Depths of destruction

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 January, 2007, 12:00am

In the midst of yet another reported fish contamination scandal in Hong Kong last week, a frightening scenario was suggested by physicist George Woodman: what if the voracious fish eaters of Hong Kong and the mainland decided the only way they could safeguard their health from the continuous fish contamination scares was to switch from farmed seafood to the cheaper 'bombed' version?

'Bombed' is the term Dr Woodman and a small group of Hong Kong aquatic enthusiasts use to describe the destructive practice of dynamite fishing - blowing up a reef and killing as many fish as possible while at the same time ripping a large hole in the fragile marine environment.

Maybe consumers would think bombed fish would be perfectly safe to eat, as no self-respecting farmer would allow sticks of dynamite to contaminate the harvest he relies on for his livelihood.

The reefs are far enough from Hong Kong to be out of sight, out of mind for many consumers who might worry about the environment. Dynamite fishing also has a long history in Hong Kong, and is still common, according to local divers and environmentalists.

The ominous vision of Dr Woodman, who has dedicated years of research to the marine environment, was fuelled last week by a report from Malaysia - a dynamite fishing heartland - which found Hong Kong and the mainland's appetite for fresh seafood was stripping Southeast Asia's coral reefs of fish.

The study by Cambridge University scientists of the fishing community of Kudat, Sabah, from 1995 to 2003 found significant declines of several coral reef species particularly favoured in the fresh tanks at restaurants in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland.

Stocks of Napoleon wrasse fell by almost 100 per cent between 1995 and 2003, just as the mainland's economy was taking off. Hong Kong is reported to be the biggest consumer of the species on the planet. Restaurants contacted by the South China Morning Post last week blamed mainland tourists' peculiar appetite for exotic products, but it is clear the taste is also shared by some locals.

Another coincidence that added to Dr Woodman's nightmare scenario was the fact the study was performed in Sabah. It was in this Malaysian tropical paradise in 1994 that Dr Woodman, the director of the charitable organisation Teng Hoi (Listen to the Ocean), first learned about the destructive impact of dynamite fishing during a diving holiday. He has since dedicated his professional life to trying to stop the destructive enterprise.

'The difference between China and most other countries [with fish supply] are the problems with contamination; it has been wall-to-wall health scares about fish, and it's all farmed fish,' he said. 'So, I am seriously wondering if there will possibly be a rise in demand for blast fish, because it's always going to be fresh.'

There may be some grounding for his theory. Demand for fresh fish and a lack of interest in preserving the scarce ocean resources has already virtually wiped out Hong Kong's fish stocks.

Dr Woodman said that in the 1950s, the city could supply about 90 per cent of its needs. The only real commercial quantity of fish caught today was largely used to feed larger species in fish farms, he said.

Hong Kong fish stocks are now unlikely to improve and their increasing rarity does not stop dynamite fishing in and around Hong Kong waters - a practice now blamed mainly on mainland fishermen.

Dr Woodman's foundation is developing the world's first system for detecting dynamite fishing, at the WWF's Hoi Ha Wan Marine Life Centre in Sai Kung.

With United Nations funding, he has devised underwater microphones that have been in place since November, waiting to record an explosion up to 100km from the Professor Ridzwan Testing Station in Hoi Ha.

But a spokesman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said that dynamite fishing was rare in Hong Kong and pointed out that there had been no prosecution of those responsible since 1999.

'Dynamite fishing in Hong Kong waters has declined in recent years, due to the concerted effort of AFCD and the Marine Police,' the spokesman said. 'AFCD has an enforcement team to patrol Hong Kong waters and will take necessary prosecution actions upon observations or reports of such illegal destructive fishing activities.'

But marine specialist Charles Frew, whose company, Aquatic Marine, undertakes marine surveys and underwater filming, said that Hong Kong waters were still a target for dynamite fishermen who would return as soon as the weather changed and the winter swells dissipated.

Mr Frew said the last time he witnessed the devastation wrought by dynamite fishing was not in Malaysia, the Philippines or Indonesia, but 85km east of Sai Kung, at a lonely rock in mainland waters, Pedro Blanco, in August and September last year. He filmed dynamite fishermen there in 2005.

He showed that footage at a diving conference in Shanghai and to government officials in Hong Kong and on the mainland, but is unaware of any action being taken in the area. Mr Frew said the average Hong Kong person might not believe dynamiting was employed near Hong Kong.

'They probably won't believe how beautiful Pedro was, but it's been dynamited,' he said. 'All the rocks are split open and the whole place is covered in sea urchins. I have filmed gullies filled with beautiful fish, all dead, thousands of them.'

Mr Frew said policing was minimal as visitors to the rock might see a patrol boat 'every couple of years'.

'They are good about it, these guys. If they see you diving, they won't bomb,' he said of the fishermen he had seen blasting the area. 'But they clearly aren't worried about prosecution because they are just out there doing it as soon as the water is calm.'

The AFCD spokesman said Pedro Blanco and the badly damaged Dong Sha Atoll which lies much further east were in waters outside Hong Kong's jurisdiction.

'We believe that proper conservation of both areas will promote the sustainable development of fisheries in the South China Sea,' the spokesman said.

Alex To, the Padi course director of Prodive in Wan Chai, has been exploring the underwater regions of Hong Kong for more than 14 years. Mr To said the conditions for diving had gone from bad to worse in Hong Kong, despite an increase in environmental awareness.

Mr To remembered the days of rich marine life at Pedro Blanco, when he saw barracuda, stingrays, big garoupa and lion fish - with visibility of up to 30 metres underwater. Now, on a good day, there might be 10 metres of visibility and a pretty barren diving experience at Pedro Blanco, he said.

'There [are] so many more divers in Hong Kong than when I started. Hong Kong is a pretty small place and there are about 30 dive shops and maybe 1,000 divers going out with them during the summer,' he said.

'I can't really see the conditions improving. We are so close to China, here, and they really don't have the education yet to care about the environment.'

Mr To said he was also sympathetic to the plight of the fishermen who resorted to dynamiting.

'In Hong Kong, you can earn a decent living even by working in a restaurant, but on the mainland it's totally different, where they might be working in hard conditions on a boat for only HK$200 a month,' he said.

An even more frightening testament to dynamite fishing is Dong Sha, about 300km southeast of Hong Kong. Until 1998, a small Taiwanese military station protected the atoll from dynamite fishermen.

Dr Woodman said the atoll, which was bigger than Lantau, had a vast diversity of fish and 'could have appeared on a Cousteau movie or a National Geographic special'. But as soon as the Taiwanese left the atoll, it was bombed out of existence. Dr Woodman said there were estimates that 250 tonnes of cyanide, five tonnes of dynamite and 50 tonnes of mercury had been used to destroy the attol.

Mr Frew dived at the Dong Sha Atoll during Sars and said he swam for several kilometres without seeing a single fish. 'It really must have been stunning, and even more importantly, it must have supplied the whole of the South China Sea with the resource of juvenile fish,' he said.

Dr Woodman said the government has to make some tough decisions to protect Hong Kong's marine environment and encourage its revival. Its methods could serve as an example to the city and the region on how to protect the environment.

The first step, he said, would come with recorded evidence of dynamite fishing in the waters off Sai Kung.