The State of Hong Kong’s Fishing Industry 2018

Hong Kong Fishing Industry Infographic 2018

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Three Men Given Suspended Sentences For Violating the Trawler Ban

Three men who used trawling gear to fish illegally on August 27 were convicted and sentenced to four weeks’ imprisonment suspended for one year at Kwun Tong Magistrates’ Courts on August 29.

The Marine Police found a trawler suspected to be trawling in the waters off Conic Island (Sai Kung Area) at about 7pm on August 27 and intercepted the vessel for an inspection. Two hundred catties of fish and some trawling apparatus were seized on board the vessel.

The AFCD took over the case. Upon investigation, three men on the vessel were charged for contravening the Fisheries Protection Regulations by using prohibited fishing gear. They appeared at Kwun Tong Magistrates’ Courts and were convicted and sentenced today. The fishing gear concerned was also forfeited.

An AFCD spokesman reminded the public that the ban on trawling came into force on December 31, 2012. Under the Fisheries Protection Ordinance, any person who contravenes the ban is liable to a maximum penalty of a fine of $200,000 and imprisonment for six months upon conviction.

Trawling is a non-selective fishing operation which damages the seabed and marine ecosystems. A ban on trawling has brought this harmful depletion to an immediate halt, enabling marine ecosystems to be gradually rehabilitated to a sustainable level and be better conserved in the long run.

The spokesman said, “The AFCD and the Police will continue to carry out joint enforcement operations to crack down on illegal fishing activities.”

Whale Shark Sighting

Earlier this week an online video of a whale shark in Hong Kong went viral.

Unfortunately there is no specific protection for this species in Hong Kong, so experts are calling on the government to introduce laws to protect whale sharks which are infrequent visitors to Hong Kong waters in the summer months.

The footage was posted by a Lamma Island resident Robert Lockyer, who said the footage was sent to him by one of the fishermen who encountered the shark on Tuesday.

Lockyer said there had been another local sighting on May 22, but he believed it was a different shark at another location.

The fisherman who took the video did not wish for his identity or the location of the sighting to be known.

Trawling Ban Enforced – Man Given Suspended Jail Sentence for Trawling 

A man who illegally used trawling gear for fishing on January 17th 2018 has been convicted and sentenced to two months’ imprisonment suspended for two years and a fine of $4,000 at Kwun Tong Magistrates’ Court on January 18th 2018.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) and the Marine Police mounted an anti-illegal fishing operation in the eastern waters of Hong Kong yesterday, and found a mainland shrimp trawler suspected to be trawling at Ninepin Islands. The vessel was inspected and gear used for trawling was seized on board the vessel. Upon investigation by the AFCD, a male master on the vessel was charged for contravening the Fisheries Protection Regulations by using prohibited fishing gear. He was convicted and sentenced.

The ban on trawling came into force on December 31st, 2012. All electricity transmitting devices used for fishing are also prohibited. Under the Fisheries Protection Ordinance, any person who contravenes the ban is liable to a maximum penalty of a fine of $200,000 and imprisonment for six months.

Trawling is a non-selective fishing method which severely damages the seabed, especially trawling with electricity which kills all marine life around the trawl net and causes serious damage to the marine ecosystem.

Photo credit AFCD.

6-Foot Black-Tip Reef Shark Caught by Handline in Victoria Harbour – This Day in 1932

On the 9th of October 1932: a 6 foot 6 inch, 186 lbs black-tip reef shark (Carcharinus melanopterus) was caught by fishermen off th Kowloon Docks (between present day Hung Hom and the Laguna Verde residential blocks). It was caught on a hand line made of hemp with a half-pound snapper as bait on a large iron hook. The fisherman was definitely trying to catch a shark and had a large bait and strong tackle on purpose. The sea was choppy, a fresh N.E. wind was blowing and few small fish were about. The previous week a number of shark were about off Kowloon Docks and on 25th September […] at least 50 snapper were lost through sharks taking them before they had been pulled up to the surface. This particular fish was played 20 minutes, pulled in to within 2 feet of the surface and then harpooned. It was not pulled on board but was lashed to the side of the sam pan. Market value about $7.00 – roughly equal to HKD 2,280  today. Stunning to think that shark was abundant enough locally to cost that little: a whole 6-foot, 84.3 kg black-tip reef shark for only HKD 2,280! Compare this with a recently quoted wholesale price for 1 kg of shark’s fin in Guangzhou (roughly  comparable to the shark discussed here) of USD 960 or HKD 7,480! Why the difference? Rarity. Sharks have become so rare, that the prices are soaring and they face more and more risk of extinction from over fishing.

