Hong Kong’s geography is Yin and Yang made manifest. Unlike other major world cities there are no suburbs where the urban environment bleeds into nature.
Instead there’s a strict and astonishing demarcation – the skyscrapers suddenly end and the forest begins. Sometimes there’s little more than a wire cyclone fence that separates street diners from Asiatic porcupines and wild boars.
The oceans around Hong Kong are not much different. One beach facing only a few degrees away from prevailing winds and currents can look like the waters of the South Pacific. Glassy, limpid, beautifully clear.
Take a few steps around the rocks to the next beach and it can be a confronting morass of marine trash of almost every variety – household, industrial, maritime, fishing. You name it, if it’s been carelessly discarded, it’s likely to find its way onto Hong Kong’s shoreline.
To prove his point, ghost net hunter Harry Chan takes me past a beach-going family near So Kwu Wan on Hong Kong’s Lamma Island. The water looks clear and inviting.
“If they knew what they were swimming in, would they do it? It’s no wonder people in Hong Kong are getting sick; eczema, asthma, even cancer – I believe a lot of it is coming from the state of our marine environment,” he says, lugging his wetsuit and gear to the local lookout nearby.
Ten minutes later and Harry Chan becomes highly energized as he faces off against his enemy – marine trash and one of the ocean’s greatest killers of marine life, ghost nets. There’s plenty to find too.
Ghost nets, some of them still reeking of a long dead catch, lie half buried in the sea. There’s a sadly deflated tender beached like a carcass nearby. All around is plastic and Styrofoam and rotting matter.
“This is bad enough,” says Harry who wants to show me an even more gruesome battlefield. “But follow me to this next beach, I want to show you something.”
He scrambles over the rocks to the next small bay, crossing around to the next theatre of war over a plank bridge with a rope railing. The vista in front of us is monumentally disgusting.
There are large rotting fish, indeterminate and fly-blown lumps of organic matter, plastic drums, barnacle-encrusted laundry baskets. There seems to be no end to the variety of plastic that finds its way into the oceans; plastic spoons, syringes, half-filled bottles of motor oil – it’s all less than 100 meters away from the beach-going family.
“I find everything. Everything. Dead pets are the most disgusting – they smell worse than the fish,” says the spry 67-year-old who shrugs off a mission that could make him very sick. “As far as I’m concerned, it will either build up my immunity – which I need at my age – or it will kill me.
“If it kills me, then at least it will bring more attention to the problem of ghost nets and marine trash,” he laughs.
As Harry tells it, around the age of 58 he announced to his wife that he was fed up with working at the small trading company that had been the family’s lifeblood. Contemplating the prospect of a directionless retirement, he said he fell into a depression until he was invited to a clean-up dive by a friend.
The event was an epiphany. “After that, I knew what I had to do,” he says.
By his own estimate, over the past eight years he – along with NGOs and a small committed band of ‘ghost net warriors’ – have collected more than 80 tonnes of marine trash in more than 150 clean ups. Ghost nets – fishing nets that have been lost either in storms or sliced through by shipping or pleasure craft – are his main quarry.
“Drift nets that are cut loose are the worst,” he says. “They can stretch over many, many miles. If they become ghost nets and are drifting free in the ocean; they kill absolutely anything in their path.”
Ask him the largest animal that he’s seen snared in a ghost net and he quickly replies that it’s a human being. He himself has had several close shaves while hunting for ghost nets, including one episode in which he helped to free a diver whose air tank was tangled in a ghost drift net.
All of this helps, he says, to raise awareness that we, as people, are not separate from the marine ecosystem.
“The problem now is that it’s not just a problem for marine life, it’s a problem for human beings too,” he says. “Ghost nets are interfering with shipping, with pleasure craft, they’re posing a danger to human beings.”
Globally, the extent of the ghost net problem is staggering.
According to a report from Greenpeace released in November 2019, an estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enters the ocean every year, equivalent in weight to more than 50,000 double decker buses.
Ghost gear is estimated to make up 10% of the plastic waste in our oceans but represents a much higher proportion of large plastics found floating at the surface.
The associated rubbish from fisheries, such as packing containers – heavily in evidence in Hong Kong – and tape and buoys also contribute to ocean plastic pollution.
But the problem for Hong Kong is not simply one of urban pressure on the marine environment. Harry says a lot of it is also down to education and the fact that people “just don’t care”.
“If I’m on a dive clean up, you can see little parcels of trash in plastic
bags resting on the bottom – they’ve just been thrown off pleasure craft and junks,” he said. “There could be anything in it.
