Over exploitation of the Totoaba has been driven by demand in China for its swim bladder, a highly prized product known as ‘aquatic cocaine’. And bycatch catch in gillnets used to poach totoaba is close to eliminating the vaquita.Continue Reading...
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We are fishing and eating from our oceans unsustainably, eating down the food chainContinue Reading...
At a recent environmental forum in Beijing, the speakers were in full swing with relatively predictable insight into China’s environmental challenges, and more broadly, environmental challenges elsewhere.
Then came the question-and-answer period and again a couple of relatively innocuous questions before a Chinese man strode to the front of the auditorium and launched into a discussion of his own.
In angry tones and raised voice, he said the Chinese government was not doing enough to mitigate air, water and soil pollution and demanded immediate attention to related public health concerns.
No one flinched, people listened intently, respectfully, no one emerged from the shadows to haul him away. Several students in the audience also asked about lack of action on pollution and suggested that more should be done to clean the environment and protect citizen health.
I sat beside a Chinese friend who simply shrugged, saying she had seen the man speak out at two other recent environmental forums. She said that because of his stature as an energy expert, he was left unhindered to express his opinions publicly.
She pointed out that the students were also feeling free to criticize the government, whereas previously the unspoken line everyone knew not to cross was any sense of direct opposition to Beijing authorities.
My sense from the entire trip (my previous visit being only four months earlier) was that China is changing, and perhaps faster than we could have imagined.
For the first time, censors this year have allowed Chinese media to carry reports about the “cancer villages” in areas of high industrial pollution.
Environmental advocate Ma Jun told me with some amazement that he had felt free recently to criticize a recent Ministry of Environmental Protection decision not to release data about soil pollution, which it considered a “state secret”.
Ma Jun said this was irresponsible and put public health at risk, a comment that was unusually picked up by the People’s Daily and Xinhua, among other news sources that aren’t usually inclined to publish remarks critical of the government.
“Previously, these comments would have been removed by censors,” Ma Jun said. “Now these issues are allowed to be talked about, debated and discussed.”
This became particularly clear, as March brought the annual meetings of the legislative and consultative bodies of China where major policies traditionally are decided and key government officials appointed.
Concern for the environment was a constant throughout the session – and was the subject of one in ten of the 5,000 proposals submitted by delegates.
Social media was also alive with commentary on the environment throughout.
And talk about environmental protection wasn’t simply a side act to the main show. The National People’s Congress (NPC) at 2,987 members is the largest parliament in the world and gathers alongside the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) whose members represent various groups of society. This year, the NPC confirmed the new leadership of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
This once-in-a-decade leadership change emerged from November’s Communist Party congress with a strong reform mandate and promising a more sustainable China, balanced growth as well as more emphasis on environmental protection.
To be fair, this was not, however entirely a departure in direction from the previous Hu Jintao, Wen Jibao administration and it remains to be seen whether the result will be real change.
The 2011, 12th Five-Year Plan, which sets the direction for policy, of course emphasized balanced growth and set priority green industries. The mantra that emerged then was that economic growth should not come at the expense of resource depletion or pollution.
Wen Jibao, representing the departing Old Guard, opened the 12th National People’s Congress with a “Report of the Work of the Government” pointing to “steady progress in conserving energy, reducing emissions, and protecting the environment.”
But levels of anger are rising, fueled by recent truly off-the-charts air pollution in Beijing as well as the repeated and increasingly public (because of the rapid spread of news on social media platforms) water pollution incidents nationwide. Rampant corruption among local officials that has allowed harmful practices to continue unhindered has also been a target of microbloggers.
This sense of disregard for public health coupled with an increasingly affluent and vocal middle class presents a problem for the Chinese government in terms of its own legitimacy.
Recognizing this, Xi Jinping said at the March proceedings that the government should play a stronger role in pushing reform and opening up.
“The new administration wants a new start,” Ma Jun said. “They want to make clear that the current environmental challenges are not their fault.”
