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Trawling ban is Tsang's greatest contribution to conservation

Markus Shaw, Founding Member of Designing Hong Kong and former Chairman of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Hong Kong, has for many years spearheaded the campaign to ban trawling in Hong Kong. In this letter which was first published in the South China Morning Post on 9 November 2010 he responds to the announcement in this year's Policy Address of a trawling ban next year.

Buried in the chief executive's policy address was the magnificent news that the government intends to introduce legislation next year to ban trawling in Hong Kong waters.

Of all the 171 paragraphs in the address announcing all manner of policies, this is the one which is likely to have the most far-reaching effect for Hong Kong's posterity. I have no doubt that it will be remembered as the outstanding contribution of Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's administration to conservation.

Make no mistake, bottom trawling - which involves dragging a heavy net along the sea floor - is the most mindlessly destructive fishing method, involving habitat destruction as well as indiscriminate capture and wasteful by-catch. It is the equivalent of dragging a net through a country park and tearing up all trees and shrubs, for the sake of the capture of a few species of animal. This is something that the community would simply never tolerate, but which has been tolerated in the undersea world for far too long.

The banning of bottom trawling is a major step in the long road to recovery for our marine environment. The announcement in the policy address was followed by the very encouraging statement by Wong Yung-kan, the lawmaker representing the agriculture and fisheries functional constituency.

He called on the government to introduce a licensing regime for commercial fishermen. This is a crucial measure and a prerequisite of any trawler buyout scheme. It is also crucial to future enforcement.

In my many interactions with Hong Kong fishermen, a common refrain was the perceived injustice of being told to stop fishing, only for mainland fishermen to come into Hong Kong waters and scoop up what has been left behind.

Many are the policy initiatives announced in the policy address which, in the end, never see the light of day.

Let us hope that the government will press this one to its conclusion.

What gives me hope is that, firstly, financial resources have been set aside for buyout schemes and livelihood support for affected fishermen; and secondly, the fishing industry itself seems now to acknowledge the need for effective fisheries management.

My hope is that the trawling ban will be combined with an extension of our marine park system and no-take zones, and that rather than simply being paid-off, ex-fishermen will be employed in marine park management and enforcement. Acting as educators and guides to our rich marine environment will allow retiring fishermen the chance to continue to be involved with the sea, which few people know better than they.

There is a chance that this will become known as the nadir of our marine environment, the time when we turned things around.

One thing I can promise Mr Tsang, apart from my gratitude, is that he will have the satisfaction within his own lifetime of seeing our local waters teeming with life again, and knowing that he had a part to play in it.

Markus Shaw
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