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Fish Folks Jargon:  What the language teaches us about dwindling FISH stocks

ADMCF Aquaculture, Overfishing Leave a Comment

How do you measure a catch of fish? In wet markets, we know that most things are sold by the catty (1 catty is approximately 0.6 kg or 1.3 lbs), live fish and fish meat included. But anyone who has spent time talking with Hong Kong’s fishermen will know that, at sea, things are measured by a different set of vocabulary – although sadly, perhaps not for much longer.

“That right there is a good spot. I used to get several hundreds of daam (“擔”) of fish each day from there.” To Jeh, with bits of fish scales strewn through her hair after a morning’s hard work, gestures into the distance as she talks about the days past, standing now in her apron behind a Sai Kung wet market fresh fish stall. And how much is one daam, I asked? As it turns out, 1 daam — the smallest unit of measurement for a day’s catch — is about 100 catties, or around 60 kg. Several hundreds of daam of fish, then, would mean that one was catching thousands of kilograms of fish in a day.

But that was all in the past. Today, on a bad day, fishermen struggle to catch even one or two daam of fish, as evidenced by the predominance of imported fish in our wet markets versus the dwindling number of stores that sell fish caught in Hong Kong waters. “It’s just not the same anymore,” To Jeh added, shaking her head. In a friendly local fish stall in Aberdeen wet market, another fishermen, Mr. Leung, paints a similar picture. “It’s hard, very hard”, he laments, “there’re hardly any fish to catch from Hong Kong these days!” Faced with this reality, many fishermen have moved on to sell imported fish instead.  

Obviously, this could not have always been the case. Hong Kong is famed for its humble roots as fishing villages. Conversations with some of Hong Kong’s earlier SCUBA divers reveal the former glory of Hong Kong’s underwater wildlife.

Once, browsing in the library of The University of Hong Kong for publications on local fishes, I came across a book titled “Common Marine-Food Fishes of Hong Kong”, containing intricate illustrations and descriptions of some 40 fish species and detailing the best catch-seasons for each. Most of these species however are difficult to come by in wet markets or seafood restaurants today. This can’t be right. Flipping back to the first page, I saw that the book was published in 1947.

It was certainly alarming, seeing this change in less than a century — less than a lifetime. I can’t be sure what might have caused this, but I suspect it might have a little to do with the, until very recently, uncurbed and unmanaged fishing activity in local waters.

The most recent assessment of local fisheries was completed almost 20 years ago in 1998, conducted by the University of British Colombia and commissioned by AFCD. The results showed that, out of the 17 local commercial fish species assessed, 12 were considered over-exploited and the remaining 5 were fully exploited.

Today, those species have not shown any signs of recovery visible from scientific research. Instead, local catches have shifted from a dominance of larger, more commercially valuable fish species, such as groupers, croakers and snappers, to the smaller and relatively less commercially valuable species abundant in the market today, such as rabbitfishes and mullets.

Our perception of what a “large” fish is, has also been affected. Ask a child how big they think a big fish is, and then, ask your parents or grandparents. Today’s children will be surprised know some species, such as those of groupers and wrasses, have the potential to reach more than 1 m in length. This has become the norm.

From the shore, it may not seem like the problem is so severe. Hong Kong’s seafood restaurants tanks are filled with “big” groupers and wrasses, and wet markets have ample supplies of fishes every day. The illusion of abundance comes from the fact that our seafood is imported from around 150 countries/territories around the world. We have exhausted our own waters, and now we are harvesting from others.

網網千斤, “a thousand catties in every net” — an old Cantonese motto among fishing communities, describing the potential of each yield from the ocean in the past. But what about today? As we eat through Hong Kong’s marine resources, we have also eaten away the chance to preserve a fundamental element of our culture.

So what now? We can either continue eroding our environment and culture, or we can choose to work towards a better future where both are conserved simply by choosing what we eat. Choose sustainable seafood – that is, seafood that ensures the continuity of species in the wild — and they are not hard to find. Browse through ChooseRightToday.org to find out where sustainable seafood can be found around Hong Kong.

Pay attention to your choices. Make the right choice today for a better tomorrow.

Author: Stan Shea

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