Liberal Studies: the battle for Hong Kong’s endangered Chinese bahaha

Liberal Studies: the battle for Hong Kong’s endangered Chinese bahaha

Hong Kong is struggling to find a balance between urban and commercial development, and protecting its ecosystems and environment


The maw of the Chinese bahaba is worth a lot of money, endangered or not.
Photo: Ryan Ma


A coalition of conservation groups wants to know why the city failed to honour its biodiversity commitments when local officials wrapped up a three-month public consultation last Thursday.

The groups have initiated an online campaign that calls on residents to send letters to the UN Environment Programme and Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) secretariat, to point out the city’s “violations” and failure to meet the convention’s 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

China joined the convention in 1993 and extended it to Hong Kong in 2011. The government has drawing up the city’s first Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (BSAP).

But the document has been slammed for mostly summarising existing conservation policies, rather than coming up with new measures to protect biodiversity.

“The Hong Kong government is not only deceiving the Hong Kong public, but also deceiving the international community by ‘green-washing’ all the malpractices under the name of BSAP,” says the draft letter by the groups, which include the Land Justice League, Designing Hong Kong and Save Lantau Alliance.

Rather than protecting biodiversity, the perpetual destruction or development of green belt and agricultural land – especially private land – and massive reclamation works such as the third airport runway were actually increasing habitat loss, they said, none of which was mentioned in the document.

Ryan Ma is out to save the Chinese bahaba

“This is totally unacceptable and we hope the UNEP/CBD secretariat proactively investigates the problems.”

Land Justice League community organiser Chong Lap-pan pointed out that without any new measures or goals, most of the 20 Aichi targets would not be met. “One of the Aichi targets is to reduce habitat destruction to zero ... but our land and planning policies are not made in accordance with this target,” he said.

Another target, increasing marine protected areas to 10 per cent of territorial waters, was likely to be ignored, too, as the handful of marine parks being planned will not even bring the proportion to 5 per cent.

Even the 12 priority sites the government set aside for conservation in 2004, such as Tai Ho and Sha Lo Tung, have been under constant threat from vegetation clearance, landfilling or unauthorised development, Chong said.

Chinese University land policy academic Dr Edward Yiu Chung-yim, who is part of the coalition, said the Chinese version of the consultation paper ignored more than 400 action plans suggested by working groups.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has repeatedly reassured concerned groups that the paper is not the actual plan and that the government would consider the many proposals in preparing the final document.

Staff writer


Chinese bahaba is a popular catch in Hong Kong.
Photo: Cheng Tai-sin

Issue 1: Hong Kong government needs to do more

When it comes to protecting biodiversity in Hong Kong, the government isn’t doing enough, particularly when it comes to marine life. According to the Agriculture Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) website, the department’s aim is “to conserve the fisheries resources in local waters and promote the sustainable development of the fisheries industry”.

However, very little local legislation protects vulnerable species. One such species is the critically endangered Chinese bahaba. Despite being a local species, and one that has been protected on the mainland since 1989, the Chinese bahaha is unprotected in Hong Kong.

The biggest protection a species can merit is being included on the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists. But to merit inclusion on this list, a species must be traded internationally. As a fish that lives and is consumed locally in Hong Kong and the mainland, the Chinese bahaba does not cross enough international borders to merit inclusion on the Cites list.

In letters to the AFCD, Ryan Ma, a 16-year-old fish enthusiast who has been campaigning for the protection of the Chinese bahaba for years, references the declining numbers of Chinese bahaba and asks for local legislation to protect the fish. Ryan suggests using the Fisheries Protection Ordinance (Cap. 171) to prevent local fishermen from being able to target the species.

However, the AFCD replied: “Given the rare occurance of Chinese bahaba in Hong Kong waters and that it is not a species targeted by local fishermen, regulation of commercial fishing of this species under the Fisheries Protection Ordinance (Cap. 171) would not be a practical or cost-effective solution.”

It seems that until a species has Cites recognition, Hong Kong’s authorities will take very little action. But according to Yuan Liu, information officer for Cites, getting a species listed isn’t as easy as proving why it deserves protection. “In principle, Cites is not an organisation that makes its own decisions on species listing. Cites is an international agreement with 182 Parties. The proposal to include Chinese bahaba has to come from a Party, ie, member countries, and has to be adopted by the Conference of the Parties which meets every three years.”

And it’s not just marine animals that are at risk. A recent Greenpeace report said: “The Hong Kong government has continued to refuse to acknowledge the territory as a wildlife trafficking hub.”

The report adds that annually, more Cites seizures are made at the international border between Hong Kong and China than at any other border in China. To combat this, mainland authorities added additional resources and staff to Shenzhen Customs. But HKSAR authorities have not, as yet, added any further resources to Hong Kong Customs.

Under Cites, Hong Kong has an obligation to address the issues with wildlife trafficking, but illegal trade is still common. One reason for this is that the penalties are minor and don’t offer much of a deterrent. Compared with Australia and the UK, Hong Kong has far more lenient maximum sentences for wildlife trafficking offences.

Critics say more collaboration is needed between those in charge, including the AFCD, the Hong Kong police and the Customs and Excise Department (CED).

People still need to eat
Photo: Bruce Yan/SCMP

Issue 2: Seafood is an important source of protein

Animals have always been part of the human diet. It’s also no secret that Hongkongers have an appetite for seafood. According to the World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, Hong Kong imports seafood from more than 170 countries and territories around the world, and according to the nature conservancy, Hong Kong consumes 64.4kg of seafood per person, per year. That’s double the per capita consumption on the mainland China and the tenth highest in the world.

