Turning trawlers into marine tour boats requires extensive modifications

Boats will need large modifications under a plan for fishermen to take groups on marine trips

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 4:17am

As fishermen grapple with the trawling ban, one idea being considered is altering the boats so they can accommodate small tour groups seeking a close-up view of how seafood makes it onto our tables every day.

Fishermen could also take passengers to outlying islands for eco-tours.

A pilot scheme on selected trawlers is under way, with students and the elderly joining the tour, and many of the responses have been encouraging. Mixed use is seen as a way out for fishermen who are not properly equipped for, or familiar with, working in mainland or open waters.

But fishermen considering making the switch said there were legal obstacles.

"Many people were curious about life on a fishing boat. But marine officials say there is no policy for a single vessel having two [fishing and passenger] licences," fisherman Keung Pak-ho said.

The Marine Department has separate classifications for fishing, passenger and leisure vessels. Using a fishing boat for an unrelated purpose such as carrying a passenger can be punishable by a fine.

Officials told the owners they had to modify their boats to meet legal requirements, but the modifications would be expensive and change the vessel so much it would no longer resemble a fishing boat.

Requirements include ensuring the doors are at a specified height, enough seats are provided, and some heavy equipment is removed.

"Fisheries officials have been very helpful and supportive, but the marine officials are the most difficult ones to deal with," Keung said.

A marine conservation officer with the WWF-Hong Kong, Samantha Lee Mei-wah, said an alternative arrangement could resolve the differences.

"The tourists could sit on a passenger boat and observe from a distance how a fishing boat operates. There could also be a fisherman on board to explain to the tourists," she said.

Lee, who has taken part in the pilot scheme, said a lack of a powerful centralised authority made it difficult to co-ordinate the efforts of the groups involved.

A central authority could help fishermen adapt to the change.

Dr So Ping-man, an assistant director at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, said it would act as a bridge for communication with the Marine Department on the proposals. "Passenger safety remains the top priority but we will also look into what extent of vessel modification fishermen would find acceptable," he said.

The Marine Department made no comment.

A spokesman for the Food and Health Bureau, which is in charge of the trawling ban, said the bureau would consider collaborating with non-government organisations and fishermen's groups to convert some vessels for a pilot recreational fishery programme.

"The Marine Department will provide technical advice in exploring the possibility of such conversion," he said, without elaborating.