Accused of turning blind eye to illegal reef fish trade, Hong Kong government deploys new app

Published on
May 25, 2020

Demand for exotic and endangered fish species has collapsed in Hong Kong due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city’s government still needs to do more to improve the control and traceability of reef fish being smuggled in, according to Yvonne Sadovy de Mitcheson, a leading expert in the illegal trade of reef species like wrasse and grouper, which have become increasingly expensive and scarce largely due to demand from the banqueting market in greater China.

Sadovy, a professor at the Swire Institute of Marine Science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), is working with the Hong Kong government to help it improve enforcement using facial recognition for the endangered CITES-listed Napoleon wrasse fish. The facial recognition app, called “Saving Face,” is developed by Corvidae, a company which originated as a startup at HKU.

Yet aside from the wrasse, “none of the other fish are controlled or traced to my knowledge,” said Sadovy, who has flagged “an ongoing problem” of illegal trade by Hong Kong-registered live fish cargo vessels with the government’s Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) as well as the Customs and Marine Department on multiple occasions.

“This vessel trade includes wild-caught live fish exported out of Indonesia; suspected live fish cargo entering Hong Kong on the vessels as unmanifested cargo and ongoing smuggling of live fish over the border from Hong Kong to mainland China to avoid mainland tariffs. We have notified customs in Hong Kong and provide vessel names of about 10 suspected vessels,” Sadovy told SeafoodSource.

Following a meeting with Sadovy and others, city authorities notified owners of several Hong Kong-registered vessels that they are required to complete declarations and submit manifests, which doesn't always occur, Sadovy said.

“We know that this does not always happen because we have specific data on Napoleon fish imports under CITES permits, which are not reported to Customs as they should be, so that is material proof of the problem of underreporting to government at entry,” Sadovy said. “Customs told us that they depend heavily in 'intelligence' for intercepting vessels or following up on suspected cases and welcomed the data, asking for more if we have it, especially time and dates of vessel entry which, of course is very challenging to find. I have provided vessel names a number of times, but I have no idea if there is any follow-up. I have not heard of any prosecutions, but that does not mean there have been none.”

While keen to project an image of law and order, Hong Kong also energetically promotes itself as a free port and business center. The city’s government could not be reached by SeafoodSource for comment by press time.  

Photo courtesy of Sorbis/Shutterstock

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