I’ve recently had the most reflective conversation with my grandma. She’s a health nut. In China’s increasingly relatively wealthy ageing population, I proud to reflect that my granny, with her lack of internet communication and cataract eyes, has been contributing to her local economy of pushy ‘caring’ health-pill sellers. We were having a serious conversation about her recent switch from fish oils to vegetable-based oils so that she could avoid mercury poisoning… This is where the murky world of ecology and health take on different roads…


So I investigated Bo’ao, a quiet coastal village just days before it the hosted the Forum for Asian -the china equivalent of World Economic Forum in Davos. According to Xinhua, it’s:

“As a non-government, non-profit international organization… the most prestigious and premier forum for leaders in government, business and academia in Asia and other continents to share visions on the most pressing issues in this dynamic region and the world at large.”

The roads were newly laid out between the airport at Haikou and Bo’ao and I was travelling alongside last-minute construction adjustments.


I can only hope that it might have been anything to do that led to the eventual European ban on discarding fish -a game of the quota system fishermen play to maximise the sales profit by throwing away any smaller catch. This would have worked in theory, allowing smaller fish to get bigger makes sense, but as I started to research I realised that most of the discards are dead or so at the brink of death that releasing into the sea would not save them.

But what about  grannie’s fish oils? As I was regurgitating my knowledge of how smaller fish would contain less heavy metals for being lower in the food system, I start to think…

This is the woman that survived World War II, starvation and spent most of her life without a fridge in a non-costal city in the middle of China. In fact, I saw her first ever fridge, a classic green well-designed utility symbol of my childhood… in her new apartment. Her living habits has not changed much. She hardly has fish. There was no way her lifetime mercury dosage could be half as high as my trout-gobbling diet but there she was, consuming  so much fish, in the form of transparent, gelatinous capsules of packaged fish oils that she was having to worry about mercury overload.


That’s when it struck me the conflicting tension between ecology and health caused by distance. In the egalitarian 21st Century we praise the increase in the health and dietary benefits of those with access, at the great sacrifice to the marine ecology. The Bo’ao fishermen, whose are trying to keep up with the vast change in our technologies, tastes and lifestyles experience for a week what it’s like for their sleepy village to be transformed to a touristic coast. It’s a clash of decisions, a limbo of lifestyles and a contrast in our beliefs. For now, it’s just the odd the stranded officials.


The helplessness in this dilemma between the demand for fish and its weight on the ecology is highlighted by the go-to for all unanswerable problems: incentives for data-collection.

Fishermen that install a CCTV camera on their boats will receive a greater quota. As I imagine some guy sipping coffee and exchanging his multi-screens of garage doors loading from vans to fishermen loading from the sea, I cannot fail to see the ironic clichés between freedom and control. Our culture of urban surveillance is spreading towards the sea. This political voyeurism fuelled by our hopes and fears of technology is really a cryogenic reliance on the future. The refrigeration of a very fishy problem.

Written by Lisa Ma

Lisa Ma socializes activism. Combining ethnographic research and speculative design, Lisa creates platforms of engagement from surprising insights and processes that deeply resonate with the global technological community. The emergence of clicktivism – to protest at the click of a mouse – is trivializing activism. Lisa argues that although activism doesn’t necessarily benefit from technology, we need to evolve how activism contributes to technological societies. To illustrate this, she designs dilemmas and creates social events that are perceived as activism but function as services.

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