Huge speedboats capable of carrying illicit cargo fast and stealthily enough to evade police and customs patrols are bringing record numbers of Australian rock lobster into Hong Kong on the sly, in defiance of import restrictions imposed by China, RFA has learned after investigating recent changes in trade statistics.
Earlier this week, Hong Kong police found the body of a marine police officer in the sea after a patrol vessel capsized after being rammed by a speedboat, local media reported.
An operation on Sept. 11 saw the seizure of 21 boxes of smuggled lobster, while a speedboat captured on July 28 was found with a haul of 78 boxes of smuggled cigarettes and lobster.
Only a small minority of the smugglers are caught, however, with the majority ending up on diners' tables in mainland China, the figures suggest.
Hong Kong used to import around 5,000 kg (11,000 lb) of Australian lobster every month, but since the trade ban, the number has risen to hundreds of thousands of kilograms, suggesting that the bulk of lobster arriving in the city isn't being consumed there.
In a recent report, Bloomberg cited research figures from Canberra as saying that Australian lobster exports to mainland China have plummeted by around 99 percent since the ban.
Meanwhile, mainland China clocked a huge increase in fish and crustacean imports from Hong Kong, which topped U.S.$10.6 million in April compared with just U.S.$500,000 in September 2020.
Feng Chongyi, a professor of political science at the University of Technology Sydney, said it's fairly clear that Hong Kong is being used as an alternate trade route into China.
"Smuggling is going to happen if there are bans on a lot of different Australian products," Feng said. "Various other channels will be used to sell them instead."
As one Hong Kong seafood trader bluntly put it when interviewed by local media: "There's no way diners in Hong Kong are going to suddenly eat massive amounts of imported lobster: it has to be going to China."
Feng said the huge uptick in smuggling activities will likely do further damage to Hong Kong's international reputation as an open economy and better governance than neighboring cities in mainland China.
"If we see law and order continue to deteriorate, the problem of smuggling in Hong Kong is just going to get worse," he said.
A Stand News report said that the number of anti-smuggling operations by marine police in Hong Kong fell to 1,419 in 2020, compared with an average of around 2,279 between 2017 and 2019.
Repeated requests for comment from the Hong Kong police and customs forces had met with no response by the time of writing.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Lau Siu Fung.