Fish Out of Water; the State of Fish Stocks in the South China Sea [Magazine Feature]. Or more like water out of fish; it’s fast becoming obvious there are not plenty more fish in the sea. Alicia Walker dives into the issue of sustainability in the South China Sea

Fish Out of Water; the State of Fish Stocks in the South China Sea [Magazine Feature]

Or more like water out of fish; it’s fast becoming obvious there are not plenty more fish in the sea. Alicia Walker dives into the issue of sustainability in the South China Sea

Alicia  Alicia  on 14 Dec '15

Top photo credit: Tom Weilenmann

The South China Sea is home to a rich and diverse fish life that has provided sustenance, as well as livelihood, to the people of Hong Kong for generations. But a new study reveals that this veritable underwater seafood buffet faces a great and immediate threat from overfishing. The study labelled Boom or Bust, The Future of Fish in the South China Sea, reveals startling statistics finding that catch rates, even in remote locations, are down three to four times what they were 20 years ago, with some down to as low as five percent compared to what they were in the 1950s.

The latest research from the WWF in the Living Blue Planet Report, shows population sizes of over 1,000 types of marine life have fallen by half on average in just 40 years. With Hong Kong reigning near the top of global seafood consumption charts per capita, the choices made by consumers and businesses in this city have a huge impact on fishing practices in the region, as well as worldwide, particularly for products like shark fin and grouper where this city is the trade hub of the world.

November saw the introduction of the Kin Hong “Healthy” Seafood Festival, which seeks to educate the public and F&B industry on how to rejuvenate flailing fish stocks by purchasing and consuming sustainable seafood in the city. The festival was in part organised by The Ocean Recovery Alliance, an organisation focused on improving our oceans through technology, and initiatives like the Kin Hong festival.

King Hong Seafood Festival

Doug Woodring of the Ocean Recovery Alliance walked us through the particular problems surrounding Hong Kong’s immense love of dining on creatures from under the sea:

“Our seafood footprint (and damage we are doing to the ocean as a result), is one of the worst in the world. For a small city, we have a huge impact and this could be improved by consuming only sustainably-sourced products. Estimates show that up to 90 percent of the large species of fish are overfished, and now we are fishing ‘down the food chain’, meaning the fishing industry is moving to smaller and smaller fish, as the larger ones do not have the time or capacity to reproduce given the over-capacity in fishing fleets and technology trying to catch them.

On the good side, Hong Kong is a leader now in protecting some of its waters by putting a ban on trawling in all of HK waters in early 2014. Already this is proving to be a big success for the improvement of the ocean and fish stocks here, so it is a model that shows that good management of fisheries can work, if the ocean is just allowed some breathing space to rejuvenate. This is an extremely important case study for the region, and the world, to pay attention to.” 

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Photo credit: Elsie Hui

Hook, Line and Sinker

Woodring says that farmed fish account for over 50 percent of all the fish we eat on the planet and this can be considered good news for relieving the stress from wild-caught fish, provided the farms use the new sustainable methods being created. Dr. Allen To, Conservation Officer (Marine) of WWF-Hong Kong also believes Hong Kong is making great improvements in their efforts: “Sustainable seafood is getting more traction in the industry.

For example, as in 2011, when WWF-HK ran the Sustainable Seafood Week, only nine restaurants participated, but this year, we had 114 restaurants supporting, including a much wider sector in HK such as HK-style teahouses and fast food chains. Nevertheless, sustainable seafood is not the mainstream in the market yet, and more work needs to be done.

Farming can reduce our demand on wild species if this is operated in a sustainable manner. There is a farm in Hong Kong, which uses a more sustainable manner to raise live groupers to cater to the great needs for grouper in Hong Kong. This can help reduce our reliance on wild caught individuals, which for many are already overfished or even categorised by the IUCN as threatened species.” 

CY Visits Grouper Farms in Hong Kong

Chief Executive CY Leung visit grouper farms in HK

Gareth Kwok operates two such farms in Hong Kong: Aquacultures Technologies Asia specialises in indoor salt water mariculture, which is the practice of raising fish indoors:

“We define ‘sustainable’ as not being harmful to the natural environment and not depleting natural resources, thus, maintaining an ecological balance through practice and process. We currently raise one species of giant garoupa, which is a prized fish in local cuisine. Our baby fish are from reputable nurseries in Taiwan.

These nurseries have been breeding ocean fish for a very long time and their technical know-how is only second to that of Japan. In addition to healthy fingerlings, we also work very closely with our feed producers to ensure the nutrition value of our fish feed. They are able to tailor their product to suit our desired optimal nutrition levels for our fish. We lab test every batch of feed we buy to ensure that it is to our specification.

We provide our fish with the healthiest living environment, one in which it is given ample room to live and exercise, where they are provided nutrient-rich foods several times a day. We take great care in raising our fish healthily and humanely.” "We take great care in raising our fish healthily and humanely... if the fish is live, does the consumer know how clean the water it swims in is?”

