Ocean threat from Hong Kong’s taste for seafood


A seafood lunch in Hong Kong is en­joyed by lo­cals and visi­tors alike, but with threat­ened species on the menu and fish­ing prac­tices that en­dan­ger marine life, cam­paign­ers want to change the city’s ap­petite.

Hong Kong is the sec­ond-largest con­sumer of seafood per capita in Asia — an av­er­age res­i­dent con­sumes 71.2 kilo­grams of seafood each year, more than four times the global av­er­age, ac­cord­ing to the World Wide Fund for Na­ture (WWF)Hong Kong.

Yet the city of 7 mil­lion has been forced to be­come one of the big­gest seafood im­porters in the world as lo­cal wa­ters are de­pleted of fish stocks.

Whether in high-end restau­rants or water­side eater­ies, seafood is ubiq­ui­tous in the south­ern Chi­nese city, where cus­tomers of­ten choose their fish live from a tank.

Baked lob­ster with noo­dles in cheese and deep-fried prawns in salted egg yolk are among lo­cal fa­vorites.

But a “fish tank in­dex” com­piled by WWF Hong Kong found that more than 50 per­cent of the species avail­able in the city’s tra­di­tional res­tau­rant tanks were from “highly un­sus­tain­able” sources.

“Over­fish­ing is driv­ing the col­lapse of the world’s ocean fish stocks and edg­ing many types of fish to­wards ex­tinc­tion, yet they are still on our menus,” WWF Hong Kong con­ser­va­tion di­rec­tor Gavin Ed­wards told AFP.

“Hong Kong has a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity to turn the tide as one of the big­gest con­sumers of seafood.”

Un­sus­tain­able fish in­clude those caught by con­tro­ver­sial fish­ing prac­tices, such as us­ing cyanide poi­son, or from over­fish­ing al­ready de­pleted species.

Pop­u­lar, threat­ened seafood in Hong Kong in­clude grouper, wild sea cu­cum­ber and hump­head wrasse — a coral reef fish.

Lack of In­for­ma­tion

The WWF has launched a new online seafood guide for Hong Kong de­tail­ing which types are deemed un­sus­tain­able.

It also re­cently held a “Sus­tain­able Seafood Week” ask­ing restau­rants to pro­vide ocean-friendly op­tions.

But there is still a way to go to change con­sumer habits.

Vis­it­ing Hong Kong for a post­grad­u­a­tion trip, Ja­panese stu­dent Ted Machizawa, 22, has just fin­ished lunch in the coastal town of Sai Kung, fa­mous for its seafood.

He says he had no idea whether his meal — steamed grouper and shrimps — could pose a threat to the ocean.

“We’re just try­ing to see what it’s like here. We are prob­a­bly not too keen on know­ing what kind of fish it is,” he said, sit­ting me­ters away from tanks packed with live crabs and reef fish.

Hong Konger Jan­ice Fung said restau­rants rarely gave in­for­ma­tion on sourc­ing.

“If you go to an ex­pen­sive res­tau­rant or a spe­cial­ized seafood shop they might tell you. Oth­er­wise the in­for­ma­tion is not com­pre­hen­sive,” she said as she waited for a meal at Cafe Deco on the city’s fa­mous Vic­to­ria Peak, which serves a wide range of seafood.

“If you tell me what I am eat­ing is not sus­tain­able I will try to avoid it,” she added.

Cafe Deco has opted to pro­vide an al­ter­na­tive sus­tain­able menu as part of the WWF push — shun­ning the con­tro­ver­sial del­i­cacy shark fin, for ex­am­ple.

“You can’t nec­es­sar­ily tell the dif­fer­ence (in fla­vor) ... if you don’t use shark fin to make dumplings,” se­nior chef Wil­liam Chang told AFP as he put the fin­ish­ing touches to ocean trout-stuffed ravi­oli, a dish on the sus­tain­able menu.

Chang says restau­rants should “take the first step” to change peo­ple’s eat­ing habits.

Some sup­pli­ers are also try­ing to help.

Banker-turned-fish farmer Mark Kwok hopes that by farm­ing grou- pers, which are on the de­cline in the ocean, he can help stem the cri­sis.

His farm in the north­ern hill­side town of Yuen Long was ac­cred­ited as sus­tain­able by the WWF in 2013.

“We have about 35,000 fish. Even if you were to eat all of them, it wouldn’t make a dent in the ecosys­tem be­cause these are farmed fish that have never seen the ocean,” he told AFP.




Phil- ip­pines say stocks of grouper are dwin­dling near the is­land of Palawan, a ma­jor source for Hong Kong.

“We have fish­er­men who say they used to catch them near the coast. But now, they have to go fur­ther out to sea,” said Melo Ponce De Leon, spokes­woman of the gov­ern­ment’s Palawan Coun­cil for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment.

Fear of Change

Some Hong Kong restau­ra­teurs worry that chang­ing their menus would dent their in­comes.

“Many of our cus­tomers are from main­land China and they want to get some­thing they have never seen be­fore,” says Ng Wailun, one of the own­ers of Chuen Kee Seafood Res­tau­rant on Sai Kung’s prom­e­nade.

“They like to pick the col­or­ful ones ... or some­thing caught fresh from the wild,” said Ng, point­ing out a tank of hump­head wrasse and groupers.

Ng says he would have to scrap 70 per­cent of the menu to make it ocean-friendly, some­thing he fears would drive cus­tomers away.

But cam­paign­ers say progress has been made.

“We found in a re­cent sur­vey that 80 per­cent of cus­tomers would not buy un­sus­tain­able seafood if they knew it was un­sus­tain­able,” says Ed­wards.

“There is more aware­ness, but we still have much fur­ther to go.”


(Left) This pic­ture, taken on July 27, shows Cafe Deco’s ex­ec­u­tive sous chef Wil­liam Chang pre­par­ing a meal from the sus­tain­able seafood menu at their res­tau­rant on Vic­to­ria Peak, Hong Kong.

(Right) This pic­ture, taken on June 25, shows a worker wait­ing in a seafood stall in the Wan­chai wet mar­kets in Hong Kong.

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