- China delegates in pollution protest vote (abc.net.au)
- China’s Poison Air Is Becoming Its Leading Export – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
- As Pollution Worsens in China, Solutions Succumb to Infighting (wtee.wordpress.com)
- China People’s Congress environment surprise (abc.net.au)
- Anger Over Pollution Becomes Main Cause of China Unrest (bloomberg.com)
We have spent the last few days contemplating with marine experts the real and terrifying challenges our oceans face and what we, as a philanthropic foundation, can do to stimulate urgent thought and action largely absent in Asia around the consumption and trade in fish.
While there is growing attention from governments (local, national and regional bodies), NGOs and philanthropic funders in the U.S., Europe, Australia and New Zealand, despite being an important consumer and producer, there has been little attention paid to the challenges in Asia, where an estimated 40 percent of major fish stocks are overexploited or collapsed. At the same time, as a region where poor coastal populations are largely dependent on fisheries for their only source of protein and employment, the issues are particularly urgent.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of just how significant those challenges are and why we in Asia should particularly take note.
Oceans cover 70 percent of our planet and are indispensable to life. They generate 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, absorb warming greenhouse gases, help regulate our climate and are a critical source of food for us all, but most importantly the 1 billion of our world’s poorest for whom fish is their only source of animal protein.
Yet as we have written about here and here, we are depleting, polluting and warming our oceans at unprecedented rates. We are not caring for our greatest resource in the rush to take more and produce more. While population growth has averaged 1.7 percent each year over the past 50 years, with greater global affluence, rates of fish consumption are increasing at an annual rate of 3.2 percent, according to the FAO’s 2012 State of the World’s Fisheries and Aquaculture. How will it be when our current population of 7 billion reaches an expected 9 billion by 2050?
Over the past 50 years we have consumed an estimated 90 percent of the ocean’s big fish, encouraged by $27 billion each year in misguided government subsidies for fuel or boat construction offered to the industrial-scale fishing fleets that have led the devastating global scramble to harvest, according to a Pew Environment Group report. Estimates are that about half the world’s wild capture production comes from the smaller coastal fisheries that can be just as destructive, usually are unregulated and yet are a vital source of employment and protein.
The total number of fishing vessels in the world in 2010 is estimated at about 4.36 million and again it’s worth noting that Asia has the largest fleet, accounting for 73 percent of the world total, according to the FAO.
World per capita food fish supply increased from an average of 9.9 kg in the 1960s to 18.4 kg in 2009, and likely 18.6 kg in 2010 when all the numbers are in. Of the 126 million tonnes available for human consumption in 2009, Asia accounted for two-thirds of which 42.8 million tonnes was consumed outside China (15.4 kg per capita).
China, which is expected to pull an additional 300 million people out of rural poverty and into relative urban affluence over the next two decades, has a long way to go. Already over the past 50 years, that country’s share in world fish production rose from 7 percent to 35 percent in 2010, largely fueled by growth in aquaculture there, while fish consumption per capita rose to 31.9 kg in 2009, with an average annual rate of growth of 6 percent between 1990-2009. China is also the world’s largest single exporter, responsible for 12 percent of world trade by volume.
China now produces more than 60 percent of the world’s aquaculture by volume, while Asia as a whole accounts for 89 percent of global volume. This is not, however, taking pressure off our oceans as many people seem to believe. fishmeal itself contains fish and for the more expensive fish the conversion rates are not good. World aquaculture production reached an all-time high in 2010 of 60 million tons, meaning we now farm about half our global consumption.
This massive and growing consumption has meant that most of the stocks of the top ten species, which account for about 30 percent of world marine capture fisheries production, are fully exploited and have no potential for increases in production. Our fishing capacity, meanwhile, is estimated to be as much as two to four times that needed to harvest the sustainable yield catch from the world’s fisheries.
Meanwhile, not only are we emptying our oceans of life, by overfishing, we are killing what’s left with our bad terrestrial habits.
Acidification and the accompanying ocean warming are continuing apace as our marine life absorbs carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted by our factories, power plants and transport sector. This has been devastating to our coral reefs, the habitat for 25 percent of our marine species.
