How US$64 billion Hong Kong reclamation plan would destroy fishermen’s livelihoods
- The HK$500 billion project to ease Hong Kong’s housing crisis would drive fishing families from what some say is the city’s best fishing spot
- Many are too old to retrain for other jobs
It is an overcast day and Lai Shui-sing, his face weathered from years at sea, pulls in his net with a strength that defies his 66 years. As the netting piles up on his small blue boat, his 58-year-old wife, who does not want to be named, expertly separates the catch from the mangled mesh – today it is mostly blue crabs – throwing them into the hold below.
Lai has been fishing the waters off Peng Chau for more than 60 years, ever since he was a child, and has lived on the small island, located eight kilometres (five miles) west of Hong Kong Island, for more than 40 years.
But Hong Kong’s fishing industry has been declining for decades after peaking in the 1960s, when it supported about 10,000 fishing vessels. Today there are only about half as many, according to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). The decline has been accelerated by a combination of factors, including a 2013 ban on trawling, ageing fishermen and a lack of interest in the industry among younger generations (Lai’s six sons and one daughter did not follow in his fishing footsteps).
Today around 10,500 local fishermen are involved in the industry, working mainly for family businesses operating small fishing boats and sampans, the AFCD says.
The area Lai is fishing in is open and choppy. Landmarks such as the Tsing Ma Bridge, which looms large to our left, and the chimneys of Lamma Island Power Station, which stand to attention ahead of us, provide basic bearings.
Lai says this is a popular fishing ground that attracts fishermen from all around, including from Lamma, Cheung Chau, Tuen Mun and Shau Kei Wan. Fishermen from mainland China also work these waters, he adds, “even though they have many spots to choose from”.
But “the best fishing spot in Hong Kong”, according to Lai, will soon disappear thanks to the government’s reclamation plan announced this year.
On October 10, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor proposed in her annual policy address a HK$500 billion (US$64 billion) reclamation project to create about 1,700 hectares of land on artificial islands off the east coast of Lantau Island to ease the city’s housing crisis. Accommodating up to 1.1 million people, the project would take more than a decade to complete.
But the proposal for the so-called Lantau Tomorrow Vision project has faced heavy criticism from the public, mostly because of the huge price tag; it will eat up almost half the city’s fiscal reserves. Pro-democracy parties are of the opinion that the project could cost as much as HK$1 trillion.
Then there is the environmental cost, with campaigners saying the plan will not only destroy marine life but the livelihoods of fishermen.
According to environmental charity WWF Hong Kong, the reclamation will result in the permanent loss of a vital fishing spot.
“That area is an important fishing ground for local fishermen,” says Angel Lam Yin-ha, senior conservation officer (marine) for WWF Hong Kong. “It’s also popular because the area is relatively calm, especially when it’s windy.”
Another concern is that fishermen, squeezed out of their regular spots, will be forced to fish in other places further away, adding to their fuel costs.
Lam says there are few alternatives for fishermen if they have to give up their jobs. In the past, some had diversified into areas including operating leisure craft and working vessels.
The government has also encouraged fishermen to switch to eco-tourism or fish farming, but fishermen say it is hard to make a living.
In 2014, as a way to preserve Hong Kong’s fishing tradition, the government established a HK$500 million Sustainable Fisheries Development Fund to help the industry conduct research and development programmes to improve its operating environment. The local Environmental Association charity received more than HK$4 million from the fund and collaborated with local fisheries associations to conduct two eco-tour guide training programmes for fishermen.
But while fishermen say initiatives like these were positive steps forward, the reclamation plan is a step backwards for those trying to survive in a dwindling industry.
Fishermen and environmentalists say marine life will also be affected by the plan. Lai says the crabs and cuttlefish that made up most of the catch on this particular day will vanish after the reclamation. “There will be no space for them to inhabit.”
According to WWF’s Lam, the plan will also alter the flow of the water current, which could affect migratory species or prevent juvenile fish from nearby nursery grounds from replenishing in the area.
“It could also affect the health of hard corals and soft corals if the current flow and sedimentation regimes are altered,” she says. “And if dredging is required to remove soft mud then the sediment could cover the gills of fish and affect their breathing, and invertebrates living under the substrates will suffer.
“Little is known about the marine species, topography and coral coverage of the area. Very little research was done there.”
It is easy to forget that despite Hong Kong being one of the most densely populated places on Earth (6,690 people per square kilometre in 2014 according to government figures), it has rich biodiversity, including almost 6,000 marine species.
“Coral communities in that area [Lantau] support very high marine biodiversity, providing places for invertebrates and small fishes to hide, and which in turn attract bigger fish,” Lam says.
She adds that more impact studies need to be done. “The WWF is calling on the government to conduct a comprehensive ecological study, both terrestrial and marine, to be done by academics or experts, to understand the area before any further planning of the reclamation project.”
After a few hours at sea Lai takes two buckets holding the day’s catch to the Peng Chau Market on the island’s pier, where his wife cleans the fish before putting them into an oxygenated tank. The two-storey market supplies fresh fish, frozen meat, dry goods and wet goods to villagers.
Today, Lai’s catch weighs in at just six kilograms (13 pounds). He says the heady days of fishing – his biggest haul was 240 kilograms – are over. Pollution, combined with decades of overfishing and land reclamation, have decimated Hong Kong’s fish stocks.
Lai does not agree with the reclamation plan, but says there is no point in fighting the government.
“We don’t agree with the reclamation project but the government will still go ahead with it. Our opposition is meaningless. Do you think they will stop the reclamation because we are opposed to it?” he says with a laugh.
Other critics argue the project will take too long to help with Hong Kong’s imminent housing shortage. Construction does not begin until 2025, with the first round of housing not available until 2032.
The use of reclaimed land to accommodate more housing has been long debated in Hong Kong. About 25 per cent of the city’s developed area, or 6 per cent of the total land area, is built on reclaimed land – including the city’s airport – and it houses about a quarter of the population, according to a government task force on land supply.
As the day winds down, Lai and a handful of other Peng Chau villagers pull up chairs near the water, close to Lai’s home. The sea view they have will eventually be replaced by land and high-rise residential buildings as a result of the reclamation.
With fish drying on railings behind them, they share snacks and talk about their day at sea, a routine that has long provided important social interaction and one that shows just how vital the daily fishing ritual is to village people.
“This sea will no longer exist – this area all the way to Cheung Chau,” Lai says, pointing across the water.
“All this water will become land. After reclamation I will be out of work and we are too old to get [another] job.”