Southeast Asian Territorial Disputes Are Literally Killing Off Coral Reefs

This week Bloomberg’s Adam Minter wrote a great article on the plight of the South China Seas coral reefs and their large scale destruction in the name of territorial Claims by China, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
I have written about this previously (here and here), and I am happy that a professional journalist – for a widely-read news publisher no less – has devoted some time and effort to bringing media coverage to this issue.
Below are some new and interesting insights from extracts of the article ( BloombergView “Victims Under The South China Sea” 26/11/2014).

[…] in the South China Sea, where nations seeking to enforce their territorial claims have not always spent much time worrying about the environmentally and economically valuable reefs under the waves. How valuable? A 2011 report to the UN General Assembly on coral reefs noted that seafaring Asian nations count between 100,000 and “more than” 1 million coral reef fishers among them.

One might think that governments, pressed by those fishermen, would be striving to preserve fragile reef systems. But just the opposite has happened. According to a 2013 study by Australian and Chinese scientists, the South China Sea’s atolls and archipelagos have seen their coral cover decline to 20 percent from averages of 60 percent or more just 10 to 15 years ago.

The large-scale reclamation of reefs for military purposes is just the start of the damage. What happens after can oftentimes be much worse. “If 1,000 soldiers are stationed at any one time in a place, they typically cut down vegetation and cause runoff, generate sewage,” says Terry Hughes, a marine biologist and director of the Queensland-based Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

Draining into the sea, runoff is deadly for coral: In coastal China, where cities also tend to discharge effluent into the ocean, 80 percent of all coral has died off. In 1980, the amount of coral cover near a large Taiwanese military outpost in the disputed Spratly Islands was 60 to 70 percent. By 2007 it had declined to 17 percent, according to the 2013 study, which Hughes led.

That sort of damage is likely to grow more common: In October, Taiwan’s top intelligence official revealed that China has seven ongoing South China Sea construction projects. When complete, they’ll join at least 20 additional reclamations owned by four other South China Sea claimants.

Even worse than the direct damage from construction projects is the political deadlock caused by various territorial disputes. The biggest threat to coral is the large-scale use of cyanide and explosives by the region’s fishermen. As Hughes’s 2013 study pointed out, at just one atoll, the number of fishing boats using cyanide and dynamite to kill fish increased nearly eight-fold between 1996 and 2001. By 2001, “virtually everything harvestable (e.g., fish, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms) had been stripped from the atoll.”

Rogue fishermen are the immediate culprits, but a lack of governance and oversight allows them to continue their depredations. While that’s no secret to any of the six South China Sea claimants, they’re unlikely to agree on where or how to protect coral if they can’t agree on boundaries first. Instead individual countries have tried to impose fishing limits unilaterally, which no one else follows. “When it comes time for governance, everyone puts their hand up and that means no one,” says Hughes.

Nonetheless, Hughes remains optimistic, if only because corals can regenerate when protected and given time. (Decades are needed.) He suggests that in the absence of a broader agreement on regulating the South China Sea, scientists from the region might begin the discussion on how to protect reefs. Translating any recommendations into action won’t be easy. But it’s probably the best option for ensuring that soldiers and tourists won’t be the only living creatures left to enjoy the seas.

(Featured image shows structures built on top of Johnson Reef)

HATS and Mullets – Victoria Harbor

This week I spotted the largest school of fish I have ever seen in Hong Kong. The grey mullets (Mugil cephalus) were attracted to a submarine seawater cooling outflow pipe that was discharging a grey liquid into the sea in western Kowloon. Each of the fish in the video below is 30-50 cm in length and I estimate there were at least 1000 of them.

I often see large mullets in that area. They regularly leap several feet into the air which is quite a spectacular sight. I have also seen an old angler at the Central ferry piers catching a 40cm mullet to the raucous applause of about 30 onlookers. The thing is the fish wasn’t hooked through the mouth but through the fin (quite a skill!) because it was swimming at the surface gasping and dying…
The behaviour of leaping out of the water according to some sources is a method mullets use to get more oxygen by storing air in their bodies so they can dive down into anoxic or low-oxygen water layers to catch prey others can’t. Grey mullets are known to be hypoxia-tolerant meaning they can tolerate low-oxygen environments better than other fish.

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And here is another video of a large mullet just meters from Discovery Bay beach. The way it is gasping at the surface while swimming in its side is just how the fish was behaving which I saw caught at Central ferry pier.

