Hong Kong's love affair with seafood destined to end badly

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong people sure love their seafood.

Tuna and salmon and yellowtail are staples in the sushi lunches enjoyed each day by thousands of office workers. Shark's fin and abalone are the essential centrepieces at the city's formal business banquets. And steamed garoupa or spicy crab are firm favourites at any family outing to the waterfront seafood restaurants of Lamma island or Sai Kung town.

In fact, whatever the occasion, it's a safe bet that Hongkongers mark it by eating fish and seafood in some form or other.

And the city's appetite continues to grow. As the first chart shows, according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, the amount of fish and seafood eaten by the average Hong Kong resident has more than doubled over recent decades to an astonishing 69kg per year.

In other words, Hongkongers pretty much eat their own weight in seafood every year.

To put that level of consumption into perspective, it's more than double the amount eaten by either the Taiwanese or the mainland Chinese, and 20 per cent more than even the fish-loving Japanese get through (see the second chart).

In fact, the only people who consume more seafood per head than the residents of Hong Kong are the inhabitants of remote sea-girt rocks like the Faroe Islands, St Helena and Niue, where there is precious little else but fish to eat.

Unfortunately, there's a problem with our fixation on fish: there just aren't enough of them out there to satisfy our appetite.

According to the FAO, the growth in demand for fish has been so great that more than 80 per cent of the world's fisheries are now classified as either 'fully exploited' or 'over-exploited'. Projections based on FAO data show that at the rate at which fish stocks are currently being depleted, the world's commercial fisheries will be entirely exhausted by the middle of this century.

That's worrying, because according to a report published last week by Singapore-based Responsible Research, there's very little sign that the rate of depletion is going to slow any time soon.

To compile the report, author Jenny Blinch combed through the public disclosures of 40 big seafood companies listed on Asian stock exchanges, including the Singapore subsidiary of Hong Kong seafood processing giant Pacific Andes International Holdings.

Blinch found that the majority of the companies - 24 out of the 40 - make no mention at all on their websites or in their annual reports of any concern whether their fishing practices are sustainable.

In fact most of the companies seem blithely unconcerned. More than half - 22 out of the 40 - say their main products include tuna species red-listed by the United Nations-backed International Union for Conservation of Nature as threatened with extinction.

All the fishing companies in the sample employ methods like trawling or purse-seining, described as 'destructive and indiscriminate'. And almost half plan to expand their fishing fleets. None mention plans to introduce 'sustainable' techniques, like pole and line fishing.

According to Blinch, only one of the 40 companies - Thai Union Frozen Products - has a clear, publicly disclosed sustainability policy for its seafood business. And only Pacific Andes offers to supply fish certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, the most widely-recognised international certification body, as coming from sustainable sources. That's a lamentable performance. And it's especially troubling when you consider that Asian companies are responsible for 90 per cent of the doubling in the global fishing catch between 1977 and 2007, when it hit a staggering 140 million tonnes.

Part of the problem is that fishing companies have little incentive to ensure that the stocks they are exploiting can be sustained. As Blinch points out, the companies themselves can claim no ownership of the resources they exploit. That means they have no stake in making sure they are not exhausted.

That's a failure of international regulation. If governments could agree a scheme under which fishing companies were compelled to buy long-term leases on the fishing stocks they exploit, they would have a powerful incentive to preserve the value of their assets.

But such a groundbreaking international agreement looks impossible. And it seems that consumers just don't care enough to insist on tougher standards.

That's a shame. It means that although Hongkongers may be able to take their children out for seafood today, their grandchildren will never know the same pleasure.