The Lamma ferry tragedy should be an occasion not just for looking at maritime safety but for planning the better use of Hong Kong's waters for commercial and recreational purposes. Maximising their safe use is an issue that goes beyond the remit of the Marine Department, which has acquitted itself well over the years and can claim credit for the relatively low accident rate seen until now.
These are issues that involve the lands, transport, environment and agriculture and fisheries departments, or their supervising bureaus, the Marine Police and others. The apparent lack of overall planning is a consequence of the division of authority between these departments, each in a silo responding to its own problems.
I sail Hong Kong waters almost every week - and was on a sailing boat close to Lamma at the time of the tragedy. That accident may well prove one of those human errors against which no rules or systems can prevail. However, what is evident, particularly from sailing off Sai Kung this past summer, is the increase in the number of craft which take no notice of speed limits or even the basic rules of seamanship.
Owners of fast and fancy-looking vessels seem as immune from prosecution as the Bentley and Lexus owners whose illegal parking in Central is tolerated. Jet-skiers, who, unlike those in charge of slower craft, are not required to have licences, zoom around treating the waters as a fairground. Ditto some operators of speedboats towing water skiers. In recent years, there have been several deaths and injuries caused by small high-speed craft not seeing swimmers and divers.
Given that Hong Kong's large and beautiful coastline offers unique recreational opportunities for locals and visitors alike, the number of pleasure craft of all descriptions is sure to increase. The one category sure to diminish is commercial fishing vessels. This will free up typhoon shelter space for other vessels. Hong Kong does not need more container facilities as nearby mainland ports with greater access to land and transport continue to expand. But it has failed to develop a coherent policy for its typhoon shelters and redundant cargo handling areas and revitalise facilities to reflect changes in demand. The comparison with Sydney's success in turning its old dock areas into a mix of tourist attraction, restaurants, offices and boating facilities is stark.
Some harbour development disasters cannot now be undone: excessive reclamation, particularly between Central and west Kowloon, which has overcrowded the sea lanes; and the Kai Tak cruise terminal now under construction which has scant commercial justification. Meanwhile, the Chai Wan cargo handling basin has long been ripe for redevelopment but remains an eyesore. It is not clear what plans may exist for freeing up space in the Shau Kei Wan, Aberdeen and other typhoon shelters no longer needed for commercial fishing boats. Hidden from almost everyone's view is the barely used 77-hectare typhoon shelter on Hei Ling Chau. Meanwhile, in Aberdeen itself, boat repair facilities are being progressively sacrificed to the interests of the developers wanting harbourside sites for luxury housing.
The shortage of berths and moorings for pleasure vessels is increasing rapidly. Hong Kong has every reason to want to attract owners of expensive boats - and charge them appropriately - as well as facilitate broader recreational use of local waters.
More traffic, particularly ferries and pleasure craft, will mean better policing, more traffic lanes like the one in the East Lamma channel and speed limits. This accident should be a spur to better management, not scare government and people from using and enjoying the seas. It needs a much bolder overall approach. In 2010, the government established the Harbourfront Commission to come up with terms of reference for an authority. Two years on, little has happened.
Another marine issue crying out for attention is ship pollution. The worst offenders are not the big container ships but the mostly mainland-operated coastal vessels and the local ferries. The big operators have long been supportive of the principle of using low sulphur fuel in local waters. But the spinelessness which has long characterised the government's environmental policies is especially evident towards marine pollution which, according to one recent report, kills hundreds of people a year.
Hong Kong is no longer a manufacturing centre, and its container port has slipped relatively. But the importance of marine activity has not declined; it merely shifts with other aspects of the economy. Global ship management is a major industry and one that could be promoted by more tax treaties and a more sympathetic Immigration Department.
Hong Kong must also provide for increased operation of suburban and mainland ferry services, as a base for gambling cruises, recreational facilities for locals and berths for the luxury yachts of the elite. Cleaner air, cleaner ships will attract just the kind of high-value business, marine and non-marine, that Hong Kong needs. The sea around us remains our lifeblood. Let this tragedy be an opportunity to see how best to facilitate the safe development of all aspects of maritime commerce and recreation.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator