing boats operate.

'We will consider cutting down the size as far as possible to minimise the impact on fishermen, but we have to strike a balance with marine conservation at the same time,' Poon told the groups. She did not say to what extent this would affect the size of the 1,100 hectare geopark and stressed that even under existing proposals, less than 4 per cent of Hong Kong's sea area would be affected.

Fishermen's groups oppose the ban, fearing that compensation, based on the value of fish harvests in the past seven years, would be inadequate. They are also sceptical of the government's pledge to help them switch to eco-tourism businesses.

Some also questioned whether their fishing was responsible for the decline of fish stocks and blamed the government's failure to combat illegal fishing from mainland boats.

'Have the officials ever talked about compensation when they reclaimed the sea for land that could be sold for tens of thousands dollars per square foot? Did they mention how pollution like mud dumping would affect the fishing stock?' said Keung Siu-fai, chief officer of a fishing industry group.

Professor Yvonne Sadovy, an expert in marine biology at the University of Hong Kong, was sympathetic towards the fishermen, pointing out the absence of fishery resource management by the government.

'Overfishing is not the fault of the fishermen, but a result of lack of management,' she said.

Dr Guillermo Moreno, head of the marine programme of WWF Hong Kong, said there needed to be a comprehensive plan to address the issue. 'It is shameful for the government to take this issue so lightly.'

Democrats legislator Kam Nai-wai had reservations about approving funding for compensation, saying the ban should be considered when the government puts forward its policy on a sustainable fisheries industry.

The policy is still being studied by the Food and Health Bureau, after a public consultation more than a year ago.