The mistreated seas around Hong Kong are showing the first signs of recovery since a trawling ban was imposed, marine observers say.
Divers and conservationists say the seven-month-old ban is helping sea life return to overfished local waters. They have noticed an increase in smaller pelagic fish and squid inside the 50-square-kilometre exclusion zone.
Samantha Lee Mei-wah, WWF Hong Kong's marine expert, said that based on her own dives and feedback from fishermen, there is increased activity in the sea.
"This is the start of real success and will bring long-term benefits to society and the fishing industry," Lee said.
"At the end of the day, fishermen want fish. If we protect the fish, then fishermen have the chance of a much better catch."
On December 31, the government imposed the trawling ban and pushed through measures to conserve and revive an over-exploited area of sea.
But Lee wants the government to be bolder in its efforts to regulate the seas by limiting the catch brought ashore by local fishermen - a move likely to further batter the industry.
A report called "Rebuilding Hong Kong's Marine Fishery" published by the University of British Columbia in 2007 estimated that fish stocks would recover by 20 per cent within five years of a wholesale trawling ban coming into force.
It said the first signs that a ban was working would be greater numbers of squid and smaller fish.
"Life is coming back to the seabed," said diver Kau Shuen. "It's a big difference. The same species of fish we are seeing are bigger."
Kau said her colleagues from water sports company Diving Adventure were bringing significantly less rubbish from the seabed back to shore and consequently finding less damage to reefs.
But University of Hong Kong biological sciences professor Yvonne Sadovy poured cold water on the claims, saying it was too early to tell what effects the ban had had without an in-depth study. She also dismissed the notion that a rare Pacific blue marlin weighing 226kg recently caught 120 kilometres from Hong Kong was a sign the ban was producing a major recovery in marine life, describing it as a one-off.
A spokeswoman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said: "Species with commercial value will return to local waters. Restoration of the habitats of marine animals will in turn promote the diversity of marine life and safeguard the ecological integrity of our marine environment."
But opportunistic fishermen have been trying their luck trawling inside the prohibited area. The department has successfully prosecuted four cases of illegal trawling and three more are being investigated.