Marine legacy for Tsang?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 April, 2010, 12:00am

The single most critical conservation issue in Hong Kong today is the devastated condition of our marine environment. Hong Kong has its own Dead Sea but, in our case, it is entirely man made.

This situation has come to pass principally because of overfishing, and the blame can be laid squarely at the door of Hong Kong's most ineffectual government department, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). It is responsible for an industry that no longer exists (agriculture), another that it has done its best to destroy (fisheries) and a cause which it does not take very seriously (conservation).

Hong Kong had a thriving inshore fishery until the 1960s. The AFCD then lost sight of a fundamental truth, one which a citizen with any common sense could appreciate: the sustainability of an extractive industry like fishing depends on the health of fish stocks. Instead of limiting the fishing effort to the regenerative capacity of our stocks, the AFCD subsidised an immense increase in the fish-catching ability of our fishermen through upgrading of boats, gear and technology, and fuel subsidies. The result was that our inshore stocks were fished out in very short order.

The AFCD's Fisheries Branch, whose role is 'to promote the development of the fisheries industry and sustainable use of fisheries resources', oversaw the plunder of local fish stocks and the near collapse of one of our most productive industries. It is one of the most scandalous and egregious failures of our administration.

Twelve years have passed since a 1998 AFCD-commissioned consultant's report concluded that Hong Kong's fish stocks were in a 'critical state' and recommended 'urgent action to rescue fish stocks'. Today, we are still waiting for effective policy, still waiting for urgent action. Fishing is a free-for-all - there are no restrictions on who can fish or how much can be caught. There is no licensing system for commercial fishermen. The director of the AFCD is, at the same time, the director of the Fish Marketing Board - the same person responsible for exploitation and marketing of marine resources is also responsible for preservation of those resources. Gamekeeper by day, poacher by night!

There are many problems in Hong Kong which need to be dealt with, and examples of inertia abound. Some of these problems are not adequately appreciated by the government. Others are well understood, but intractable. Our fisheries crisis fits neither of these categories; it is well understood by the government, and the solutions are equally obvious.

And so I come to my proposal for Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen: here is a real opportunity for you to leave something for posterity, something that will forever be associated with your name.

Hong Kong's country parks programme was initiated by the then-governor Murray Maclehose, in 1972. Today, our country parks are universally recognised as one of the glories of Hong Kong. The fact that a metropolis of some 7 million people has set aside more than 40 per cent of its land area for wilderness is unique and unprecedented.

Imagine, Mr Tsang, if you were to set aside 40 per cent of our waters as a marine sanctuary, off limits to fishing but open to divers and snorkellers from Hong Kong and further afield to enjoy its abundant marine life.

Too ambitious? In 2005, the then-secretary for planning, environment and lands formed a high-level working group 'to formulate the environmental policy of Hong Kong for the next century'. This group, which was chaired by the distinguished professor, K. C. Lam, and comprised 'concerned citizens, representatives from environmental groups, professionals and academics', recommended major strategic proposals. Among them was to 'Espouse a vision of turning the whole HK waters into a 'marine park' for protecting spawning and juvenile fish which would eventually disperse to help sustain offshore fisheries, and to establish a comprehensive ban on all commercial fishing activities in HK waters (Top Priority)'. [My emphasis].

Compared to placing more than 40 per cent of Hong Kong's most valuable commodity - land - off limits for development, a policy of placing 40 per cent of our waters off limits to fishing is surely something simpler. It would require the government to say to our few remaining inshore fishermen: 'Sorry chaps, time's up. We are entrusted to look after the public good, and we need to take the seas back under our care. Take this very generous financial compensation to leave the fishing industry, and please consider joining the new Donald Tsang Marine Sanctuary Service as guides or wardens.'

The government has had 12 years to gather the courage to say this. It's time it took the plunge. In this International Year of Biodiversity, Hong Kong could make a statement that would ripple around the world, and take a bold step towards better stewardship of our planet.

Markus Shaw is a businessman and environmentalist