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Photo credit: WorldFish

Gareth also says they still face opposition due to the perception of farmed fish in the city:

“Hong Kong residents are extremely refined eaters, they make sure that their seafood is wild, or ‘from the sea’, before they order at restaurants. However, the condition of the fish, even if from the ocean, does not always mean the quality is at its best.

If the fish is live, does the consumer know when it last ate, what it ate or how clean the water is that it swims in? Many Hong Kongers reject the concept of farmed fish because there is a stigma that farmed doesn’t taste as good as wild caught, which is a gross generalisation of farmed fish. This is attributed to poor farming conditions. The greatest challenge we face in Hong Kong is the people’s mindset that farm fish is a lesser product. We’ve done many comparative blind tastings with our product versus others, and almost always come out on top as the best tasting with the best texture.

Over the past decade, we have spent a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears, refining the way in which we raise our fish, and we truly feel our customers can taste the difference. Our farming process has received certifications that mean our product is traceable, from the water quality to the nutrition it is given. Yet another point is our farm’s close proximity to the city. Our fish only need to travel 30-45 mins to the city to be on our consumer’s plates, rather than being flown or shipped in from other countries.”

Can of Worms

Yui Ku, Director of CSR & Sustainability, Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts discusses the challenges and benefits to choosing sustainability:

“We knew taking shark fin off the menus would represent a substantial amount of revenue for our Chinese restaurants and banqueting business, but we wanted to make a public stand and show our commitment to the sustainable seafood campaign, [which] is a step in the right direction towards biodiversity conservation, and we are excited about the changes the ban of shark fins have brought.

There is also growing awareness and acceptance among the younger generation to not serve shark fin at weddings. Overfishing for shark fin has disrupted the balance of the ocean’s ecosystem and resulted in many shark populations being threatened with extinction. Sharks help maintain the health of the ocean’s ecosystems, including seagrass beds and coral reefs; the elimination of sharks can lead to disastrous effects such as the collapse of fisheries and the loss of coral reefs.”

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Photo credit: m2onen

Benjamin So supplies sustainable oysters to consumers and restaurants here in Hong Kong at 178degrees. The oysters hail from New Zealand where the fish supplies are carefully managed to ensure long-term viability of the country’s seafood stocks. Benjamin says sustainable seafood is an issue everyone should participate in:

“In general, stewardship of our natural resources is a critical subject. With the world population set to peak at nine billion this century, the planet’s limited capacity to support life must be carefully managed. Seen in this context, food sustainability is one part of the larger question of environmental preservation.”

Benjamin also touches on the subject of marine pollution and why New Zealand’s organic oysters are revered for their pristine provenance:

“Seafood, like any natural product, is intricately entwined with its habitat. Much as French wines are characteristic of their terroirs, the quality of fish is reflective of their environment. Obviously, if waters are impure, the wildlife that they support will be of suspect safety. This is particularly important, as pollutants become more concentrated as they progress through the food chain.”

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Photo credit: Alpha

Off the Hook

So, armed with this newfound knowledge in hand, what is the minimum that responsible consumers should do to help protect marine life? Benjamin So says,

“As consumers, we have an obligation to make ethical buying decisions. With respect to seafood, this means understanding the impact over-fishing has on future stocks and recognising which fisheries are sustainably managed. Norway, Iceland and New Zealand are leaders in this regard. Some US stocks are correctly managed, but not all. Eating at restaurants is trickier, as there is no mandatory labelling regime in Hong Kong. There are some restaurants whose chefs insist on using sustainable sources (e.g. Café Gray, Fish & Meat, Lily & Bloom, The Ocean). However, if that is not the case, diners should ask the kitchen.”

Dr. To advises diners to seek literature to check for themselves:

“WWF-Hong Kong has published a seafood guide, which is freely available online and is also available as a smartphone app. This can help consumers know more about sustainable seafood and have a quick idea of what can be more sustainable (e.g. many farmed oysters, scallops, clams) and what are definitely not sustainable (e.g. bluefin tuna, humphead wrasse, shark fin). We have also worked with a number of restaurants to feature an ‘Ocean Friendly Menu’ that is available online at

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Photo credit: Lucas Richarz

Doug Woodring says the responsibility essentially lies with all of us, “We want to stress to consumers that they can help to improve the ocean ecosystem by actively choosing to purchase and cook with sustainably caught and farmed seafood here in Hong Kong. They need to ask for sustainable seafood on the menu, even if they know it is not there, or do not see it listed. If they do not ask, the restaurant will not know that consumers are demanding it.”

For a list of the Kin Hong Festival’s responsible restaurants serving sustainable seafood, check out Ocean Recovery Alliance’s page.



Editor-in-chief of Foodie and constantly ravenous human being