A Rare Feather in Hong Kong’s Environmental Cap
In recent years, most of the public commentary in Hong Kong about environmental issues has been sharply critical, of declining air quality in particular, and of ineffective policies and measures to reverse this trend. Even government-set standards for acceptable levels of air quality are widely criticized as being far too lax when compared with internationally accepted standards.
The issue is not merely cosmetic. Many doctors confirm a sharp rise in respiratory ailments, and various international chambers of commerce report that their member companies are facing growing challenges moving key executives to Hong Kong, especially if they have young children, due to air quality issues. They simply do not want expose their families to the health risks. Air quality differences are especially dramatic if the comparison set is based on most North American, Australian, or European cities.
Air quality in Hong Kong is therefore not only a pressing public health issue but a competitiveness issue.
To be fair, the waters surrounding Hong Kong, including the harbor, are a lot cleaner than they were 15 years ago, which proves that progress is possible when policies and commitment are in alignment, and cooperation takes place between the public and private sectors.
But on balance, Hong Kong has not exactly been known as a shining star in terms of its environmental record. Quite the contrary.
So the news item in May this year that Hong Kong had banned trawl fishing in its waters, effective at the end of 2012, is quite significant.
Trawling is arguably the second most destructive type of commercial fishing (electro-fishing being the worst). Trawlers drag weighted nets across the sea bottom, not only scooping up every living thing, but also destroying coral and other types of habitat in the process. Electro-fishing is even more nightmarish because the gear lowered down to the sea bottom is super-charged with powerful electrical current, stunning or killing everything in the vicinity.
What’s significant about Hong Kong’s move is that it is a total ban on trawling in all Hong Kong waters, which puts the S.A.R. into the vanguard of a small handful of countries and regions around the globe to implement a total ban. Many countries, including Australia, the U.S., China, Canada and Brazil have implemented large no-trawl zones, but stopped short of a complete ban.
The United Nations and EU have tried to push trawling bans through, but commercial fishing is a lively blend of economics, politics, and national interests; so their efforts have been impeded by a handful of vocal countries with vested interests.
Some expert observers have hailed Hong Kong’s move as a pacesetter which may help establish a benchmark for Southeast Asia and other regions to emulate.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the announcement of the ban resulted in some protests, not in the streets, but in the harbor. The protesters, not surprisingly, were fishermen, who assembled their trawlers in the harbor with bright flags and banners.
Interestingly, however, they were not protesting against the ban. Most are happy to concede that Hong Kong waters are so overfished that trawling is no longer an economically viable existence.
消失的行当：香港抛锚的拖网渔船 / Vanishing species: trawlers at anchor in Hong Kong.
For the 400 trawlers still operating in Hong Kong, which constitute 80% of Hong Kong’s remaining fishing fleet, the average length of fish caught in recent years was just 4 inches. Correct: 4 inches. Just think about how many 4 inch fish it takes to pay for one liter of diesel fuel at today’s prices. And these are not 4-inch tuna fish, but more the variety you might feed your pet cat.
No, the fishermen were out in force in the harbor to lobby for a more generous share of the US$220 million which the Hong Kong government has allocated in compensation for the loss of livelihood resulting from the ban. That means, for example, the government will purchase the soon-to-be decommissioned trawlers from fishermen for somewhere in the range of US$100,000 to $700,000 per vessel.
No doubt, in due course, the horse-trading over who gets what share of the compensation will sort itself out. Hong Kong’s booming pleasure boat sector will probably absorb many of the former fishermen. Currently, sellers of expensive yachts and pleasure boats complain that long waiting lists to rent a berth in any of Hong Kong’s private marinas are dampening the growth of their business; and experienced skippers and boat boys are in very short supply.
One very interesting thing to watch will be how quickly Hong Kong’s marine ecosystem recovers. Experience in other places suggests that effective bans on over-fished species or areas can yield dramatic recoveries over time.
One example close to home is China’s annual ban on commercial fishing in the South China Sea for the months of June and July, which was instituted nearly 10 years ago and has yielded very positive results at least in terms of fish stocks of some pelagic species.
Hong Kong needs to generate some more good news stories on the environmental front. Let’s hope the next round is focused on creatures who breathe in air rather than water.