Hong Kong not making an effort on sustainability

Passengers going through Hong Kong airport recently will have noticed the large posters warning against trafficking of ivory, put there by the city’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The posters are welcome but what of the tons of illegally caught rare fish that are regularly transported into and through this prosperous city? Don’t endangered reef fish species deserve similar posters?

The city may be Asia’s top hub for seafood trading and consumption, but Hong Kong’s government makes no effort to promote sustainability in the sector. At least that’s the view of a respected aquaculture practitioner in the city – Mark Kwok at Aquaculture Technologies Asia Ltd.

Kwok’s efforts to replace wild stocks of grouper fish – one of the most coveted species in the Hong Kong market – have gotten him loyal customers in the local restaurant trade. But Kwok believes sustainable production and consumption could really take off if government promoted the importance and availability of sustainable product in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s top official, CY Leung, visited his grouper farms earlier this year – but only after he’d gone to visit aquaculture farms in the mainland city of Dongguan at the invitation of authorities there (who are keen to secure sales of their fish in Hong Kong). Officials are “not interested” in local efforts at more sustainable seafood sources to replace grouper and wrasse stocks overfished in southeast Asian waters, concludes Kwok.

Hong Kong drew praise from WWF and others for a 2011 ban on trawlers in its own waters. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and Food and Health Bureau took the action to reduce overfishing and paid HKD 1.7 billion (USD 219 million, EUR 196 million) in compensation to fishermen in order to enforce the ban (which doesn’t cover non-trawler fishing vessels).

Meanwhile, a Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan published by the city’s government pledges that by 2020 all fish and other aquatic creatures will be “managed and harvested sustainably.”

But while it’s taking action to protect its own waters, Hong Kong seems a lot less rushed about improving the sustainability the seafood it imports, in particular, rare species like wild tropical grouper. . When it comes to certification schemes, Hong Kong lags behind, mainly because of the prevalence of wet markets, but also due to highly concentrated nature of the city’s retail trade. The de facto duopoly that runs Hong Kong’s food retail means they face less of an imperative to use sustainability as a competitive advantage.

Hong Kong’s government, which has shown it cares about the island being used as a gateway for illegally poached ivory, now needs to show similar effort to prevent Hong Kong being a trading hub for endangered reef fish, which are so prized in Chinese restaurants.

One macabre view of the situation is that the Hong Kong government’s foot-dragging is intentional rather than the result of apathy or indifference. Does the government fear losing its status as a trading hub and a holiday destination for wealthy Chinese? It certainly appears that Hong Kong doesn’t want to do anything that might harm local tourism and its logistics businesses, from which the city derives such a lot of revenue. The profitability of its port and freight handlers appears to be more important to Hong Kong’s government than enforcing sustainability standards.

Seafood shippers selling into Asia like using Hong Kong because they don’t pay tax. And, as previously mentioned, those taxes are a big deal – taxes on imported seafood levied by mainland China are typically 25 percent on top of the product’s price.

But Hong Kong’s government also doesn’t demand health certifications or certificates of origin, which are required in mainland China. While the city prides itself on the incorruptible, diligent nature of its government – in a region where clean, transparent governance is often hard to come by – it’s the case that mainland China has been more proactive in seafood.

Granted, China’s efforts on sustainability are mainly occurring as indirect consequences of policies like the anti-corruption campaign that has cut some demand for rare species. The mainland Chinese crackdown on customs, primarily being used to collect more taxes and better regulate food safety, appears to be having the effect of forcing greater traceability on the seafood trade into mainland China. Such traceability isn’t possible in Hong Kong without a paperwork trail of certificates of origin.

Approximately HKG 31 billion (USD 4 billion, EUR 3.6 billion) of seafood is imported into Hong Kong each year. Much of that heads to mainland China, either through legal channels or via transhipments through Vietnam, from where seafood often travels to mainland China through infamous overland ‘grey’ channels. On a per capita basis, Hong Kong’s consumption of seafood is second only to Japan globally. In volume totals, Hong Kong’s seafood consumption is seventh largest in the world, and by the calculations of Friends of the Earth, is at a level that’s twice the figure needed to be sustainable.

Food safety, freshness and price have long been the main considerations of Hong Kong consumers when they buy seafood. Sustainability needs to count too. Given the massive per capita consumption, there’s a special onus on Hong Kong to promote and certify sustainable seafood.

“Don’t bring ivory into or out of Hong Kong,” say the posters at Hong Kong airport. Let’s see a poster with this slogan: Don’t bring endangered reef fish species into or out of Hong Kong.


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