"Their world is their oysters"

Friday, March 28, 2014, 12:05

Their world is their oysters

By SL Luo / Focus HK


Oysters being dried in the sun at Lau Fau Shan as local demand for dried seafood grows.


What a haul! Farmer YC Chan shows off his harvest on one of his oyster rafts in Shenzhen Bay.

Hong Kong’s oyster farmers in Shenzhen Bay have earned their livelihood from selling their oysters to restaurants in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district for decades. Not anymore. Shenzhen authorities claim that Shenzhen Bay has become so heavily polluted, seafood there is not fit for human consumption.

The oyster farmers sharply disagree and point to findings by Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) to prove their point.

A heated debate looms. Just how polluted are the waters of Shenzhen Bay?

Today, there’s a clear line of demarcation across the bay. The mainland side has been swept clear of the hundreds of oyster rafts that had been there for decades.

Shenzhen’s crackdown on the mainland side of the bay started late last year. Hundreds of the oyster beds were removed. Scores of farmers were detained for criminal violations.

Mainland aqua culturists depended on those waters and now watch with considerable envy as almost a thousand oyster farmers over on the Hong Kong side continue to do business.

By an odd coincidence, contaminated mollusks are not the only pollution debate that has the two sides fuming at each other. The controversy over Hong Kong’s two landfills at Tuen Mun and Ta Kwu Ling is still raging. People living on the mainland side have been roused to fury over pollution and evil odors they say are coming from the sites. The Shenzhen government has taken the side of its local residents. Many claim there is some linkage between the two disputes.

I waded into the clambake, daring to test Shenzhen’s claims that the waters in Shenzhen Bay pose extreme risk to human health, so as to render seafood harvested there unfit for human consumption.

So, I tucked into a dozen oysters and a plateful of giant clams at a restaurant in Lau Fau Shan — one of Hong Kong’s two famous seafood enclaves at Yuen Long overlooking Shenzhen Bay. After laying out HK$250 for the hearty repast, I walked out of the restaurant without the least hint that I might soon be in urgent need of medical attention.

“I’ve been in this oyster business at Lau Fau Shan for more than 10 years, and I don’t think there’s water pollution here as bad as the Shenzhen authorities are saying. If the water was contaminated, the oysters would have died,” argues oyster farmer Y C Chan.

Chan, who operates a dozen of the rafts on the Hong Kong side of Shenzhen Bay, says about a third of the 200-odd local oyster farmers have been hit by Shenzhen’s crackdown.

“The oyster rafts on the other side of the bay have all gone. They can ban our products for sure, but they can’t touch us,” Chan told China Daily.

He says AFCD officers visit Lau Fau Shan monthly to check on water quality in the bay and, so far, the tests have been all good with no signs of metallic or other forms of contamination from carbon dioxide emissions.

“This is a huge industry. Farmers who had been selling their oysters to seafood restaurants in Shenzhen have been hard hit. They’ve diversified to some extent now and are selling their products farther away, in Yangjiang and Maoming in Guangdong province,” says Chan.

Luster gone

Has Lau Fau Shan lost its luster as a traditional seafood paradise, especially for oyster cultivation?

“Yes, it has,” Chan replies. “There have been too many restrictions on the industry and competition is getting intense with even more expensive oysters now coming from Taishan in Guangdong. Tourists will pay any price as long as they think they’re safe and fresh,” Chan says.

Chan harvests about 500 catties of oysters a day from from Shenzhen Bay. These days he sells most of them as dried products for local consumption.

The tough regulations add to the annual woes that accompany typhoon season every year. Typhoons can wreak sheer devastation on the rafts, he observes.

“These few years we’ve been lucky. Eight to 10 years ago, we had enormous losses from typhoons.”

Chan wants the Hong Kong government to get involved to try to resolve the current impasse. “We need to be consulted in every way because the future is at stake for many of the farmers affected by the restrictions,” he adds.

Shenzhen’s Economy, Trade and Information Commission has led the charge against Shenzhen Bay oyster farming. The commission did some tastes, leading to the conclusion that Shenzhen Bay is seriously polluted.

And there are no plans to lift the ban on oyster farms on the mainland side — as a precaution to safeguard the health of the local community.

A monitoring system will be set up this year to make regular checks on the water quality.

Relevant departments in Hong Kong will be sitting down soon to discuss how to regulate oyster breeding on the SAR side of the bay.

“Yes, the campaign is on, but we can’t divulge details at this stage,” a source with the commission told China Daily.