Fishermen, green groups sceptical about trawling ban

Doubts remain over compensation amid fears no-go area will aggravate overfishing of mainland waters - a claim officials reject

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 9:55am

Days before a ban on trawling in local waters turns a new page in Hong Kong's marine conservation efforts, environmentalists and fishermen remain sceptical about the ban and its compensation arrangements.

Fifty square kilometres of sea will be protected from the damaging fishing practice when the ban takes effect on Tuesday, 14 years after it was first proposed.

But environmentalists say it will just put more pressure on overfished mainland waters with one saying it is "embarrassing" to see Hong Kong cleaning up its own mess while allowing it to spill across the sea border.

Fishermen, meanwhile, have doubts about the real benefits of a HK$1.7 billion compensation scheme under which the government will buy back their boats, pay them for their business losses or help them buy new vessels for open-water fishing.

From Tuesday, operators of the city's 1,200-strong trawling fleet will risk criminal charges if they fish in Hong Kong waters, although they are still allowed to fish in mainland waters.

While the ban might lead to a temporary rise in fish prices, officials are hopeful it will eventually bring about a rejuvenation of marine ecology and an increase in fisheries resources of up to 50 per cent in 20 years.

Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department assistant director Dr So Ping-man rejected criticism that the ban would aggravate overfishing in mainland waters.

He said the boats would be spread out over a wide area in the South China Sea, where many Hong Kong trawlers already operate.

"It is like sewage disposal. If it is discharged into a large area with sufficient flow, it can be easily diluted and cause little impact," he said, noting that the mainland had also banned inshore trawling and capped the total horsepower of its fishing fleet.

But WWF Hong Kong marine conservation officer Samantha Lee Mei-wah said it was "embarrassing" for the city to keep trawlers out of its waters while allowing them to carry on in mainland waters.

"It sounds like we want to clean up our mess locally but we don't stop the mess from going to the mainland," she said.

University of Hong Kong biological sciences professor Yvonne Sadovy said it was not desirable to increase fishing activity in mainland waters over the current overfished levels.

"It would make a lot of sense for the mainland to introduce a similar ban to that of Hong Kong for maximum effectiveness," she said.

Surrendered vessels may be temporarily kept in a typhoon shelter in Hei Ling Chau. Some might be converted to passenger boats and resold while some might be dismantled and have all toxic materials on board removed before being submerged as artificial reefs.

The buyout option applies only to about 260 trawlers fishing in local waters, while the other 900 trawlers, which work mostly in mainland waters, will be given a lump sum of HK$150,000 for deprivation of their local trawling rights.

Some fishermen made redundant by the ban say keeping the boats instead of surrendering them would give them leeway in case they failed to switch trades and still wanted to trawl outside Hong Kong.

"It all depends on how much we are compensated. If we are not well paid, we might be forced to take the risk to go further [out to sea]," veteran fisherman Keung Pak-ho said.

At least seven fishermen have applied for loans from the government to build bigger trawlers so that they can venture into mainland waters or further. Between 20 and 30 others are in talks with officials about the loans, which carry an annual interest rate of 1 per cent.

According to mainland reports, there are more than 14,000 fishing vessels, mostly trawlers, in Guangdong. A 2008 study by the South China Sea Fisheries Research Institute found that catch rates dropped by as much as 74 per cent between the 1960s and 1990s in the northern South China Sea.

Despite her concerns about mainland waters, Sadovy said effective protection of "just part of the ecosystem" was "definitely a positive step towards recovery of our benthic habitat [sea bottom] and should also help some fish species begin their recovery".

So said the ban would be beneficial to the whole region because Hong Kong's sheltered waters were a good fish nursery and breeding ground.

"If all football players just play around the penalty kick point, the grasses will be trampled to death very soon," he said.

The trawling ban, floated 14 years after a report on Hong Kong's fisheries showed that 17 species were overfished, with five labelled as "fully exploited", resurfaced after a 2006 report said the trawlers were harvesting at least 30 per cent more than the sea could produce.