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Taiwan's Barren Waters

The Fish Are Gone


The Fish Are Gone

Source:Kuo-Tai Liu

Taiwan's residents consume huge amounts of seafood, but much of it is imported rather than caught in waters off the island. Why is that? And is there still time to reverse the situation?



The Fish Are Gone

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 495 )

The Nanliao Wholesale Fish Market on the Hsinchu coast was once an extremely popular tourist spot, but now it stands quiet during the week.

In a restaurant adjacent to the fish market, a plate of 12 relatively small boiled sand shrimps costs NT$200. A small dish of steamed squid with shredded ginger for three people costs NT$250.

The prices are double those found at any of the seafood restaurants lining Chang'an East Road in Taiwan's capital Taipei.

In the Nanliao restaurant, of 16 fresh catches on the menu, the prices of 13 are listed as "market price," discouraging even the most intrepid consumers from asking about the dishes, much less ordering them. So why is it that fresh fish caught in neighboring waters is more expensive along the Hsinchu coast than in similar seafood restaurants in Taipei? Simply put, because fish in Taiwan is generally not freshly caught.

Frozen Is the New Fresh

"Almost all of the seafood we sell now comes from Keelung to the north or aquaculture farms in the south," says restaurant manager Ms. Hsu, revealing the new truth about Nanliao – very few fishing boats pull into port anymore.

And that means what's sold in the wholesale fish market or restaurants there has passed through the hands of many layers of middlemen and distributors, inevitably making it more expensive.

The 17-kilometer tourism belt around "Nanliao Fishing Port," the moniker given Hsinchu Fishing Port, has been listed by the Hsinchu City government as one of Hsinchu's eight scenic treasures. Hordes of tourists from northern and central Taiwan flood the area on weekends and holidays, hoping to get a taste of the freshest seafood, without realizing that what they may be buying or eating is frozen fish caught in distant waters.

Even the seafood restaurant manager, Ms. Hsu, shuns the area when she wants fresh fish. "When I have time off, I'll drive three hours to a fishing port on the east coast and directly pick out fish as it's unloaded from fishing boats," she admits.

As hard as it may be to believe, Hsinchu Fishing Port is not an isolated example.

On a trip along Taiwan's west coast, CommonWealth Magazine discovered that finding "authentic" seafood at self-described fishing ports has grown increasingly difficult. In fact, Taiwan can be accurately described as a "fishless" island, relying mostly on cultivated fish and catches from distant waters to satisfy the high demand.

Taiwanese consumers love seafood, eating an average of 33.4 kilograms of marine products per year, nearly double the global average of 17.1 kg. Seafood accounts for 21.4 percent of the animal protein people in the country ingest every day.  

The problem, explains Kwang-tsao Shao, the executive director of Academia Sinica's Biodiversity Research Center, is that "Taiwan's coasts were destroyed a long time ago" by overfishing, habitat destruction, and environmental pollution.

"The government cannot completely blame climate change for the trend. That would be like trying to climb trees to catch fish. It's basically a waste of time," Shao says.

Taiwan's fishermen, whose livelihoods depend on the sea, have witnessed the deterioration first hand.

The volume of fish caught within Taiwan's 12-nautical-mile territorial waters has steadily declined, with the catches of small fishing vessels and sampans falling 30 percent from nearly 50,000 metric tons 10 years ago to under 35,000 tons today. Of the 10 seafood items caught by Taiwanese fishermen or raised in Taiwan that suffered the biggest drops in quantity over that time, eight were coastal species.

Catches of open water, or pelagic, fish are down 11 percent, and catches from waters within 200 nautical miles of Taiwan's coasts have fallen 20 percent, mullet being the most obvious example.

When mullet fishing was at its peak, 70 to 80 fishing teams (each team comprised of two vessels) would set out to sea from Taiwan during mullet season. "Now only three pairs of boats go out," said Tseng Chin-rong, secretary-general of the Singda Fishermen's Association in Kaohsiung, holding up three fingers to emphasize his point.

A similar phenomenon exists in northern Taiwan, in the port of Yeliu, not far from Keelung. Diving instructor Wang Kuo-chang has lived near the port for 22 years.

Pointing to the waterfront 6-7 meters from the entrance to his office, he holds up an illustration of marine species and says, "It used to be that when you jumped in, there were all kinds of fish. Now it's empty. There's nothing there."

As a result of the precipitous depletion of fish stocks in Taiwan's waters over the past 10 years, the droves of tourists who now head to seafood restaurants near the port with great anticipation end up eating imported mangrove crabs, or farm-raised grouper and amberjack.

Price of Mahi-mahi Soaring

The port of Chenggong in Taidong County, long renowned as one of eastern Taiwan's prime fishing centers, is not much better off. "Fishing vessels and rafts head out every day, and sometimes they come back empty-handed. Catches are down, and as a result market prices have risen," says Tsai Fu-jung, secretary-general of the Taidong New Harbor Fishery Association.

A prime example, he says, is the common dolphinfish, better known as mahi-mahi. Five years ago, mahi-mahi weighing more than five kilograms would fetch NT$60-70 per kilo, but by 2011 prices had soared to NT$150 per kilo.

"In just five years, the price has more than doubled, which shows the huge extent to which catches have fallen," Tsai says.

If that's the case, then where does the dazzling array of fish seen in local markets come from?

The port of Singda, once one of Taiwan's most important ports for mullet but now facing hard times because of the precipitous decline in quantities of fish caught, may provide some answers.

At the day's auction, which now begins relatively late at 11:30 a.m. and is generally over by noon, fish caught in nearby waters no longer dominate the proceedings. "This is oval squid from Thailand. It's Thai. NT$300 a kilo," yells out a 30-year-old fishmonger surnamed Su.

