Spread the net wide to help trawler workers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am

The trawling ban announced in the chief executive's policy address last year will be Hong Kong's most powerful conservation measure of the past decade. In one fell swoop, the administration will eliminate the most intensive and destructive form of legal fishing, finally allowing fish stocks to rebuild, seabed communities to flourish again and kick-start a transformation to sustainable fisheries management.

However, the ban is not a done deal, as legislative amendments and new financing are needed, and the government will turn to the Legislative Council with details of the package next month. Legislators, who in 2005 rebuffed a government attempt to reform fisheries, are rightly concerned about the future of the people whose livelihood will be affected.

Over 400 trawlers are based in Hong Kong. The amount of damage they have wreaked on local marine habitats and fish stocks, in the absence of any controls to limit their catches, is incalculable. Trawling with large, weighted nets across the seabed is industrial fishing at its most effective and most destructive, akin to catching quail in a forest with a bulldozer driven by a blind man.

A woeful lack of management has led to local waters becoming chronically overfished and biodiversity badly affected. Sharks, croakers, groupers, snappers and indeed most larger fish have been decimated, and lush communities of soft corals, sea fans and sponges trashed beyond recognition.

Indeed, Hong Kong waters could be the global poster-child for classic overfishing. Trawl nets that once bulged with fish and shrimp now surface limp with a depressing array of rubble, rubbish, dead, dying or inedible invertebrates, and the odd marketable crab, shrimp and fish. The average size of fish caught in trawl nets today is just 5 grams!

The good news is, science tells us that most marine life can recover if trawling is banned. A smaller but well-managed fishery would also provide a more secure future for those still fishing, and unlock new jobs in cultural and marine tourism as our once impressive marine life recovers. Research commissioned by WWF indicates that HK$1.3 billion to HK$2.6 billion of economic benefits can be generated over the next 25 years if Hong Kong invests in sustainable fishery management practices.

The need for decisive action has been accentuated by the onset of climate change. Hong Kong's devastated marine ecosystem is at real risk of being crippled further if immediate action is not taken to improve its health ahead of sea level rise, increased water temperatures and other climate impact.

The path forward is clear. However, in the event of a ban, alternative livelihoods, appropriate training and financial compensation for the ageing fishing community must be adequately addressed. This challenge must not be underestimated, as many of the people affected are in their 50s and 60s and have only ever known fishing. Some are illiterate. Besides, mariculture, which has traditionally been the major source of alternative employment, is itself struggling due to antiquated practices.

The challenges are such that a reliance on government alone to create training and new job opportunities for the affected fishing communities could backfire on the marine conservation cause.

Society has a vested interest in the trawl ban succeeding and must step up to help the affected communities move on to a new life. Boat clubs and marinas, recreational fishing, tour and dive operators are all key stakeholders who could consider employing these people. Legislators themselves can also play a role in finding solutions.

A failure to get fisheries reforms through Legco in the coming months would be nothing short of an environmental and social disaster.

Dr Andy Cornish is director of conservation at WWF-Hong Kong