Humans are also responsible for a wide assortment of pollutants from oil spills to plastic waste to industrial and municipal effluent, to agricultural runoff from fertilizers that has created whole coastal dead zones.
And I could go on about Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing, which is an industry unto its own and about which not enough is known but its links to human trafficking, drugs, and terrorism finance have been sporadically documented. With lack of attention to fisheries in Asia and close to zero regulation, this is a particular challenge in terms of even beginning to think about how to stimulate action.
Still, it’s not all gloom and doom – at least in Europe, the U.S., Australia and new Zealand, where NGO pressure and governments (both local and national, as well as regional bodies) have started to focus on the myriad challenges.
According to the FAO report, good progress is being made in reducing exploitation rates and restoring overexploited fish stocks and marine ecosystems through effective management. In the United States of America, 67 percent of all stocks are now being sustainably harvested, while only 17 percent are still overexploited. In New Zealand, 69 percent of stocks are above management targets, reflecting mandatory rebuilding plans for all fisheries that are still below target thresholds. Similarly, Australia reports overfishing for only 12 percent of stocks in 2009. There is also growing EU and USA action around IUU fishing.
But where is Asia in this equation – China, southeast Asia, Japan and India, which together consumed two-thirds of the world’s fish, farm more than 80 percent and export a large chunk to the rest of the world. On marine issues, both governments and NGOs are largely silent, with the exception of the creation of marine protected areas which in concept are important but reality need to be better conceived with proper fisheries management, governance, linkages and adequate funding for monitoring and enforcement.
The reality exists that none of the Asian nations have adequate fisheries management plans, import or export regulations or reliable stock assessments, to their own detriment. IUU fishing is rampant. Yet, fisheries are a vital source of employment and food for the region. Food security and potentially even social stability are at stake.
The question we have been asking ourselves – beyond those provoked by the challenges above – is: What role should a significant global trader such as Hong Kong play in this equation?
Once a fishing village with a booming fishing industry that sustained our appetite for highly commercial species such as snapper and grouper producing 90 percent of the fish we consumed, Hong Kong now imports 90 percent of what it consumes from 140 nations globally. The lack of fish in our oceans caused the government to buy out the once substantial trawling fleets and close Hong Kong waters to commercial fishing.
Despite the declining productivity of our own seas, our appetite for fish, particularly endangered luxury species, has only increased with our greater affluence. In 2009, an average of 71.6 kgs of seafood was consumed per person. That’s 3.9 times higher than the global average and up from 9.9 kg in the 1960s.
So the question remains: should not Hong Kong, a significant consumer of seafood and as such a contributor to global ocean challenges not act now to help save our seas? The key to keep our oceans from emptying completely will be for governments to adopt policies that encourage sustainable consumption and to regulate the fishing and seafood-related industry more carefully.
- Green Blog: A Milestone Looms for Farm-Raised Fish (green.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Fishers Fight Over Dwindling Catch (ipsnews.net)
- David Bank: Fish 2.0: Investing in Sustainable Oceans and Fisheries (huffingtonpost.com)
- What’s up with Sustainable Seafood? (jenniferbrowne.org)
- World Fisheries: are we managing an effective decline? (worldfishing.net)
- The high seas are too precious to be left to plunderers and polluters | Callum Roberts (guardian.co.uk)
An unbelievable and disturbing sight photographed Jan. 2nd in Kennedy Town, Hong Kong by Alex Hofford and Paul Hilton. An estimated 18,000 fins were found drying in the beautiful early January sunshine.
About 50 percent of the global shark fin trade passes through Hong Kong, largely to feed Asian appetites for shark fin soup and other shark-related product. Estimates are that possibly as many as 73 million shark are harvested annually in a lucrative trade estimated in value from US$540 million to US$1.2 billion.
A third of all fins imported to Hong Kong come from Europe, with Spain as the largest supplier, providing between 2,000 and 5,000 metric tons a year. Norway supplies 39 metric tonnes. Britain, France, Portugal and Italy are also major suppliers. Bags of fin labeled from Brazil were found on the Hong Kong rooftop.
