Police have been asked to investigate suspected forgery involving fishermen making false compensation claims under a government scheme to ban trawling.
The ban, intended to save remaining fish stocks in Hong Kong waters, comes into effect on Tuesday.
Officials discovered the suspicious claims as they scrutinised 1,117 applications under a HK$1.7 billion fund to compensate trawler operators that mainly fish in Hong Kong waters.
Dr So Ping-man, an assistant director at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, said that while there were just a few problematic applications, they involved serious criminal offences.
"We have referred some cases to the police for what we believe are deliberate false claims."
He said the cases were not confined to any particular fishing port in Hong Kong and there was no evidence yet to show it was part of any organised scheme.
"We reminded the fishermen carefully when they took their oaths with us, declaring that information provided would be true and accurate. They were also told it could be a criminal offence to lie about their application."
The investigation comes as some fishermen, who have been denied the money, threaten to stage protests at sea against what they claim is unfair scrutiny.
Under the compensation scheme, most of the money will be shared among eligible fishermen. That means the fewer the number eligible, the more each will receive. The department has already recommended that owners of 260 trawlers - fewer than the 400 or so expected - receive allowances ranging from tens of thousands of dollars up to HK$6 million each.
These trawler operators will be notified early next year about a buyout scheme in which they will also receive compensation for surrendering their boats.
So said 900 trawlers did not qualify for the allowance because they mostly fished in mainland waters. Instead of an allowance calculated on annual catches, they would only be allowed a lump sum of HK$150,000 under the local ban.
Leung To-kun, a spokesman for a group of trawler operators based in Aberdeen, questioned the department's criteria for awarding the allowance. "The process is unfair. Officials say they don't see us fishing in local waters, but it doesn't mean we are not," he said.
So said each application had been carefully assessed, making reference to a fishing port survey carried out in recent years. Records such as local fuel and ice purchases, and the number of times fish were unloaded at ports managed by the department, also provided convincing evidence, So said. Fisheries officials would inspect each trawler to make sure that they were in active use and matched descriptions supplied by the applicants.
So said fishermen could file appeals, within 30 days of notification of their application results. An appointed body with non- official members would review decisions.
Last year WWF Hong Kong estimated that local fishery resources would rise by up to 45 per cent in the first five years of a trawling ban.