Some restaurants have been working towards promoting sustainability, like Dot Cod in Central. It has been serving sustainably sourced seafood since 2007. Chef Arron Rhodes explains: “Customers are becoming more aware and conscientious of where their food is coming from – not only seafood but meat and vegetables as well.”

And while some may argue that it is a more expensive option, eating sustainably in Hong Kong doesn’t cost much more, because the city imports the vast majority of its seafood anyway.

“Sustainable fish is affordable in the long run. It’s the responsible thing to do,” he says.

Conservation has economic costs as well.
Photo: Reuters

Issue 3: Humans before animals?

One reason to think twice before protecting a species is the staggering cost. A 2013 study by the journal Science estimated the global cost of conservation at US$76 billion a year – and that’s just for land animals. So while Hong Kong has extensive areas of undeveloped natural landscape, preserving this green space comes with a high price tag. As the Planning Department’s website highlights: “Plans that include conservation use have to be seen in a wider context and take into account the need to provide adequate space for development needs. The challenge is to integrate these different uses into acceptable and realistic plans, which take account of territorial growth and principles of sustainable development.” Spending US$76 billion dollars a year to save some lizards seems neither realistic nor sustainable.

This also brings into question the issue of prioritising animals over humans. While few would purposely choose to see pandas go extinct, many would argue that thousands of humans having shelter and access to clean drinking water is more important than saving a few cute creatures.

In Hong Kong, Secretary for Development Paul Chan Mo-po has frequently approached the subject of rezoning protected greenbelt areas as a solution to the city’s problem of lack of housing.

Chan pointed to the construction of 6,000 public housing flats in Tai Po. Of the four proposed zones, three of the plots are greenbelts which are now subject to judicial review applications from numerous parties who oppose the plans.

Analysts have warned that the ongoing legal battles will make it far more difficult for Hongkongers to secure housing, leaving many people living in cage homes and subdivided units for months or even years to come.

Last month, Chan called for greater understanding of the city’s housing problems and government strategies to alleviate the problem.

The financial cost of the conservation is one reason not to expend substantial energy preserving plants or animals. But there is also the question of what people want. Economic growth has increased people’s aspirations for quality of life. According to a report from asset management company Schroders: “The Chinese consumer has evolved. They have become more sophisticated and their priority is shifting [from owning ‘things’] towards experiences and services.”

It’s clear that humans aren’t prepared to compromise when it comes to their lifestyle, and businesses simply respond to this demand for development.

Former Permanent Secretary for Development (Works), Mak Chai-kwong, said that development and conservation of the environment and heritage are equally important, and striking a balance between them would be essential for sustainable development.

“Different places in different periods of time have varied needs in urban development,” he said. “The strategy of sustainable development has to be in line with time and place.”

Dried seafood stores are not immune to prosecution.
Photo: Dickson Lee/SCMP

Landmark prosecution

In December last year, two dried seafood stores were slapped with fines totalling HK$110,000 after admitting to an illegal possession of endangered Totoaba macdonaldi fish maws for commercial purposes, in a landmark prosecution at Eastern Magistracy on Tuesday.

The court was dealing with the first batch of summonses issued under section 10 of the Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plants Ordinance, breaches of which carry a maximum penalty of a HK$5 million fine and two years in prison.

It was also the first case concerning Totoaba macdonaldi, which has been listed in the Cites Appendix I since 1977.

The two companies involved – Kwok Tai Marine Products Company and Yue Hing Marine Products Trading Company – were both found in possession of the endangered species at their Sai Ying Pun outlets during an inspection by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department in May.

Neither store had a valid licence to sell totoaba and all the fish maws were confiscated.

On behalf of their companies, Kwok Tai’s Lee Yui-chiu, and Ko Chun-sing of Yue Hing pleaded guilty to a total of three summonses issued under the ordinance.

The court was told that Kwok Tai was found in possession of 11 fish maw pieces worth HK$425,000, while Yue Hing was found with three, worth HK$130,000. They were fined HK$80,000 and HK$30,000 respectively.

Special magistrate Arthur Lam Hei-wei said the offences were serious and questioned how the operators could fail to distinguish between expensive and low-priced fish maws.

He warned both companies to take extra care in stocking dried seafood in future.

Staff writer


“In terms of biomass and abundance, the signs of recovery are there.”

Louise Li Wai-hung, senior fisheries officer at the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD)

“When I was a boy, there was no government regulation of fishing, so there were many more boats”

Ho Wah-hei, a local fisherman who has fished out of Cheung Chau since he was 10

“The government needs to manage our fisheries for biological sustainability. The trawling ban has been a great star,t but much, much more needs to be done.”

Professor Yvonne Sadovy, an eminent fisheries scientist at the University of Hong Kong

Bonus Point

76 billion

The annual cost of conservation per year in US dollars, as estimated by Science

Word watch

Endanger (verb)

Meaning: to expose to harm or danger; to threaten with extinction

Use it: The pollution in Victoria Harbour is likely to endanger fish.

Endangered (adjective)

Meaning: (of a species) seriously at risk of extinction

Use it: An endangered species is one that has been categorised as likely to become extinct.

Endangerment (noun)

Meaning: exposure to possible harm, loss, injury or danger

Use it: Building a tower that could easily collapse and kill people is reckless endangerment.

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Ignoring our endangered local species


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