Hong Kong is best known as a financial and business center. But the territory with its many islands has about nine thousand fishermen who make a living casting their nets in the South China Sea. But often, the nets are almost empty when they return.
This fisherman says the sea used to be full of fish, but it is not any longer.
Andy Cornish is director of conservation at the Hong Kong office of the World-wild Fund for Nature. He says the catch rate of fishermen here has dropped significantly in the past five decades.
The problem is not unique to Hong Kong. Stephen Hall, head of the WorldFish Center, a Malaysia research institute, says that all over Asia, sea fish stocks have gone down by up to 30 percent since the 1970’s.
“The most dramatic decline for sea fisheries has been in the Gulf of Thailand and the east coast of Malaysia, but it’s a pretty common story throughout the Asian region,” Hall said.
Andy Cornish says there are two main reasons for the over-fishing. One is the rapid population growth in the region. Another, he says, is that many countries in the region have not taken fisheries management seriously enough.
commercially fish within Hong Kong waters. So there is no control whatsoever on fish, the size of the catches, the size of nets – nothing like that,” Cornish said. “So we have a situation where fishermen are competing against each other for the last fish that are left.”
The decline of fish stocks is a global problem, but it hits Asia harder than other parts of the world. The Asia-Pacific region is not only the world’s largest producer of fish, but people here consume more fish and seafood than anywhere else. The WorldFish Center says fish and seafood traditionally provide up to 80 percent of the protein intake of people in the region.
While fish stocks are declining, the demand for seafood has risen as a result of the region’s growing affluence. Prices have gone up, especially for large and rare species.
Live reef fish, for example, sell for as much as $200 a kilogram in restaurants in Hong Kong, where the demand for rare delicacies is high
Hall says seafood has become less affordable for Asia’s poor.
Experts say the large commercial fishing operators in Asia are still able to make money. But the declining fish stocks are devastating to millions of small fishermen, who are among the poorest people in Asia. Simon Funge-Smith is a fisheries expert at the office of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization in Bangkok. He says the FAO is concerned about the future of the region’s fishing communities.
“The very serious concern that we have is that as the fishing livelihood becomes ever more marginal economically, the fishermen don’t really have anywhere to turn – their only assets are their boats or their fishing gear, they quite often are landless or have very small land holdings or homes near the sea,” Funge-Smith said. “They can’t suddenly go off and do other jobs – they have no skills. So it’s a very bleak future for their families.”