“If it’s rotting food then the fish get into it and then we eat the fish. It creates disease – it all comes back to us.”
Internationally, the problem of ghost nets runs into issues of piecemeal regulation that cross local, regional, national and international jurisdictions. 64% of our oceans lie beyond the national jurisdiction of any one nation.
In international waters, or the high seas, there’s currently no overarching or com prehensive framework to protect marine life. The UN has recognised this gaping hole in ocean governance and is currently negotiating a treaty under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Closer to Hong Kong and Harry says his approach is to raise awareness rather than get involved in politics. He’s already won the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Medal of Honor 2020, but that’s as close to a politics as Harry wants to get.
Make no mistake, fishing in Hong Kong – a fishing village long before it a British colony or an SAR of China – is a political powderkeg.
“I don’t want to approach it from a political angle – I’m just here to raise awareness,” says Harry. “Fishing in Hong Kong is in the same protected category indigenous landholders in the New Territories enjoy. I don’t want to go down that path.”
Certainly, perceptions that a local fisherman can get $HK2000 for a large market-ready fish caught illegally and pay just HK$500 in fines are strong. Questions asked in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in 2017 about the problem were revealing.
Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Sophia Chan, told Legco that Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department jointly deploys 11 vessels to conduct around 4500 patrols every year to police Hong Kong’s marine parks and marine reserves.
Even so, the number of arrests is astonishingly low. In 2016-17, there was only one complaint about illegal fishing, the number of arrests was just eight and the number of convictions just five.
The highest fine during that period was just HK$2000 and the lowest was HK$1500. Harry says that fishermen in Hong Kong know they hold the whip hand.
“In some cases, they’ve even demanded compensation from ghost net hunters saying they want money for us taking their gear,” he says.
Despite the difficulties Harry still attracts a devoted following from volunteers.
On one sunny Saturday in October, ghost net hunter Victor Leung beaches on a surf ski near Mui Wo. At his feet is a large pile of ghost net – looking like a heap of gossamer hair netting – that he and a group of volunteers have wrested from the shoreline off Lantau.
“This is just a tiny fraction of what we find,” he says, dragging his haul up on the beach where a large pile of ghost netting sits. If the conditions are right – if there’s been a storm and it’s broken fish nets or even washed them off the deck of moored fishing boats – then volunteers can have busy weekends collecting it.
“This is a small part, a very small part, of what’s in the water.” As Harry emphasises, what’s visible is usually only visible from the beaches, but marine trash and ghost nets are washing up on Hong Kong’s hundreds of miles of coastline all the time.
Victor is part of an eco-activist group called Eco Marine which was established in 2012.
“What we’re trying to do is to combine beach clean ups with leisure activities,” he said, an approach that aims to turn a day out into eco-event. Eco Marine founder Keilem Ng, a Hong Kong architect, says the movement is currently gathering force.
“We promote clean ups as part of community and sporting activities,” she told APB. “We regularly host activities that combine a community or sporting activity with nature immersion and coastal clean up – when you saw us it was our fourth event.
“We are involving locals and their families, combining the clean up with hiking, coasteering, snorkelling, kayaking and paddle boarding.”
In the end, however, there’s only so much groups like Eco Marine or even Harry, despite his infectious energy, can achieve.
The solution now needs a global approach. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was opened for signature in 1982 and came into force in 1994. That said important signatories – not least the United States – have yet to ratify the treaty.
Under the terms of the treaty, it would pave the way for the creation of a network of fully protected areas covering at least 30% of the oceans, including areas on the high seas, by 2030.
Although the new Treaty would not regulate fishing on the high seas as such, it could help address the impact of abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear in a number of ways: by creating fully protected areas for critical marine habitats; by ensuring that human activities are strictly assessed; and by strengthening cooperation and coordination across ocean management bodies.
Most importantly, it would provide a platform for regularly addressing issues related to high seas biodiversity conservation and would centralise data and data sharing, a critical factor when lost fishing gear can drift in currents that take them through jurisdictions thousands of miles apart.
For eco-warriors such as Harry Chan, these measures can’t come soon enough and may even be too little, too late.
“All I can say is that when I was growing up here in Hong Kong the waters used to be just so beautiful,” he said. “But I’ll keep up my fight – we need to raise awareness and the more people that get involved the more we are doing that.”
But even without the support of his army of volunteers, there’s the strong impression that Harry would be willing to carry on the fight single-handed.
“My family is originally from Shandong,” he tells me. “And Shandong people can be very stubborn.”