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By Stanley Shea

The  European Parliament Fisheries Committee could in the next days quite irresponsibly kill proposed legislation to phase out the use of deep-sea bottom trawls and other destructive fishing gear in the Northeast Atlantic.

Predictably, many of the committee’s 25 members causing the most problem represent districts with deep-sea fishing interests, according to Bloom’s Claire Nouvian and an Oc. 2 New York Times Op-ed written by marine scientists Les Watling and Giles Boeuf.

According to scientists, 90 percent of the ocean is below 200 meters but not much is known about life there, expect that it is home to countless species, many of them as yet undocumented.  Research covers only about 1 percent of the vast area.

As fisheries have collapsed in shallow waters, the industry has looked to the deep for new species and have found only a few there that can be sold for human consumption or processed for fish meal. Yet trawls with gear heavy enough to reach 2,000 meters below the ocean’s surface have scooped up everything in their path, palatable or not, and thus reduced fish biomass by 80 percent over an area about the size of Britain.

According to the Op-Ed, in 2011, vessels from eight EU countries landed 15,000 metric tons of four species of marketable deep-sea fish, which represents only 0.4 percent of Europe’s fish haul. Because of the fragile and adverse conditions in  the deepest areas of our oceans, the fish are slow reproducers so this sort of fishing causes irreparable harm.

There exist many fragile species in the deep that are simply swept up or smashed by the trawl gear, which can leave the bottom or mid-areas of the ocean completely bereft of life. A declaration by 300 global scientists has urged that this type of destructive fishing be eliminated from the deep sea – now!

The deep sea battle is just part of the ocean tragedy, described well in the latest audit by an international team of marine scientists from the International Programmed on the State of the Ocean (IPSO).  Released earlier this month, the report showed that the world’s oceans and marine life face unprecedented threats from industrial pollution, global warming and rampant overfishing.

The IPSO paper calls for “urgent remedies”  because the “rate, speed, and impacts of change in the global ocean are greater, faster and more imminent than previously believed.”

The battle over deep sea trawling then is over “a small fishing area that produces a diminishing number of fish for a handful of companies , who despite massive subsidies from the EU and their own states are not profitable – all the while destroying countless organisms that represent the library of life on Earth,” according to the Op-Ed

Clearly, Trawling should be eliminated from the depths of the Northeast Atlantic. Yet  legislators, backed by industry, are staging an irresponsible fight in the Fisheries Committee of the European Parliament that is against all of our interests  and the real tragedy is that they could win.

 

Photo by Stanley Shea

Photo by Stanley Shea

Good news is always welcome when working in a field like ours where social and environmental challenges are often seemingly intransigent. Months or even years can pass with seemingly limited progress and then, suddenly, there is a decision that changes the work entirely or shifts us into fast-forward gear.

We had just one of those moments last week when the Hong Kong government recommended that shark fin not be served at official functions. In a circular dated September 4th but only announced last Friday in a press release, the government also said its employees should not consume the soup at functions they will be attending.

The intention was for the government to “demonstrate its commitment to the promotion of green living and sustainability,” according to the press release. Also included in the recommendation was that blue fin tuna and black moss should be avoided.

A government ban on public sector consumption of shark fin has been the primary “ask” of conservation groups working in Hong Kong on reducing the consumption and thus import of shark fin.

There has also been some success there: Although Hong Kong still imports about half of all shark fin traded globally, data from the Census and Statistics Department indicates a 19.8 per cent drop in imports from 2011 to 2012. This is particularly interesting given that for the 15 years through 2011 shark fin imports remained relatively constant at about 10,000 tons a year. Of course, the question is whether this reduction is due to declining supply – fewer sharks in the oceans – or a reduction in consumption.

Stay tuned for the results of our investigations. Working with Hong Kong Shark Foundation and Bloom, we intend to survey restaurants and wedding planners to get a sense of whether consumer tastes are changing – following some years of education on the biodiversity challenges associated with the consumption of shark fin.

Estimates are that the fins of as many as 73 million sharks are traded each year and scientists warn that the rate of fishing for sharks, many of which grow slowly and reproduce late in life, is unsustainable. Sharks help maintain marine habitats such as coral reefs and ocean health by regulating the variety and abundance of species below them in the food chain, including commercially important fish species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List estimates that of the 262 shark species where there is sufficient data to assess conservation status, 54 per cent, or 142 species, are at risk of extinction either now or in the near future.

When ADMCF in 2006 first started working with conservation groups in Hong Kong to research consumption habits and the trade, educate consumers about sharks and ultimately reduce consumption, the task certainly looked daunting.  There was a sense that expensive shark fin soup, served mostly as a status symbol at official or business functions and wedding banquets, was an entrenched cultural tradition.

Still, a study of cultural attitudes toward shark fin in 2011 by Bloom and the Hong Kong University Social Sciences Research Centre showed that 88 percent of respondents believed the Hong Kong government should prohibit the sale of products that involved killing endangered species. More than 75 percent said it would be acceptable not to include shark fin in a wedding menu.

Certainly, the first achievement milestone was, after much hard work by conservation groups here to educate hotel staff, recognizing last year that more than 60 percent of four and five-star hotels had either taken shark fin soup off their menus or would serve it only upon request.

More recently, airlines, led by Cathay Pacific, have said they will no longer carry shark fin as cargo unless they can be assured the fin is from sustainable sources. This is in line with many corporate sustainability policies.

The sense here, and perhaps globally, is that the “tide is turning” in favour of sharks. We believe that change is inevitable. Our job at ADMCF is to keep the pressure turned on both government and business, keep educating consumers and move us even closer toward more sustainable use of our already depleted oceans.

