Even those fishermen who had to seek government assistance while their boats were out of action must recognise the benefits of the two-month fishing ban, now they are returning to port with huge catches. The waters of the South China Sea have been cruelly over-fished in recent years, yet even a short breathing space has given depleted stocks the chance to recover. In imposing the ban, the mainland has followed a highly successful formula tried out two years ago in China's eastern waters. The fish returned and the yearly catch improved. The conservation message should need no further urging. But the industry may have to live with this off-season policy for several years, and possibly with a quota system introduced by the mainland. If that happens, it will have to adapt to the new realities, without expecting government assistance each time. Dwindling fishstocks are a global problem, and in Hong Kong the annual per capita fish consumption is 58.2kg, more than three times the world average. Local waters were long since emptied, but sailing to fish in less exploited seas is a short-term, and arguably short-sighted, answer. Fishermen have never had to nurture the oceans in the way a farmer husbands the land. But now they need to liaise with the Government to find ways to clean up the waters and conserve the life they sustain. Otherwise the dwindling fleet that works out of Hong Kong will find itself without any shoals to follow. The SAR's 20,000 fishermen form the backbone of an industry employing many thousands of local people. It is a crucial part of the economy, and must be protected. But a balance has to be struck between providing a safety net for fishermen in the near term, and funding urgently needed ecological measures. Without these there will be no future for the local fishing fleet in the new millennium.