Our sea life will die without legal protection

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 May, 2010, 12:00am

Hong Kong's waters have been overfished to the point that our fleet is now mostly idle, its catch meeting just one-tenth of demand. Some species of fish are on the brink of extinction; others disappeared long ago. With the reported number caught verging on twice the sustainable level, the solution seems straightforward: less fishing. As simple as this may appear, it is not so easy when the government pays so little attention to the marine environment.

Fisheries protection laws have long been in place, but a lack of enforcement means they are of little consequence. Fishermen do not have to be licensed and their catches are not precisely known. They are given fuel subsidies and tax exemptions. Fishing is allowed within marine parks by people with indigenous status. Our only no-catch preservation area, off Cape D'Aguilar, comprises less than 1 per cent of Hong Kong waters. It is little wonder that the report released last week by the government's committee on sustainable fisheries paints a bleak picture of the industry's future.

The 4,000-strong fleet in 2008 caught 37,700 tonnes of fish from local waters, even though the maximum sustainable yield was around 20,500 tonnes. But overfishing is not the only reason for a paucity of fish. Water pollution has killed off many and breeding grounds have been lost to development, creating a situation that is in stark contrast to just a few decades ago, when our waters teemed with a rich diversity of sea life. Where once there were croakers, giant grouper, hammerhead sharks and manta rays, now there are mostly only fish a few centimetres long, squid and shrimp.

Proposals announced by the committee go some way to tackling the challenges. It makes a series of recommendations to decrease the size of the fleet, compensate fishermen and set up no-take zones. Lawmakers are scheduled to begin looking at the ideas this week. As laudable as the approach is, it neglects to deal with the fact that our fisheries are in crisis and urgent, far-reaching, action is needed.

Instead, an air of lethargy exists. The committee began work in 2006 and its report was supposed to have been issued two years ago. This is despite our waters having been denuded of most large fish. The committee hopes its scheme can be introduced in three years pending the outcome of negotiations - a time frame clearly not reflective of the crisis. Committee members say the matter needs greater scrutiny. They want to look at how other parts of the world have dealt with overfishing. Hong Kong is, of course, not the only place affected: it is merely a microcosm of what is a global challenge. Large fish species are threatened everywhere. But because of Hong Kong's lack of regulation, there are few places where species are disappearing more rapidly. Action, not more study, is needed.

Fish populations will only be able to regenerate with protected breeding grounds and strictly enforced rules. Such regulations exist for our land environment - 30 per cent of the area is country parks and laws protect wildlife and plants. Few such measures exist for our surrounding waters, despite their importance to our economy, history, development and future. This oversight has to be corrected.

The rules on land have to be adapted to the sea. Fishermen have to be licensed and their numbers reduced. Catches must be set at sustainable levels and then monitored. A substantial area of the marine environment - at least 30 per cent is not unreasonable - has to be out of bounds to fishing boats so that sea life can thrive. Ensuring that the laws are strong and properly followed is the only way that our seas can again live.