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On 31 December 2012, a ban came into effect in Hong Kong on the destructive fishing method known as trawling. However, 22% of the locally registered fleet of 5,030 vessels employing over 10,100 local fishermen still operate trawl nets in the adjacent waters of the South China Sea in 2019.
Around 20% of the seafood we consume in Hong Kong is from local waters, so we need improve the sustainability of the local fisheries and support sustainable harvest methods. These are highly selective, e.g. hook and line and hand picking, which avoid the capture of vulnerable or non-target species and have limited detrimental impact on the surrounding habitat.
Trawling is a non-selective fishing method that involves dragging a net behind a boat. The average size of a trawling mesh is 4cm x 11.5cm, so the potential for bycatch is very high. Trawl nets also destroy coral and stir up sediments as they drag along the seafloor, with serious ecological consequences. It can take years for these habitats to recover.
While trawling is banned in Hong Kong waters, it still happens in other parts of the world. In the 1950s, a new technology for trawling allowed fishermen to trawl a larger area, fish deeper, and for a longer time. This led to cod stocks depleting at a faster rate than they could be replenished. In the summer of 1992, the Atlantic cod biomass fell to 1% of its earlier levels, leading to the Canadian government banning fishing for Atlantic cod to help the population recover. But have we learned from past mistakes? Apparently not. In Australia, the orange roughy fishery still uses bottom trawling, which has raised objections from WWF and other conservation groups, particularly as it is applying for MSC certification.
If you are wondering which seafood items are sustainable, the WWF-Hong Kong Seafood Guide covers over 70 popular species, outlining the harvest method for each item. The three categories in the guide are “green – recommended”, “yellow – think twice”, and “red – avoid’. Remember to check the guide before you consume or purchase seafood to see which products are sustainable.
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