Harbour's hidden reel appeal lures the young

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2012, 12:00am


When twentysomething angler Andy Lee was snapped reeling in a big one off Central last month, he made a splash in two ways.

Jaws dropped not only at the size of the one-metre Japanese sea bass hanging from his rod, but also at the youth of the seasoned fisherman regularly dropping a line into the city's waters. But big fish and young anglers are more common in Hong Kong than Victoria Harbour's murky waters and the pastime's grizzled reputation would suggest.

Thomas Chu and Raymond Chan are just two of the young enthusiasts drawn to the water's edge on a Friday night. As fog descends on the harbourfront about 11.30pm, they drop their lines into the inky blackness to test for signs of life.

They're usually only at the Central ferry pier once or twice a month, but news of last month's mega-catch has lured them out again. 'I've caught a fish that was almost one metre long out here before as well,' Chu said, as a ferry bobbed at a pier.

The 20-year-old university student digs out a point-and-shoot camera from his black bag and flicks through frames of sea bass, bream, speckled flatfish all lined up next to a tape measure. Most are about 20cm to 30cm, but there is the occasional one-metre whopper.

Chu and his friends spend hours whiling away the night together and they're among the growing ranks of recreational fishermen found anywhere there's water.

They also hook into the online world, posting trophy photos online complete with detailed measurements and locations, making contact with other enthusiasts and planning trips through forums such as fishinghk.com, which boasts more than two million unique visitors from Hong Kong in the five years it's been up and running.

For 33-year-old Estelle Davies, who took the snap of Lee and sent it into the South China Morning Post, it was a surprise that such life was thriving below the surface. 'I had no idea there were fish that big in there,' Davies said.

She came across Lee after a night on the town and like many others walking by the pier thought the harbour too polluted to hold much life.

'There's no way that fish was caught here, no way,' said a drunken Englishman at Beer Bay, a small bar near where the fish was hauled up.

But bartender Parine Ho was less surprised.

'I used to catch fish like that. Not every day, but sometimes. This is the season for them,' Ho said.

The Japanese sea bass is a migratory species that moves down to Hong Kong during winter and is less common than the related Chinese sea bass.

'Usually, we don't get as many of the Japanese ones,' Holly Lam Hoi-yee from angling outfitter Triton Fishing Equipment said. 'They prefer fast-moving water.'

Used to the bigger barracudas, skipjack tuna and amberjack game fish that congregate near Lantau, Sai Kung and areas a little further out, Lam doesn't seem surprised by Lee's haul.

It's also not too much of a surprise to Andy Cornish, conservation director for WWF Hong Kong. 'They're a reef species that like to feed on the rabbitfish and mullet that like to feed on the sewage outflows,'' he said. 'Even when the harbour was more polluted, there were reasonable sizes being caught.'

With no trawling or commercial fishing in the harbour, the waterway's ecosystem is in better shape than most people think, Cornish says. 'This is like a window to what fishing in Hong Kong could be in the future with the trawling ban. People have such low expectations of fishing in Hong Kong, just think they'll catch things like gobies, but this is what it should be like,' he said.

But still, the harbour's water quality is something that worries the younger fishermen. Chan and Chu say they usually throw back anything caught in the harbour. 'We use the net and throw them back in. If we caught something in Sai Kung, then we might take it home,' Chu said.

But despite its habit of going after smaller fish that like to feed on sewage, Cornish says this sea bass would probably be safe to eat as they would not normally make their homes in the harbour. 'If it lived in a typhoon shelter it would be horribly toxic, but this is a bit indirect,' he said. 'But nobody's looked into these species in particular so it's hard to say.'


That's the number of marine fish species found in Hong Kong waters, about a third of the total species found in the South China Sea