As affluence has grown in Asia, particularly China, so too has demand for shark fin soup, which is eaten largely as an expensive delicacy at wedding and other banquets.
One-third of sharks species are threatened or near-threatened with extinction, according to the IUCN Red List.
Many brands that say they are producing sustainable product are in reality greenwashing their textile production in China, according to the latest report from five environmental NGOs in China.
“Sustainable Apparel’s Critical Blind Spot,” which can be found here, was a follow on from a report I wrote about here released in April that named 49 global fashion brands using polluting factories in China and suggested consumers make a “green choice” when buying clothes.
Led by Ma Jun’s Institute for Environmental and Public Affairs, “Cleaning up the Fashion Industry” listed 6,000 water pollution violations by manufacturers of goods ranging from sports apparel to luxury handbags.
Subsequently, 30 brands began conversations with IPE about how to improve the environmental performance of their supply chain, according to Ma Jun.
Clothing brands and retailers such as H&M, Nike, Esquel, Levi’s Adidas, Walmart, Burberry and Gap have all established regular screening mechanisms, are actively identifying pollution violations in their supply chain and have pushed more than 200 textile and leather suppliers to clean up.
Adidas, Nike, Levi’s and H&M have begun to address environmental challenges with their dyeing and finishing suppliers, the report said.
The latest investigation looked deeper into supply chains following a letter sent September 25th by the NGOs to the 49 brands requesting information about pollution management issues at materials suppliers.
Besides IPE, authors of the report were, Friends of Nature, Green Beagle, Envirofriends and Nanjing Greenstone
In all, 22 of the brands receiving the letter, including Marks & Spencer, Disney, J.C. Penney, Polo Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger gave limited or no responses to specific questions relative to emissions violation problems in their supply chain. This despite Marks & Spencer, for example, promoting its “Plan A”, which is a sustainable business benchmark for global textile companies and retailers.
Companies promoting sustainability should “not continue to let suppliers pollute the environment and hurt communities whilst using concepts such as ‘zero waste’ and ‘carbon neutral’ to greenwash their performance,” the environmental NGOs wrote in the report.
The report draws attention to the fact that textile exports from China have dropped recently, weighed by higher labor costs in China, trade barriers, the appreciation of the RMB and higher resource costs.
Big brands have moved some of their cut and sew production to South and Southeast Asia. Nike shut down its only shoe factory in China and recently, Adidas also closed its only factory in China, leading people to believe China is steadily losing its status as the textile factory to the world.
But materials production is still concentrated in China, with exports of these products rising steadily, according to the report. This is the most polluting portion of the apparel supply chain.
In the raw materials processing sector, which includes dyeing and finishing, exports are growing steadily. According to the 2011/2012 China Textile Industry Report, for the six main printing and dyeing product categories, the total amount of exported printed and dyed cloth was 14.412 billion meters which showed a year on year growth of 13.76%.
The value of exported printed and dyed products was US$16.979 billion, which showed a year on year growth of 31.26%. However, at the same time the total value of all exported textile products only increased by 0.49%.
The cut and sew industry provides the most jobs, uses less water and energy and pollution discharge is not a big problem. However, the reverse is true for textile production. Essentially, China has kept the dirty part of the business, while allowing the relatively clean, job-creating cut and sew industry to wane.
The problem is that enforcement of pollution remains weak in China, while the cost of inputs like water and energy are still relatively low. So dyeing and finishing companies often avoid any water or energy savings initiatives and disregard pollution control, ignoring environmental laws and regulations.
Sustainable apparel in particular, has a ”dangerous blind spot,” according to the report, which means that dyeing and finishing mills and factories lower their environmental standards to cut costs and win orders in a race to the bottom.
Essentially the problem is that most apparel and retail brands still choose not to look into the polluting part of their business – the bottom of the supply chain. Consequently, materials manufacturers are still trying to produce in the cheapest way possible in order to keep costs low for fast fashion.
We as consumers must recognize that we have a choice not to buy the cheapest item on the shelves, to acquire less and from companies that truly care about not doing harm to our planet.