Eating fish sustainably: how Hong Kong is decimating fish stocks with its appetite for seafood, and what you can do to stem pillage

As one of the world’s biggest consumers of seafood, and with our love of buying live fish, Hongkongers are pushing many endangered reef species closer to extinction. We talk to conservationists about how to ensure sustainability

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2017, 6:18pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 December, 2017, 9:23am

It’s 7.30am and the Aberdeen wholesale fish market is buzzing, the air a heady mix of fish and diesel fumes. Boats are “bumper-to-bumper” as fishermen negotiate prices before loading their catches into styrofoam boxes of oxygenated water and onto trucks for distribution to restaurants and markets (more than 70 per cent of the city’s live seafood is traded in Aberdeen).

Every day the market opens at 4am and about 60 to 110 fishing vessels unload about 50 to 80 tonnes of seafood. It might sound like a lot but Hongkongers are big consumers – the second-biggest in Asia (behind Japan), and eighth in the world. Hongkongers also like to see their fish alive, preferably swimming in a tank at a restaurant or wet market.

But environmentalist Doug Woodring, founder of charity Ocean Recovery Alliance, wants to remind people that the fish in those tanks aren’t sourced from local waters, or nearby in the South China Sea. They come from fish farms or are imported from Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and “other spots in that region popular with Hongkongers who love to snorkel with those very same fish while on holiday”.

“Our consumption is depleting these areas that we visit on holiday,” says Woodring, adding that fishing in local waters stopped in the 1980s as a result of over fishing.

Government figures show Hong Kong imports live reef food fish (LRFF) from more than 40 countries and territories worldwide, a reason why Hong Kong plays a vital role in driving the sustainable trade and consumption of seafood, says Allen To, manager, oceans sustainability, for the WWF.

“As much as 90 per cent of the seafood consumed in Hong Kong is from overseas, and we consume a lot, so our footprint is big because it’s sourced from more than 170 territories and countries worldwide,” he says.

Wandering through the Aberdeen market To spots a fish.

Exposed: the illegal Hong Kong trade in endangered coral reef fish

“That’s a squaretail coralgrouper and it’s listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN,” says To, referring to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a conservation group seen as a critical indicator of the health of the world’s biodiversity. “It’s also a globally threatened species because of a serious decline in its wild population.”

To says many globally threatened species like the squaretail coralgrouper are traded and consumed in Hong Kong. Others include bluefin tuna, some eel species, and golden threadfin bream. But he says the sellers are not breaking any law as the IUCN is not legally binding. Species listed by Cites, (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) are, however, and under Cites, the humphead wrasse – also known as Napoleon fish and a species that is at times sold and eaten in Hong Kong – is the only one listed.

“More species need to be added to Cites, but it’s a long process,” says To, adding the government should value the IUCN Red List the same as it does any Cites list, considering Hong Kong is a key trader of some of these species.

Last week, a platform that educates consumers about sustainable seafood, released a LRFF wet market survey that found 17 species of live reef fish listed as Threatened, Endangered or Vulnerable under the IUCN, were being sold in Hong Kong.

The survey was conducted from January to June at two local wet markets – Tai Po Market and Yeung Uk Road Market. It found seven threatened species, five vulnerable species, and two endangered species, including groupers and a wrasse species and a shark.

“These results indicate a need for urgent and collective conservation action from the government and the general population,” said Choose Right Today.

The WWF is spreading the sustainable word by working with suppliers and restaurants so “they can source alternative, more responsible, more sustainable seafood”.

As an example, To cites the pompano. “If it’s locally farmed, attaining a certain kind of certification, we recognise it as more sustainable.”

Farmed fishing is not the answer either, with poor practices resulting in the pollution of local waters with chemicals and antibiotics. Many farmed fish are fed with other wild-caught fish.

Helping make decisions easier is a WWF “Guide for Hong Kong”, that covers more than 70 popular seafood species found in local wet markets, supermarkets, frozen food shops and restaurants. It’s divided into “Green-Recommended”, “Yellow-Think Twice” and “Red-Avoid” categories. Woodring says people should also refer to the website Choose Right Today.

But supermarkets and markets can’t always be trusted.

In 2016, a WWF study discovered the mislabelling of LRFF in many local supermarkets (one supermarket even misidentified a species as a more expensive one, effectively overcharging consumers).

The only think that is clear, it seems, is that making informed choices about sustainable seafood is complicated.

Woodring wants the government to get tough and tighten import regulations.

“The city’s free trading port and laissez-faire economy is the worst mix for the environment, leading to Hong Kong being one of the worst places in the world for wildlife trade and overfishing,” he says.

“It doesn’t regulate enough, or check what’s coming in or going out, because the feeling is hands-off, just the minimum of international regulations and that’s it. Even China has more regulations than Hong Kong.”

Diners not eating enough sustainable seafood, says WWF-Hong Kong

He says airlines can play a bigger role by implementing better labelling of its cargo.

“Airlines need to know their cargo, and know the source of this cargo, … with some due diligence, we can make sure we are not raping and pillaging the places these airlines take tourists to in the first place.”

A question mark also hovers over the method of fishing.

“Another problem in places such as Indonesia is that cyanide or dynamite are used to catch or stun fish. This is very bad for diving and tourism – and for the long-term health of the reef.

“But the ‘middlemen’ fishermen, they come to these local communities and deplete that reef of those species, then move to the next island and the next reef, leaving local people with nothing.

Chef David Lai of Fish School in Sai Ying Pun has a simple solution: eat less fish.

It’s midday on a Tuesday and Lai is making his daily rounds at the Ap Lei Chau fish market. His menu is free of threatened species, and he only serves fish caught locally. His sustainable secret is to know what is in season after “observing the market over time”.

“I look at what the older generations and housewives buy – they know what is in season. Another clue is when you see one type of fish at different stalls all over the market.”

Lai says seafood sustainability is a sensitive issue, one that needs to balance industry and sustainability. He says the responsibility lies with consumers who need “to educate themselves about what’s sustainable”.

Once upon a time it was easy enough to catch a fish and know it would replenish. But that’s no longer the case, thanks to increases in pollution and population
Doug Woodring, Ocean Recovery Alliance

Woodring says another barrier is cultural, a sensitive one that involves encouraging people, in particular the older generation, to move away from live reef fish.

“Once upon a time it was easy enough to catch a fish and know it would replenish. But that’s no longer the case, thanks to increases in pollution and population.

“The problem is psychological, especially among the older population who like to see a fish that is alive – they don’t want it processed or sliced or frozen fillets without bones or heads. Processed seafood may not look as nice, but it may be managed in a better way for the ocean.

“People still want to walk into a restaurant, see a fish in a tank and think that because it’s breathing then it must be healthy, when often it’s not.”

At September’s Kin Hong Seafood Festival, an annual event encouraging restaurants and caterers to choose responsibly sourced seafood, live reef fish were left off the agenda. “Reef fish [in the F&B industry] are just not sustainable,” says Woodring. The festival was organised by Ocean Recovery Alliance.

The ecological clock is ticking, with some scientists predicting all commercially fished seafood species will collapse by 2048 if practices don’t change.

Some steps have been made in the right direction, including Hong Kong’s 2012 ban on trawling and China’s move this year to extend its annual moratorium on fishing. But environmentalists say more needs to be done.

“China put a 4½-month ban on coastal fishing on Chinese waters, which they’ve never done before. It’s usually two months. That put about three to four million people out of work during the summer, and that’s not something they usually like to do. That extended moratorium means that there is an issue,” Woodring says.