China, the Rest of the World, and the Political Fish Caught in the Net

by Kaye Alave

25 October 2012

The soaring demand for seafood has made fish, more than any other food source in Asia, political.
Photo from Wild 

I always have a soft spot for Hong Kong, for its bright lights and spindly towers and unpretentious attitude. It feels First World and Third World at the same time, and it smells like oyster sauce, a mainstay of my childhood.  Eating is a past time and an adventure in Hong Kong, which is why the city and I get along well. I ate pastry with bean paste, soup made with tripe and offal, dumplings made with chives and mystery meat. But there is one food that I’m too squeamish to eat whenever I’m in Hong Kong: live reef fish.

Hong Kong, the portal between East and West, is the center of the live reef fish trade, an unsustainable food industry. It’s the first stop for the seafood that are farmed, harvested, or poached from the abundant waters of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean before it goes to mainland China, its final destination.
Hong Kong has the highest per capita of seafood consumption in the world, according to research done by Yvonne Sadovy, a marine biologist at the University of Hong Kong.  And while Hong Kong residents love their fish, they’re seemingly unaware that the harvest of their favorite food has stressed the oceans and communities from as far as Indonesia, where the fishes are caught using cyanide, she said.

I was at the 10th Seafood Summit in Hong Kong recently. At this event it’s clear that conservationists are fighting an uphill battle to blunt the appetite for live reef fishes, and trying to encourage more people to eat farmed seafood, isntead. The Chinese former NBA player Yao Ming has been enlisted by WildAid Beijing in a campaign to raise awareness on the cruelty of shark fin cuisine. But that has failed to curb the continued demand for shark fin soup, a medicinal and luxury dish in China. 

During a panel on seafood consumption, Margaret Xu Yu, chef of the restaurant Yin Yang, said chefs invited to talk shows know that the bounty of the seas are finite and that there are some endangered species that they should refrain from cooking.  But “off camera, they say, ‘I’ve never seen this fish in a long time. I want to eat this,’ Xu Yu said.

There’s also the matter of taste. Id you’ve eaten fish caught from the ocean, farmed fish will taste inferior.

Any self-respecting Cantonese restaurant will always have a selection of live fishes in tanks. It’s a point and shoot system. Point to a fish and they will shoot it into a hot wok.

In many Chinese banquets, the star of the show is often the white-fleshed, meaty whole reef fish, lying on a bed of scallions and doused with soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. If you find yourself to be the guest of honor, you’re in luck: you get the first dibs on the chewy eyeballs and the succulent fish cheeks.

As the Chinese middle class grows, the demand for various seafood will increase. And the soaring demand for seafood has made fish, more than any other food source in Asia, political. The Chinese appetite for seafood, particularly live reef food fish, is an overlooked aspect in the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the main source of seafood for mainland China.

Since last year, the Chinese government has stepped up its campaign to claim some islands disputed with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. While the endgame for this concerns the control of fossil fuels in the seabed, it’s undeniable that seafood plays a major role in the game. It is telling that the first to venture into these disputed waters were not the Chinese Navy, but fishermen and poachers.

Armed with large commercial fleets, these fishermen and poachers have been harvesting live reef fish and other marine mammals in the South China Sea (including the Celebes Sea in the south) for years to be sold as food and trophies to the mainland Chinese, who consider these as symbols of influence and affluence. Research shows that about 25 percent of Southeast Asia’s annual reef fish production ends up in Hong Kong. A Worldwide Fund for Nature official I spoke with said it’s normal to see a turtle carapace hanging in the wall of an upwardly mobile household in southern China.

It’s unlikely that the dispute over the islands here in East and Southeast Asia will be resolved any time soon, and of course, human appetite for fish is not restricted to the Chinese, alone. Overfishing is a global phenomena.

Meanwhile, China is flexing its muscles at the same time that the US government is pivoting to Asia. The Chinese government, buffeted by corruption scandals, has also used the dispute to fan nationalist flames. Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines are unlikely to budge on their claims. The only winners here right now are the poachers: because there is no official control or enforcement to protect the fish stocks in the South China Sea, it has become a poachers’ playground.

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