Hong Kong fish import data full of holes
THOUGH SUSTAINABLE Seafood Week and shark fin bans have made some Hong Kong consumers more careful when choosing their seafood, it appears there is some way to go before this has a meaningful impact on the seafood imported into the territory. According to the September 2017 Live Reef Food Fish Wet Market Report Survey, 17 threatened fish species were on sale in Hong Kong’s wet markets. These include the Humphead Wrasse and Hong Kong Grouper – both considered delicacies in a number of Asian cultures – that have been listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List since 2004 and 2003 respectively. As a global hub for the live reef food fish (LRFF) trade, Hong Kong imports and, in cases, re-exports fish from more than 40 different countries – including Indonesia, Australia and the Maldives – worth more than HK$2.5 million on import annually. Despite warnings against consuming endangered species, these fish still find their way to market illegally as a result of outdated regulations, legal loopholes, inadequate monitoring – particularly those that arrive by sea – as well as deliberate misreporting by traders, transport and logistic managers. Relentless overexploitation of LRFF is especially problematic in species that exhibit late sexual maturation, longevity and slow growth. Populations of the aforementioned Humphead Wrasse and coral groupers, for instance, dropped by 80% since the turn of the century, according to a phys.org article in 2015. Additionally, destructive practices like dynamite and cyanide fishing can harm corals and further affect reefdependent populations. Hong Kong-licensed fish carriers – large ships also known as reefers that typically lack fishing gear of their own – are a major factor in this damaging trade. These ships pick up from far-flung fishing fleets and ferry the fish to Hong Kong. Until 2007, these carriers were treated as fishing vessels and were exempt from import declarations to the Census and Statistics Department. The Marine Department clarified the differentiation more than a decade ago and threatened to levy a fine of up to HK$2 million and imprison owners for up to seven years should carriers fail to report import numbers. But to date, there isn’t a functioning system that tracks their border crossings, making enforcement nearly impossible. Currently there are known to be 30 or so fishing carriers cruising in and out of Hong Kong waters once or twice a month. Dr Yvonne Sadovy, lead author of the report ‘The trade in live reef food fish – Going, going gone’ published by ADM Capital and Hong Kong University, said she has evidence that some of these vessels are not being tracked by the system. “We already have ample evidence from a range of sources that some of these vessels are not reporting their cargo, and this is made particularly easier by the fact that they don’t have to report their entry or exit,” she says. “This is potentially a problem because this means there’s no way for the Government to actually know whether they’re reporting or not, because they can’t trace who came in on a certain date, and within 14 days whether they have reported a declaration or manifest.” WWF-HONG Kong’s Manager of Oceans Sustainability, Allen To, said regulation shouldn’t be difficult, given the few carriers. “Unlike local fishing vessels, which come in and out of Hong Kong every single day so it is still reasonable to exempt them from reporting entry and exit, there are only 30 or so of these licensed carriers that are usually back once or twice in a month,” says To. “And most importantly, they are regarded as import. So why doesn’t the Marine Department require their exact arrival date and time, just like with other large cargo vessels?” Yet even after years of petitioning from the likes of WWF and Dr Sadovy, the government has yet to take action or even offer a concrete plan. When we contacted Hong Kong customs, they acknowledged the illegality of transporting LRFF but ignored our question on the possible monitoring of border crossings. Sustainability requires collective effort from suppliers, retailers and consumers. If the effort is limited to the latter two parties as the Hong Kong government continues to sit on the sidelines, no real change can happen. For the time being, consumers should consider downloading a sustainable seafood guide, asking your waiter where the catch comes from, and heading to WWF and Choose Right websites for tips on staying away from endangered species.