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Talkback: Getting to the bottom of the fish crisis

  • Story Highlights
  • Andy Cornish of WWF says that trawling activities out of control in Hong Kong
  • Proposed new restrictions on trawlers suggested back in 1998
  • Vision for Hong Kong "surrounded by emerald waters, coral communities"
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By Rachel Oliver
For CNN
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Editor's note:Talkback features the personal opinions of environmental experts from around the world on the most pressing climate change-related issues.

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- It seemed like a bolt from the blue.

Dr Andy Cornish of WWF says the Hong Kong government must move fast on fishing plan.

At the beginning of September the Hong Kong government announced it was considering banning all bottom trawling activities in its waters, effectively putting around 600 local trawler operations out of business.

The government says it wants to tackle the pressing issue of rapidly declining fish populations so that it can rejuvenate the local fishing industry and make it sustainable.

Dr Andy Cornish, Director of Conservation at WWF Hong Kong has been fighting for sustainable fisheries for many years. While he welcomes the news, he says he is not about to burst open the champagne -- yet.

"It is a very big step in the right direction. It's about 10 years late but finally the government is talking about concrete measures that will lead to a sustainable fishery.

But this is only a proposal from one half of the government to another. The big question is if the fishing community will accept it and whether the government will find the millions to buy back the trawlers.

Most of the major components of the proposal were recommended in 1998 by the government consultant looking at sustainable fisheries.

Some of this stuff is incredibly basic, like licensing. Hong Kong seems to be the only region in East Asia that doesn't seem to have a licensing scheme -- apart from North Korea where we couldn't find any information.

What that means is Hong Kong can't control the number of trawlers in the waters. If CNN wanted to buy a trawler and go fishing in Hong Kong waters you could do it. As a result the problem is simply there are far too many boats fishing in too small an area.

Half-hearted response

After the 1998 report, the government did a series of half measures, like [spending] HK$100 million on an artificial reef programme but didn't stop the fisherman from fishing around the reef which is a really bad idea as fish concentrate around them. They then designed some marine parks and allowed commercial fisherman to fish in them.

In 2004 the government proposed some legislative ammendments that would allow for the creation of fishermen licence schemes and fishing protected areas. Problem was, yet again they were going to ban trawling but allow some other fishing.

There was so much of an outcry from the fishing community about having any controls put on them. Everything was too controversial at the time so they basically sent the government back to the drawing board.

The government sulked for a bit and then they set up a committee of sustainable fisheries to go back and look at the issue again for 18 months.

The committee isn't independent -- no NGOs, no fishery scientists, the chairman of it is is also the head of the government department responsible and half the members are fishermen.

It might look from the news that it is shocking to the fishing community but it actually isn't as half the representatives come from the fishing community. Having said that, there will be fishermen out there that are an independent bunch that will be surprised by this.

Back room discussions

In the past 18 months that committee has not sought the opinions of fishery scientists, NGOs, nor a whole marine recreational industry. It's crazy as the fishermen aren't the only ones earning their living from the sea -- the diving community do and they are almost never consulted.

WWF did make a presentation to that committee but it was difficult to get an audience. It's been quite a closed, back room committee.

The big new thing is banning all trawling activities. That wasn't on the cards last time. I guess the big difference between now and 2004 is fuel prices and catches are as bad or even worse so the fishermen are in a dead end situation.

There are still areas for concern. The fisheries catch data that the government collects [but] the quality of the data they collect is doubtful. All they do is every five years or so they do an interview with a fisherman about what they caught over the past year, but that's going to give you really weak data.

You need to do this annually, do fishing surveys yourself, record species that have died and so on otherwise you cant adjust your fisheries management and it wont work. It's like trying to drive a car if you are half blind.

Moving forward, the government has to stop seeing the sea as the property of the fishermen and consult much more widely with the many stakeholders in Hong Kong who have an interest in the state of our waters. The Hong Kong public has become much more vocal about the need to protect our seas and WWF has played quite a strong part in that.

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My dream would be to have a marine stewardship council fishery in Hong Kong. But we are a million miles away from that at the moment. We have a vision of this world class city surrounded by emerald waters, coral communities, sparkling beaches, people diving, snorkelling, swimming less than an hour from the city centre. Maybe the government is starting to see that now.

For the past 50 years or so we have just trashed the local waters. We have polluted it, reclaimed it, fished it to death, done some incredible damage to this amazing resource. At the end of the day, this is about the quality of life for Hong Kong people, whether you care about marine life or not."

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