Pilot Project to Increase Awareness of the Ecological Importance of the Fish Ponds within the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site  

Project Title: Pilot Project to Increase Awareness of the Ecological Importance of the Fish Ponds within the Mai Po Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site

Applicant: World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong

Total Approved Grant: $145,000

Duration: October 2001 - March 2002

Project Status/Remarks: Completed

Scope:
The project consists of site visits to Mai Po organized for pond fish farmers and village representatives. Invitation would be further extended to students towards end of the project for the purpose of enhancing awareness of ecological importance of the Fish Ponds at San Tin and Mai Po areas.

For the fishpond farmers, they would be taught about techniques on fish reared, feed used, harvesting methods and how fishponds can be managed for waterbirds. Special visits to the nature reserve areas within the Ramsar Site will be organized for the representatives of villages of San Tin, Mai Po, and Tai Sang Wai. It is expected that the use of the ponds by waterbirds would be maximized when they are drained in winter for harvesting.

Summary of the Findings/Outcomes:
Deep Bay lies in the northwestern corner of the Hong Kong SAR and consists of a mosaic of natural and man-made wetlands, including commercial fishponds. These wetlands are especially important as a staging post for migratory waterbirds in the East Asian - Australasian Flyway. In 1995, the Hong Kong Government listed a 1,500 ha area of the Deep Bay wetlands as being of International Importance under the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention). This Mai Po and Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site includes a 400 ha area of commercial fishponds that were designated as a "Wise Use Zone" under the management plan for the Ramsar Site. This was to recognise the role that traditionally managed fishponds play in providing direct economic benefits to the local community, and indirect benefits to wildlife, particularly waterbirds, that feed on the small non-commercial species of fish and shrimps in the shallow water of the ponds when they are drained in winter for harvesting.

Since the designation of the Ramsar Site, many groups have worked to increase awareness of the Site to students and the general public, and to improve the conservation management of the Site. However, the focus of much of the publicity has been on the wildlife (e.g. waterbirds) or the natural habitats (e.g. mangrove forests) of the Site, rather than on promoting the cultural, economic and ecological importance of the commercial fishponds.

Therefore, the aims of this study, which was conducted from October 2000 to March 2001, were to-

* Interview 30 pond-fish farmers to collect information on the range of traditional and recent fishpond management techniques, and socio-economic data associated with these different techniques,

* Investigate how the different types of fishpond management affects waterbird use of the ponds when they are drained in winter for harvesting,

* Introduce to the pond-fish farmers the importance of the Ramsar Site and the role that the traditional management of their ponds play in maintaining the Site's ecological value. The fishermen's perception of the future of their industry will also be collected.

The results shows that with the decline in the price of Grey Mullet in the mid-1990s, the pond-fish farmers moved from rearing a monoculture of Grey Mullet to a polyculture with a higher proportion of Bighead, Grass Carp and sometimes Grey Mullet as well, in order to maintain their income. With the change in the species reared, the pond-fish farmers also moved from single socking of their ponds in spring to continuous socking throughout the year, and from complete drain down of the ponds in winter for harvesting to partial drain down whenever the market price of the fish is high. Furthermore, the introduction of the Livestock Waste Control Scheme in 1994, forced many pond-fish farmers to cease rearing ducks alongside their fishponds which in turn, meant that there was no need to completely drain the pond in winter to oxidise the excess nutrients from the duck droppings on the pond floor. As a result of these changes in fishpond management, the complete drain down of the Deep Bay fishponds in winter has become less frequent. This in turn, has meant that there are now less indirect opportunities for waterbirds to feed in drained fishponds in winter. The project also aimed to collect baseline socio-economic data associated with the different pond-fish farming techniques in order to estimate the costs and profits for each technique. However, the operators were unwilling to provide such data because of concerns that their information would be disclosed to a wider audience.

In winter, the pond-fish farmers lower the water level in their ponds to harvest their stock by either following a single complete drain down, or a staggered complete drain down technique. As the complete drain down of fishponds is known to indirectly provide wintering waterbirds with an important feeding habitat, waterbird use of fishponds drained using the two drain down techniques was compared. Although the results provided useful information on the pattern of bird use of draining fishponds, they were inconclusive in showing any differences in the pattern of bird use between the two different drain down techniques. This was probably due to the small sample size of ponds (n = 5) and a number of confounding factors, such as the different size and location of the ponds, and the species and density of fish socked in the ponds.

All the respondents agreed that fishpond aquaculture around Deep Bay will continue to decline mainly because of a decline in the market price for freshwater fish and the increasing import of cheaply produced fish from Mainland China. Despite this, they all agreed that they would continue pond-fish farming. The respondents also suggested that Government could assist in resolving their problems by-
* Providing financial support to their industry (40%) or helping them to wire their ponds against Cormorant predation (10%),
* Reducing the import of freshwater fish from Mainland China,
* Increasing the import of workers from Mainland China to help on their fishponds due to a shortage of local labour.

In return, the Government has expressed that it would be difficult to provide such support because of the precedents that such support would cause. However, as the 'wise use' of wetlands is one of the main "conceptual pillars" of the Convention of Wetlands, and the fishponds within the Ramsar Site have been designated as a "Wise Use Zone", then the Hong Kong SAR Government should consider providing some kind of support to the pond-fish farmers. Such support need not be directly related to resolving their problems, but could be proactive support to encourage the fishermen to continue practising a system of pond-fish farming that follows the "wise use" principle, which can then benefit both the pond-fish farmers, the ecology of the Ramsar Site and the wider community in Hong Kong.

There are examples from overseas of such support, where the government enters into management agreements with the operators or owners of private agricultural land of ecological value, whereby the Government provides financial encouragement in return for the land to be managed under certain guidelines in order to maintain the ecological value of the site. The Hong Kong SAR Government could consider adapting a similar system of management agreement with pond-fish farmers so as to maintain the ecological value of the Deep Bay fishponds. Such a system could be linked to the general improvement of the fishpond area, such as the removal of illegal dumps and the renovation of dilapidated stilt houses of cultural value. The area can then be promoted, in a controlled manner, for education, recreation and tourism by both local and overseas visitors. This in turn, could provide additional income for the pond-fish farmers. However, such a system would involve considerable discussion between Government, pond-fish farmers and other relevant stakeholders.