Hong Kong — The live fish facing death in the glass tanks in Hong Kong’s famous seafood restaurants tell a strange and haunting tale of a looming global tragedy.
At the heart of their story is the bizarre fact that there are more fine fish swimming in the tiny tanks than there are in the surrounding sea.
Having overfished and polluted its own waters to the point where they are home mainly to great ghosts of the past, Hong Kong now imports up to 90 percent of its seafood.
The problem with that, scientists say, is that Hong Kong is a microcosm of a marine disaster in which wild fish are being eaten out of existence worldwide.
"It is a sign of what is happening in most of the fisheries in the world," says Guillermo Moreno, head of global environment group WWF’s marine programme in Hong Kong. "It’s a scary panorama."
In scenes replayed throughout Hong Kong’s archipelago, the seafood for the restaurants in Yung Shue Wan arrives in the dull light of a hazy dawn, while most of the village is still asleep.
Through the rough streets, wiry men in singlets trundle trolleys laden with sloshing buckets full of struggling fish nearing the end of their lives far from their usual habitat on distant, colourful coral reefs.
They are tipped into crowded tanks outside restaurants lining the harbour to await the pointing finger of a diner which will flag the last leg of their long journey, to the kitchen.
At weekends, the open-air restaurant tables under spinning fans host large family gatherings where cheerful children tuck in to food that researchers say could disappear in their lifetimes.
"Unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by 2048," the WWF reports, quoting a controversial scientific survey.
Restaurateur Ben Chan Kin-Keung acknowledges that Hong Kong’s waters no longer provide what his seafood-loving customers want, but says that is not a problem — at the moment.
"It’s very fast and convenient to import seafood around the globe either by plane or ship," he says.
But he knows the feast cannot last and says it is already becoming difficult to find fish in the quantities he requires.
"It’s like people just want to eat the fish when they are not (even) born,” he says. “I’m afraid that I may have to change my job in 10 years time."
Offshore from the restaurants, a lone trawler dredges the jade sea — but bleak records show it is unlikely to bring up table-worthy fish.
"The average size of fish now caught in these bottom trawls is about 10 grammes" — about one third of an ounce or the weight of a small coin — Professor Yvonne Sadovy of Hong Kong University told AFP. "To put this into some kind of context, Hong Kong was a famous fishing centre in the past and we had incredibly productive and species-rich ground fisheries."
WWF says that "Hong Kong waters were incredibly rich just decades ago with manta rays, hammerhead sharks, giant grouper and croakers taller than a man. In less than a lifetime Hong Kong has lost them all."
Sadovy, a marine scientist who has made a special study of Hong Kong’s seas, says there are several reasons the local fisheries are in such a bad state.
High demand for seafood in the crowded city and a lack of regulation fuelled overfishing which combined with pollution and loss of habitat to push fish populations "well beyond their capacity to regenerate themselves," she said.
The scale of the pollution can be gauged a short boat ride away from the harbour-side diners enjoying their seafood, where a few pale-pink backs can be seen breaking the surface of the grey-green sea of the Pearl River Delta.
These are Hong Kong’s famed pink dolphins, but the most surprising thing about the beautiful creatures is not their colour — it’s the fact that they are alive at all.
Flush the toilet in any of the high-rise apartments or offices housing Hong Kong’s population of seven million people and it will likely go almost directly into the "Fragrant Harbour" — Hong Kong’s name in Cantonese.
Add to that the chemical effluent oozing down the Pearl River from thousands of frantically busy factories in mainland China and you have a "horrendous cocktail," says Sadovy.
A keen diver, Sadovy says she has seen fish deformed by the pollutants in Hong Kong’s waters, and points out that many of them — such as the heavy metals — will poison the seas for years to come.
Eco-tourism group Hong Kong Dolphinwatch says that 450,000 cubic metres of raw, semi-processed sewage is dumped into the harbour every day — enough to fill 200 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The water quality is "disgusting," says guide Janet Walker as the Dolphinwatch boat carries a group of Japanese and Western tourists away from a jagged skyline of tower blocks and into the delta.
There, the traditional curves of sampans threading their way past gigantic cargo ships, high-speed ferries and lumbering barges offer a glimpse of a richer — and cleaner — fishing past.
"I certainly wouldn’t eat anything from this water. There’s not much fish left here but what there is will be seriously contaminated — mercury levels are very high, cadmium, various other heavy metals, " Walker told AFP.
First-born dolphin offspring tend to have a high mortality rate because they receive about a decade’s-worth of accumulated toxins through their mother’s milk, she said.
The poisons settle in fatty tissues as the mothers grow to sexual maturity and the first-born get the full dose, while later offspring from the same female will have much higher survival rates.
But WWF’s Moreno points out that pollution of the oceans is a worldwide menace: "Catch a bluefin tuna out in the middle of the ocean and it will contain mercury.”
So overfishing must take most of the blame for the pitiful state of Hong Kong’s fisheries — just as it does for the collapse of cod fisheries in Europe and Canada and the threat to popular species globally.
"You see these fabulous big fish, colourful fish, plenty of them, in the seafood restaurants," said Sadovy. "But most of those fish, in fact almost all of the fish you see in those tanks come from overseas."
They come from around the world — the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia’s coral reefs.
"In the end we could view Hong Kong as a very good example of the direction we cannot risk taking if we want to be sure to have wild seafood available to us in the future," Sadovy said.
Having told their tale, the fish in the tanks in the Hong Kong restaurants pose a question for ecologically aware diners: Is it no longer acceptable to eat fish?
Moreno and Sadovy, both passionate about their subject, say they don’t eat shrimp because of the destructive methods used to catch it in the wild and shrimp farming’s devastation of environmentally important mangroves on Southeast Asian shores.
But they do eat fish — provided they are species that are caught or farmed in a sustainable way.
WWF’s websites provide regional guides to dining with a clear conscience that can be downloaded and taken to the restaurant.
The Hong Kong government admitted in response to questions from AFP that its waters have been overfished and are badly polluted by sewage, and says it is working on plans to correct both problems.