Hong Kong Sets High Bar with Trawling Ban

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A guest post from TIME Asia’s editorial intern Vanessa Ko:

Last month, Hong Kong banned the destructive practice of trawl fishing in its waters. A few days later, affected fishermen showed up with their boats by the hundreds on Victoria Harbour, red protest banners waving brightly in the drizzling rain.But they were not opposing the ban. Many Hong Kong fishermen are more than happy to sell their boats to the government and put an end to their days of trawling, which in recent years has yielded only the most dismal of catches, with fish averaging about 4 inches in length. Instead, the dispute has been over the division of the HK$1.7 billion ($220 million) set aside to compensate them and other affected workers for loss of livelihood and to buy out the boats once the ban was in place.

Fair or unfair, that compensation scheme was approved by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council today, which means affected fishermen can soon begin to apply for payment and sell their boats to the government if they so choose. The government will pay anywhere from US$115,000 to $705,000 for each trawler, every last one of which must disappear from Hong Kong waters before the end of 2012, when the ban is slated to come into effect.

Four hundred boats trawl the small body of water within Hong Kong’s jurisdiction; the government estimates that they account for 80% of the territory’s fishing effort. While widespread globally, bottom trawling is considered the most destructive way to fish. The boats drag a weighted net along the sea floor which indiscriminately scoops out marine life while crashing through corals and other fish habitat. Acknowledging the detrimental effects of bottom trawling on fisheries, the United Nations tried in 2006 to put a moratorium on the practice in international waters, but it was unsuccessful in the face of strong opposition by Iceland and a few other fishing nations. “Fisheries issues often become very political because you’re talking about people’s livelihoods and very traditional industries,” says Andy Cornish, director of conservation at WWF in Hong Kong, which led a seven-year campaign for the ban.

The European Union’s fishing industry has been relatively resistant to legislation against trawling and has few such policies. Meanwhile, dozens of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Malaysia and China, have established no-trawl zones. In the U.S., bottom trawling is banned off most of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Hong Kong is one of the very few places to ban the practice completely, joining Indonesia, Palau and Belize.

(See photos of how industrial fishing is hurting Chilean fishermen.)

Hong Kong isn’t known for its green initiatives — in fact, Asia’s International City is more famous for its pollution, making this legislation seem all the more unusual. Cornish says the ban will be closely watched globally, because even though Hong Kong is small, the impact of removing such a large portion of the fishing fleet will be great. “I’m not aware of anywhere else that’s done it on that kind of scale,” Cornish says. Since the ban passed, he says he has been invited to consult in another Southeast Asian country that is considering implementing similar legislation, though he declined to identify the country as the plans have not yet been formally announced.

Yvonne Sadovy, fisheries expert and professor at the University of Hong Kong, is not surprised that other countries are showing interest in Hong Kong’s latest conservation effort. She says the ban sets a good example within Southeast Asia. “Governments do like to point to precedents. It’s harder for them to do something if no one else is doing it,” Sadovy says. “And on the other hand, it’s hard to ignore if lots of other people are doing it.”