So what does it mean if there is a large aggregation of fish which are known to be tolerant of low-oxygen environments and which are exhibiting low-oxygen behaviour? It’s a pretty good sign of a lack of oxygen – duh! What causes low oxygen in the sea? Nearly always eutrophication – the process whereby excess nutrients from normally man-made sources cause microscopic algae known as phytoplankton to grow into large blooms (and sometimes red tides). When these inevitably die off the mass of dead material on the seabed decomposes using up oxygen until there is so little that the seabed and lower depths become so-called dead zones (anoxic zone) where very few hardy species can survive.
So I suspected illegal waste-water discharge and made a report to the EPD (Environmental Protection Department) online including the above video (you can also report pollution via the government telephone hotline 1823).
Say what you want about the HK government, the civil service works! They followed up with a site visit to test the water and issued an order to the building management to repair their outflow pipe. Apparently the pipe was seawater cooling air conditioning outflow, but was discharging wastewater as well. Two days later after the problem was fixed and the fish were gone!

(Note: grey mullet is a very popular food fish in southern China and you will see it even in most supermarkets. But the vast majority is farmed – in case you were worried about your fish being from sewage outfalls!)

So what have HATS got to do with it?
HATS stands for the Harbour Area Treatment Scheme, a large sewage and wastewater treatment scheme designed to clean up HK’s notoriously filthy harbour. Setup in 2 phases, the first phase was successful enough to reduce the concentration of sewage to levels acceptable enough to allow the return of the New Year’s Cross Harbour Swim event. The annual event sees swimmers cross 1.89km from Lei Yu Mun’s Sam Ka Tsuen pier to Quarry Bay Park pier. First held in 1911 the event was stopped in 1978 because of health concerns.
However, in 2011 the EPD announced that water quality in the harbor, particularly in the eastern section where the race took place, had “shown significant improvement” and E. coli levels had decreased by 95 percent since 2001. Yet, the data from the EPD Shortly before the restarted race revealed that E. coli levels in the harbor were still twice the maximum acceptable level at Hong Kong bathing beaches. But it was still a big improvement.

The 2011 Cross-Harbour Swimming Race

The sewage levels are evaluated by measuring the concentration of the common gut bacteria Escheria coli(E. coli) in the samples as a proxy for all the other gut inhabiting and potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses in sewage.

However,the planned second phase of Hong Kong’s Harbour Area Treatment Scheme (HATS) has recently been put on indefinite hold. The upgrade would have boosted the capacity of the treatment works to remove nutrients such as phosphates from effluent. This would have reduce eutrophication and helped rehabilitate the dead zones. Excess phosphates are also linked to increases of toxic algal blooms.

Officials said the current chemical-based treatment system was enough to meet most water quality objectives and stressed the upgrade to biological treatment was not “critical” at this stage. The planned upgrade would deliver “only marginal improvements” to water quality in western Victoria Harbour and bring little benefit to near-shore pollution. Their priority was to cut off improperly connected pipes and crack down on unlawful discharges into the harbour off Central and Wan Chai.
When I first read that I was highly sceptical and thought the government was just trying to save money. But having seen illegal discharge from a major shopping mall and office complex directly into the Harbour I now think they actually have a very good point!

The HATS scheme overview

Denying the scheme was declared dead, assistant director of environmental protection Amy Yuen Wai-yin said that in terms of E coli levels close to the harbour’s shores, the upgrade was “not an answer”, citing water quality modelling results. The cost of the upgrade, according to the latest estimate based on 2012 prices, has almost tripled from the 2004 estimate of HK$11 billion to up to HK$30 billion. Perhaps then they are right to concentrate on cleaning up the illegal and accidental discharges of wastewater before tackling the finer points of more advanced clean up.

Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, another council member, said officials should clarify to what extent illegal discharges and improperly connected pipes contributed to water pollution. He also questioned whether the upgrade would have the intended effect, as improvements might be offset by cross-border pollution.

As a side note, the Kai Tak nullah, has been renamed Kai Tak river and has seen the return of grey mullets. This drainage channel in the old airport area is a catchment for several rivulets from the foothills of the Kowloon mountains, but was surrounded by rapidly growing factories and homes from the 1960’s to the late 1980’s which discharged all their effluent into it. It was so badly polluted and foul smelling that at one point there was a plan to completely cover it up and make it subterranean! Luckily science prevailed in the planning and there is now a scheme to remediate and green the area and especially the river. Obviously this wi take years, but the effort seems to already be beating fruits. See the project website here for more details.

The former Kai Tak Nullah now Kai Tak River at Tung Tau Estate
The former Kai Tak Nullah now Kai Tak River at Tung Tau Estate