Twenty minutes is more than enough to get a good look at the small auction area. There are some live fish – farm-raised tilapia from Jiading, in northern Kaohsiung – but almost everything else on offer is caked in ice.

The fish vendor Mr. Su says the small siboga squids in the booth next to his come from Indonesia and the large yellow croakers in the booth across from his are from China. "There are fish here from around the world, and also mackerel from Suao (in northeastern Taiwan)," he adds.

16 Hours to Fujian

The auction markets in these ports in southern Taiwan now serve more as transaction and distribution centers. Fish are gathered from all over and then sent to traditional markets in Tainan and Kaohsiung, where they are then purchased by consumers.

"The fish sold at the ports are highly similar. What you have are the same products being moved around. The special local flavor that once distinguished each port has completely disappeared," says Ming-shiou Jeng, a research fellow at Academia Sinica's Biodiversity Research Center.

A member of a fishermen's association told CommonWealth Magazine that the problem is the same in northern Taiwan, where fishermen have long relied on China as a source of supply.

"Taiwan hasn't had fish for a long time. A lot of the fish at direct wholesale markets (in local ports) comes from China. Many fishing boats in the north sail to Sansha in Xiapu County in Fujian to buy fish. It takes about 16 hours to get there from Keelung," the fisherman said.

Over the past 10 years, fish markets and fishing ports along Taiwan's western coast have been full of seafood items ferried in from the Chinese coast. Taiwanese fishing boats sail straight into Chinese ports, grab a "menu" to order what they need, and then head home, their holds full.

Over the past three years, however, China's improving economic fortunes have made it more difficult to get good seafood at an affordable price in Taiwan.

"The higher quality fish are now all being shipped to China," says Taidy Chang, executive director of the Kuroshio Ocean Education Foundation, explaining why prices in Taiwan for higher-end items, from farm-raised grouper to lobster and crab, continue to rise.

With both Taiwan and China vying for the best seafood, "it is pretty much impossible for us to get our hands on it," a Taiwanese seafood restaurant owner lamented. China's market is simply too attractive. A crab that sells in Taiwan for NT$500 per kilo can fetch up to NT$1,000 per kilo across the Taiwan Strait.

Other species that have proven popular in China include silver pomfret, Pacific saury and mackerel. 

Fisheries Agency director-general James Sha confirmed the trend. One of the major problems he has had to confront recently is the lack of fish for fishing ports around the country to auction off.

Just before being interviewed by CommonWealth Magazine, in fact, Sha was in a meeting of agency supervisors to discuss whether farm-raised fish should be allowed to be sold in greater quantities at the ports' auction markets to fill the shortfall.

"Initially, we depended on fishing vessels to catch fish. Then we relied on fish smuggled in from China. Now we depend on imports," he said.

In reality, while fewer fishing vessels now set out to sea to buy illicit fish, the quantity of seafood legally imported from China has exploded.

Taiwan's fish imports have soared over the past 10 years, from 14,000 metric tons in 2002 to 80,000 tons last year, and most of what is imported "are varieties commonly found on people's dinner tables," Sha says.

The volume imported last year was 2.3 times the amount of fish caught in Taiwan's coastal waters, an indication of how much the composition of the country's fish market has changed.

"There is still time to save Taiwan's waters, but if no action is taken, the next generation may not have a chance to see any fish at all," Academia Sinica's Shao says, pointing to effective management as the key to solving the problem.

Fishermen from Siao Liouciou Island off the coast of Pingdong County were once known as Taiwan's top masters of their craft. Eighty percent of the country's tuna came from their fishing boats. But those days are gone, and one person who witnessed the decline, Siao Liouciou Fishermen's Association manager Tsai Pao-hsing, blames it on the lack of conservation of fish stocks, with porous and inadequate management the main culprit.

Poisons, Explosives, Electric Shocks

The failure to ban inappropriate fishing methods that trapped fish indiscriminately and the inability to conserve Taiwan's coasts have made it impossible for fertilized eggs to hatch, explains the Siao Liouciou fisherman.

"Now there are no bluefin tuna to catch. Who's hurting? The ones hurting are still the fishermen," he says angrily.

Though the Coast Guard Administration patrols Taiwan's coastal waters regularly, Tsai Pao-hsing believes what local communities need even more are "fishery policemen," who would be responsible for conserving marine resources and could enforce bans on the use of poisons, explosives or electric shocks to catch fish and prevent illegal mining of the sea's resources.

Beyond that, the Fisheries Agency has tried to create artificial reefs and released hatchery-reared fry into the wild. "But the sea is so full of old nets and garbage that this is like trying to erect a new building on a garbage dump," Tsai says.

Although Taiwan's Fisheries Act explicitly prohibits bottom trawling and trammel net fishing within three nautical miles of the country's coastline, the accumulated garbage testifies to how poorly the law has been enforced. Many believe that local governments need to strengthen punishment for violators and that the central government should set appropriate fishing quotas to sustain fish stocks.

Setting Up a 'Seafood Bank'

A more pro-active way to address the problem would be to plan and establish marine protection areas. Academia Sinica's Jeng compares the idea to the creation of a "seafood bank," where the bank pays interest if deposits are high.

It may seem odd considering the depth of its marine problems, but Taiwan does have protected areas. Waters designated as protected areas for different purposes account for 46 percent of the country's 12-nautical-mile territorial waters.

"There are six different laws under which a protected area can be established. The problem is that there is not one specific agency in charge of enforcement. Without enforcement, the areas are simply 'paper parks,'" says Jeng's colleague Shao.

Taiwan today is an island without fish along its coasts. The Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou administrations may have both declared Taiwan an "ocean state," but the commitment of Taiwan's government and people to live up to that vision has fallen far short.

Just ask the fish in coastal waters.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier