Boom industry with a catch

Hongkongers have more of a stake than most in efforts to restore global fish stocks and make the US$3 trillion 'blue economy' more sustainable

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 1:25am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 4:56am

Hong Kong's appetite for seafood is among the strongest in the world, which means people here are contributing more than many to the alarming depletion of the world's fish stocks.

If the World Bank is right that our oceans contribute US$3 trillion in goods and services every year to global economic activity, and the WWF is correct in its assessment that half of the seafood eaten comes from unsustainable sources, this is a troubling situation for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's average annual consumption of 71.6 kilograms of seafood per person ranks us alongside Japan as the biggest consumers in Asia and behind only Chile worldwide.

So it is timely that the one-year-old Global Ocean Commission should be meeting here until Sunday to finalise recommendations aimed at restoring the ocean to ecological health and sustainable productivity.

The timing was even cuter than the commission probably realised: today is the celebration of the Hung Shing Festival in Hong Kong's 800-year-old Ho Sheung Heung village near Sheung Shui. The festival marks the birthday of the Tang dynasty official famous for forecasting the weather for Hong Kong fishermen.

The commission's focus is doubtless on the more practical matter of how to improve the governance of oceans that it has declared to be a "co-ordinated catastrophe", with a baffling tangle of overlapping authorities. Then again, the "blue economy" has plenty of overlapping challenges - not just overfishing, but also seabed mining, shipping, coastal tourism and marine pollution, in particular plastics waste.

I could reasonably dedicate myself to the potential harm from seabed mining or marine waste, or coastal shipping, but since over-fishing does more harm to our oceans than all the other activities put together, it is perhaps right to focus first and foremost on fish.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations says that half the world's fish stocks are being fished to maximum sustainable levels and a further third are being over-exploited. Fisheries mismanagement costs us an estimated US$50 billion a year.

Without improved management, and some pretty radical reorganisation, this challenge is going to become progressively more severe.

As the world's population edges ever closer to 9 billion, and rising incomes and refrigeration make is easier for people to eat seafood, so demand pressure for fish is headed fast in one direction. Seafood today accounts for around 20 per cent of the protein we consume, and this is set to rise.

But here's the rub: annual marine fish catches have been stuck at around 80 million tonnes for the past three decades. Global consumption has since risen to more than 130 million tonnes a year, but this extra catch has all come from aquaculture - and the vast majority of this is accounted for by China.

Experts predict demand at 180 million tonnes by 2020, which will mean relentless pressure to haul more fish from the sea, and most of the new supply coming from aquaculture production.

So when the Global Ocean Commission briefs the media on its key policy recommendations on Sunday, you can be sure that improved management of the world's marine fish resources will be high on the agenda.

So too will harsher action against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, against better mapping of fish stocks, and elimination of harmful subsidies amounting to around US$35 billion a year to fishers (we cannot say fishermen, as a significant number of fishers nowadays are women).

The urgency of the challenge is disproportionately huge for our Apec region. Our member economies account for 70 per cent of fish production worldwide, and hundreds of millions of jobs.

On average, fisheries account for almost one fifth of our Apec economies' agricultural GDP, and in economies like Chile and Vietnam they account for around 5 per cent of total GDP.

So the conclusions of the Global Ocean Commission will have particular relevance when Apec officials meet next Wednesday in Xiamen to plan Apec's own strategy on marine sustainable development, with recommendations to go to a key Oceans Ministerial meeting back in Xiamen in August.

If we look forward beyond China as Apec host this year to future hosts, we can predict with some confidence that blue economy issues are going to stay centre stage to at least 2018: the host next year is the Philippines, to be followed by Peru, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea.

Many would say that "mainstreaming" the blue economy is long overdue.

I must confess rather embarrassedly that until a couple of months ago, I had never heard of the Global Ocean Commission.

But if its commissioners can contribute to the co-ordination and alignment of oceans-related activity globally, and in particular here in the Pacific, we Hong Kong fish-eaters will have much to thank them for.

David Dodwell is the executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group