Hong Kong can help curb illegal fishing on the high seas

Wilson Lau calls on Hong Kong to join an international effort to curb illegal fishing on the high seas, to help protect fast-declining fish stocks

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 March, 2014, 5:46pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 2:06am

The vast oceans belong to everyone, and we all have a right to consider how they should be used. This is the premise behind the work of the Global Ocean Commission, a relatively new collective of influential political figures from different continents who are bringing attention to the high seas - the 64 per cent of the world's oceans that are not protected by national laws.

While a country's coastlines are generally well policed, activities on the high seas can go undetected. However, with growing public and private interests seeking to further exploit marine resources and explore the potential for deep-sea mining, there is a growing urgency for what David Miliband, Britain's former foreign secretary and co-chair of the commission, calls an "ocean rescue package".

Last week, in Hong Kong, the commission met local stakeholders to share how it hopes to address the deficiencies in governance of the high seas.

Take illegal fishing, which could include vessels that fish without a permit or beyond allowable levels, and those that fudge declarations about what they are carrying . Such "illegal, unregulated and unreported" fishing practices on the high seas was estimated in a 2006 study to be worth US$1.25 billion a year.

Keeping a register of all ocean-going fishing vessels using unique identification numbers and installing transponders on board are relatively simple steps that could help keep track of the boats and allow some control over illegal fishing. But this requires global co-operation. For that to happen, awareness of illegal fishing and its impact on an already overfished ocean needs to be raised, a daunting task that the commission is primed to undertake.

Individual ports could do a lot more in blocking these vessels from docking. Hong Kong has one of the busiest ports in the world and is renowned for its tariff-free and efficient operations, but there are significant gaps in local regulations that stop port authorities having greater control over the smuggling of illegally sourced fish.

One of the biggest loopholes is the administrative uncertainty that comes with Hong Kong's status as a special administrative region, which sometimes prevents it from taking part in international and regional agreements.

For example, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources protects and regulates fishing activities in the high seas of the Southern Ocean, but Hong Kong has been excluded from the convention even though China is a contracting party. This has meant that the illegal trade in Antarctic marine life, such as the Chilean sea bass, can be channelled into Hong Kong ports without reproach.

A Legislative Council panel is now considering a proposal to extend the convention to Hong Kong, but there are other international measures that would similarly empower our port authorities to control, turn away or detain vessels suspected of illegal fishing.

Much needs to be done both locally and internationally to arrest the drastic decline in global fishing stocks, and governments must enact the right regulations and enforcement measures to better protect our oceans.

Wilson Lau is research and project officer at Civic Exchange