Photo by Alex Hofford

Photo by Alex Hofford

We hope the next milestone achieved will be a full Hong Kong government ban on the shark fin trade here until the industry can show that the product can be harvested sustainably. We are currently a long way from real sustainable supply, with only two small certified shark fisheries producing only spiny dogfish (small fins), which are not the source of much of the soup consumed in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

Yes, this is a big ask of a government that is usually reluctant to act on any environmental issue. Still, the recent government circular, dated September 4th stated, “The government is committed to the protection of endangered species.”

It also stated: “As the government is committed to the promotion of green living, we should take the lead and set a good example that goes beyond the minimum expectation as laid down in law.”

One of the world’s most important and largest-remaining stretches of protected forests could be lost within the month to mining, logging and plantation companies that want to reclassify the land.

If a new spatial planning goes ahead, the governor and parliament of Aceh province in Indonesia would hand over forest vital to an estimated 4 million people as watershed protection and critical to food security and livelihoods.

The forest being proposed for re-zoning is part of the protected Leuser ecosystem, which is one of the richest expanses of tropical rain forest  in Southeast Asia and a global repository of biodiversity.

Action NOW (sign the petition with link below) is urgent ahead of expected approval by the Aceh provincial parliament, where it   significant support.  Following that vote, the plan must then be approved by national government in Jakarta and a Forestry Ministry spokesman there has been quoted in press reports saying it could be approved within the month.

Approval of the plan would open up the forest for mining, paper and palm oil plantations the forest.The new spatial plan would grant currently protected land for mining, logging and palm oil. The plan would also approve an extensive new network of roads that would run through protected forests.

Leuser is located on the northern tip of Sumatra and is home to critically endangered orangutans, rhinos, and elephants. Aceh has the most forest cover of any province in Sumatra, which lost 36 percent of its forests in the past 20 years.

East Asia Minerals, the (TSX:EAS) Toronto-based mining company, with silver, gold and copper operations in Aceh and Sulawesi has said it is working closely with government officials in Aceh to obtain reclassification of  1.6 million hectares from “protected forest” to “production forest.”

In a statement, the company hailed the progress toward the rezoning as “positive news for mineral extraction in the area.”

The Aceh government banned the granting of new logging permits six years ago to protect the forest, but a new administration since last year is in favor of allowing logging again – hence the change in focus from protection of forests to allowing their commercial use.

Please click this link and sign the Change.org petition.

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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.”

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Photo: Alex Hofford

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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.

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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.

This first appeared as an Op-ed in the October 25 opinion pages of the SCMP.

We might finally have an administration that cares about cleaning our filthy air. Indications are that the new administration led by C.Y.Leung will act to finally stem the choking smog that represents Hong Kong’s No 1 public health crisis and is a major impediment to the city’s competitiveness.

Last week, in his first address to the reconvened Legislative Council, the chief executive said improving air quality was among his top objectives. In a move that already stirred optimism about the government’s determination to protect public health, Leung last month named environmentalist Christine Loh Kung-wai undersecretary for the environment.

It was also encouraging to see, a day after Leung’s address, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing calling roadside pollution the city’s greatest problem, and that a basket of initiatives to improve the city’s air quality would be introduced next year. These, he said, would aim to comply with World Health Organisation standards rather than the outdated air quality measures still in use.

Among the initiatives being considered are “carrot and stick” policies that include removing some 60,000 heavily polluting diesel vehicles from our roads.

Such measures are urgently needed. Some older vehicles have been on the road for as long as 20 years and should be refused registration if they don’t comply with vehicle emission standards.

While atmospheric pollution might have improved somewhat – due mainly to lower emissions from the city’s power stations – the concentration of roadside emissions remains unacceptably high, and it is these emissions that affect us the most.

Wong has said that 80 per cent of roadside pollutants come from outdated commercial diesel vehicles.

Retiring obsolete commercial diesel vehicles will improve our air and our health. It’s also worth remembering that research from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology showed that, 53 per cent of the time, pollution that affects us most comes not from across the border, but from our own roads and ships on the harbour.

Indeed, the recent flurry of positive announcements from the government came amid a string of bad air days and public health warnings to moderate outdoor activity.

According to Hong Kong University’s Hedley Environmental Index, which measures the cost of pollution, yesterday was a “clear day” (one that complies with WHO air quality guidelines) in Hong Kong. The last such day was September 22, which means that our air stayed bad for more than a month.

According to the index, there have been only 59 clear days so far this year. The polluted days represent a cumulative HK$33 million in health-related and other costs.

Beyond the direct cost to our economy, surveys of business executives regularly point to our smoggy air as a real obstacle in recruiting and retaining workers – whether foreign or local. Patience is wearing thin.

By now we have heard from doctors and scientists that our dangerously high level of pollutants raises the risk of such conditions as bronchitis, asthma, pneumonia, headaches, lung cancer, stroke and heart attack.

So we should applaud the suggestion of phasing out outdated commercial diesel vehicles, despite what I imagine will be heavy lobbying from the transport sector.

As Wong pointed out, mainland China is phasing out diesel vehicles more than 15 years old, so why should we be any different? The government’s carrot will include subsidies to soften the blow of replacing vehicle fleets.

It is encouraging that the administration has also spoken about retrofitting Euro II and III franchised buses with selective catalytic reduction devices to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions and might even tighten emission standards for LPG and petrol vehicles as well.

Here’s hoping that our new government will finally act to protect our health.