HONG KONG — Hong Kong's enormous appetite for seafood and its role as a hub for the global seafood trade is having an unfortunate impact on endangered fish species.
Chinese cuisine prizes seafood, so it's perhaps not surprising that per capita seafood consumption in Hong Kong averages 70 kilograms a year, about four times the global average. But the city is also a hub for trade into mainland China, where consumption is on the rise. All of that is putting a strain on endangered marine life and driving an unexpected sustainability push.
On a busy Saturday morning at Hong Kong's giant Aberdeen Fish Market, traders are milling around buying seafood for restaurants and the city's retailers. One of the dealers here is Betty Chu, who runs a distributor called Family Care Ltd., which imports seafood from all over the world.
"The market is really good," Chu says. "People are looking for prime products, they're health conscious, and they're willing to pay more for better food. We import globally lobster, scallop, abalone, shrimp, crabs and more. It's a lot! My business is good and growing every year."
But while business is booming, some of the city's seafood traders are switching to sustainable seafood. Wong Ping Chai, who runs the Hoi Kee Ho Fresh Seafood import company, began seeking out sustainable seafood several years ago when a Dutch supplier explained to him that many fish species were becoming scarce. It led him to join Fish and Season, a global fish trading network that trades only sustainably caught seafood.
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At Hong Kong's Aberdeen floating fish market — Photo: Paul Stein
"Fish and Season is an organization originally from Holland that started around 1992," he says. "They found out in Europe the fish are getting fewer and fewer, and if it goes on it will be disastrous." He learned that the same thing was happening in Asia.
Activists have been trying to educate consumers, and are encouraging them to be more careful about the seafood they buy. Allen To, who works in the Hong Kong offices of the World Wildlife Fund, monitors local imports and consumption of endangered seafood species. He says per capita consumption of seafood in Hong Kong is second in Asia and seventh in the world.
"That's why in Hong Kong we do have the responsibility to try not only to reduce our own ecological footprint but to try to reduce our impact on the ocean of many other countries," he says. "We believe if we can push sustainable seafood in Hong Kong, then eventually we can help at least to reduce our impact on fish resources, particularly in the Asia Pacific region."
But price is an issue. Keith Tsui, managing director of New Bon Marine, another Hong Kong seafood company concentrating on sustainable products, says education and government awareness campaigns are helping turn consumers onto sustainable seafood. But so far the focus has been on high-value species such as black cod, salmon and shellfish.
He wants to get lower-income groups switching to sustainable seafood too. "We are trying to get more products for the budget class," he explains. "A couple of years ago, we did a good job with a fastfood chain in Hong Kong. They use sustainable seafood for breakfast for the budget class. This is a great leap forward for us."
Campaigners want consumers to make sustainable choices, but they're also calling on Hong Kong's political leaders to clamp down on illegal catches. The WWF's Allen To says illegal fishing has depleted stocks of rare wild fish such as grouper from the coral reefs of Southeast Asia.
"Hong Kong and China are the main trading and consumption areas for live reef fish, including grouper and the humpback wrasse," To says. "Many of the grouper species are already overexploited, and some of them are threatened species."
Seafood trader Keith Tsui, meanwhile, wants to bring more sustainably produced seafood products to Hong Kong by focusing on an innovative new approach in the retail sector and in schools.
"We will try to liaise more with school lunch boxes and let them tell the kids they are using sustainable food," Tsui says. "This customer group is the future. "They are the biggest influencers on their parents."
And Hong Kong wants to ensure there will be fish in the sea for future consumers.