Hong Kong’s marine authorities have vowed to stepped up actions against the improper use of bright lights for fishing activities, as an environmental NGO urged the government to consider imposing heavier penalties including revoking fishing boat licenses.

fishing bright light
The vessels of the three enforcement departments approaching a fishing vessel for inspection in the joint operation. on August 10, 2023. Photo: GovHK.

A total of 16 fishing vessels were suspected of breaching local marine laws relating to the use of bright lights for fishing between January and July this year, the Marine Department said on Friday, a day after it conducted a joint operation with the police force and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) in the city’s southern waters.

During the operation on Thursday night, authorities inspected two vessels which were suspected to have improperly used bright lights for fishing, the Marine Department said, but no vessel was found to be engaged in illegal fishing.

A government spokesman said vessels were allowed to use bright lights for fishing in specific areas, but the use must be limited to fishing or attracting fish in Hong Kong waters and they should comply with a set of regulations.

Fishermen must ensure no light emitting from the bright light was visible directly or by reflection from any source other than sea surface by making sure that the light source was constructed, shaded and installed, the government said. Anyone who contravened the related legislation would be liable to a fine of HK$5,000 upon conviction.

Proper use of bright light for fishing infographic
Proper use of bright light for fishing infographic. Photo: Screenshot/AFCD.

According to the Marine Department, it conducted 21 special operations in areas including the waters of southern Lantau Island, southern Lamma Island and east of Hong Kong in the first seven months of 2023. It would launch prosecution against the 16 vessels which allegedly did not properly use bright lights for fishing, it said.

It would also continue to co-operate with the police and AFCD to launch target-based operations, in addition to daily patrols and enforcement actions, the department said.

“The Marine Department will continue to step up patrols to combat the improper use of bright light for fishing activities so as to ensure safe navigation,” an English statement from the department read.

Enforcement against the improper use of bright lights in fishing should focus on regulating the angle of the lights used, said Steven Chan, assistant environmental affairs manager of environmental group the Green Earth.

The NGO received dozens of complaints against light nuisance from fishing vessels from residents who lived in coastal areas such as Sai Kung, the Southern District and the southern part of Lantau Island.

A Hong Kong Observatory photo showing bright light from fishing vessels near Cheung Chau on July 31, 2023. Photo: Hong Kong Observatory, via the Green Earth.

The light pollution issue was more serious during the annual summer fishing moratorium of the South China Sea, which spans from April to August, Chan said. But people also lodged complaints with the NGO against bright lights from fishing boats in November and December.

Chan said the government should address the issue “from its source” and regulate sales and use of LED fishing lights. The authorities should also consider penalising fishing vessels that violated the relevant marine laws through the licensing system, which is administered by the AFCD.

“The penalty could be revoking the license, or implementing a points system, similar to the driving offence one,” Chan said.

The issue of light nuisance from fishing boats was discussed at the South District Council in July 2021. District Councillor Jonathan Leung said at the time that the bright light from fishing vessels was so strong that it could penetrate curtains and cause prolonged nuisance to nearby residents, especially those living in South Bay and Chung Hom Kok.

A Hong Kong Observatory photo showing bright light from fishing vessels near Sai Kung on July 31, 2023. Photo: Hong Kong Observatory, via the Green Earth.

Another former district councillor, Kelvin Lam, who left his post in July 2021, said some vessels would sail back and forth in the nearby waters from 10 pm to 6 am or 7 am the next morning. The noise produced by the boats would also impact local residents’ lives, he said.

Leung said the current legislation allowed vessels to engage in bright light fishing in a lawful manner, and addressing the issue may require the government to amend the relevant laws.

During the District Council meeting, Senior Marine Officer Iris Yiu of the Marine Department said it was “inappropriate” to disclose the number of vessels deployed for patrols and law enforcement operations at night as it was part of the department’s internal manpower deployment matters.

Yiu said at the time that lamp shades of fishing vessels were not within the scope of the regulations and therefore the department could not regulate them.

She added the patrol officers were mainly responsible for ensuring navigational safety, but the department would also try to allocate manpower whenever possible in a bid to handle irregularities linked to bright light fishing.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.