Hong Kong can and must help revive our depleting oceans

Victor Chu says despite the grave problem of depleting global fish stocks, rejuvenation is possible, starting with action to cut hefty subsidies and curb illegal fishing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 9:29am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 June, 2014, 9:29am

In Hong Kong the sea is all around us, and yet many of us remain unaware or unconcerned about the extent of the threats faced by the global ocean, and the responsibility we all have to address them. As one of the world's major fish trade and processing centres, and one of the top per capita consumers of seafood, Hong Kong's stake in and duty towards the ocean is particularly acute. Threats to the sea are direct threats to our way of life.

Yet we have allowed the health of the ocean to decline dramatically, and today it risks being pushed by human abuse and neglect to the point of collapse, with dire consequences. Every year we learn more about the immense, irreplaceable value of the ocean; how it helps generate the very air we breathe, is bearing the brunt of climate change, and provides millions of people with jobs, transport and, of course, food. But for how long? That is entirely up to us.

Today, the Global Ocean Commission, on which I serve as a commissioner, is publishing its findings. We focus on identifying the principal drivers of ocean decline, and recommending a carefully targeted rescue package that requires coordinated action by governments, business and citizens.

This is not just a rescue package for the ocean; it is a rescue package for the planet, and for humanity. There is no healthy, secure future without a healthy, productive ocean. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned us of the severity of the impact of climate change on the ocean, and that it is crucially important to maintain a resilient living ocean if we want to mitigate the impact of global climate change.

Marine areas beyond national jurisdiction - or the high seas - make up 64 per cent of the ocean, and it is on these areas, which are currently both overlooked and overexploited, that the commission is shining a spotlight.

Vast as they are, the high seas are falling through the cracks of global governance. Technological advances, for example in fishing gear, mean that widespread abuse of the freedom of the high seas guaranteed under international law is leading to a free-for-all. Weak governance, poor enforcement and a lack of policing mean that, today, the high seas resemble a failed state, where those with the means can squander resources that should benefit everyone.

High-seas fishing is a prime example of this looming tragedy of the commons. Three billion people are dependent on fish for at least 20 per cent of their animal protein, and the growth of the global consumer class combined are putting additional pressure on the ocean. It is therefore alarming that, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, almost 90 per cent of the world's fish stocks are either exploited, overexploited or have already collapsed.

This widespread and systemic overfishing puts future food security directly at risk, as the loss of reliable sources of fish would deprive 500 million people of their chief source of both protein and livelihoods. As fish stocks in coastal waters are depleted and small artisanal fishers lack the resources and equipment to travel further out to sea, this threat is already becoming a reality in many parts of Asia.

All of this is highly relevant for Hong Kong, as are the remedies proposed by the commission to address the two main drivers of overfishing - overcapacity fuelled by government subsidies, and illegal fishing.

High-seas fishing is primarily carried out by vessels from just 10 nations that rely heavily on subsidies, especially fuel subsidies, to remain profitable. More prosperous countries grant 70 per cent of these subsidies, with Japan, China, the European Union and the US the highest spenders.

These subsidies hugely disadvantage small-scale fishers, and consumers who end up paying twice for their fish: once at the market and once through their taxes. The commission is calling for the total phase-out of all high-seas fishing fuel subsidies within five years.

According to the World Bank and the FAO, illegal fishing on the high seas is estimated to cost the global economy up to US$23.5 billion annually and further strips the ocean of fish. Illegal fishing must end. The commission has outlined a detailed proposal to allow fish to be traced "from bait to plate", including ending the anomaly of large fishing vessels being exempt from mandatory identification numbers and tracking devices, and the banning of at-sea transshipment. Retailers must refuse to accept fish that cannot be traced to their point of origin. We need stronger compliance and enforcement of regulations so that ports and markets - including Hong Kong - are firmly closed to pirate fishers.

We all have a responsibility to promote ocean recovery, and we are optimistic about the potential for our rescue package to make a difference. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for more than 70 per cent of the world's fishing fleet and over half the global harvest. In Hong Kong, we are already transforming our market in shark fins and becoming more aware of the need to make the trade in live reef fish more sustainable. Change is possible. Ocean decline is not a fait accompli; we all have a choice.

Victor Chu is chairman of First Eastern Investment Group and a member of the Global Ocean Commission