In 1997, Chinese White Dolphins were selected as the handover mascot. However, 20 years later, their habitats are polluted and degraded by large constructions near North Lantau. These constructions also produce high noise levels, which hampers the living of the acoustic dolphins, and even crash directly into the dolphins. Having no shelter and very few remaining natural habitats, the Hong Kong handover mascot may soon become extinct.
Impact of reclamation on habitat of Chinese White Dolphin
Dr. Leszek Karczmarski, Associate Professor and Head of Cetacean Ecology Lab, the Swire Institute of Marine Science, the University of Hong Kong, says that Chinese White Dolphin is the barometer of human activities’ impact on the environment. “It is one of the coastal species which are directly affected by variety of human activities” Dr. Karczmarski added, “whether our activities are directly in the coastal zone or whether they are further inland, everything sooner or later concentrates in the coastal area, which is where this particular species lives its daily life”.
The Hong Kong Cetacean Research Project, which is a research on Chinese White Dolphin funded by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), started in 1995, after the commencement of Chek Lap Kok Airport construction in 1991. Since 1995, the longitudinal monitoring project has been continued in efforts to protect Chinese White Dolphins.
Following the Chek Lap Kok airport construction, the biggest reclamation project in Hong Kong, several reclamation projects are still taking place in Hong Kong waters. “According to our government, this is because we have too many people but not enough land”, said Taison Chang, Chairman of Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society. “In these 10 to 20 years, there are more and more reclamation projects happened in Hong Kong waters, some of them are in dolphins’ habitat, like the airport, Disneyland, Tung Chung New Town Development, the ongoing Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, and the plan of third airport runway. And different reclamation projects in North Lantau areas, like Sunnybay, Siu Ho Wan, Tai Ho Wan, and in Tuen Mun area, and the Lung Kwu Tan reclamation”
Chang worries that the upcoming third airport runway will impose a considerably negative impact to the marine ecosystem. “it will be the second last piece of reclamation land in Hong Kong history. The area is about 650 hectares, which is about ⅔ of the existing airport. Also, as the third runway is very close to the established marine parks for Chinese White Dolphin protection, including the Sha Chau and Lung Kwu Chau Marine Park, and the Brothers’ Island Marine park. These two marine parks are the last habitats for Chinese white Dolphins in North Lantau” Chang added.
These constructions and development plans result in habitat degradation and, even worse, habitat removal. Due to habitat degradation caused by the construction of Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, Chinese White Dolphins, who used to live in North Lantau and Northwest Lantau, are forced to move to South Lantau. The effectiveness of marine parks planned by Hong Kong government is questioned, as they are located in North Lantau covering only a few core habitat areas.
“We have areas that dolphins really depend on which are off West and Southwest Lantau. That’s where they have shifted their distribution. This areas are not only unprotected at the moment. They are not even prioritized by the government for future conservation” said Karczmarski. “The Brothers Marine Park is based on old historical data. This used to be an area frequently used by the dolphins, but not now. We need to base our conservation measures on what we have now, not what it was 15 to 20 years ago”.
Holistic interpretation of different dolphin population figures
A recent research by the Swire Institute of Marine Science provides another perspective about the population of Chinese White Dolphins. According to the researchers there are at least 368 dolphins relying on Hong Kong waters. This is a relatively larger number compared to the numbers claimed by AFCD funded monitoring program, which is around 60, for the past years.
Dr. Karczmarski, however, explained the numbers do not contradict each other but complement by providing the other side of the coin. “What the 60+ or 70+ number indicates is the number of dolphins that can be seen in Hong Kong waters in any given days. This is not the same as Hong Kong population. This is what we call ecological carrying capacity of the environment. Everyday there are different individuals. So cumulatively there will be just under 400 dolphins that will be using this Hong Kong environment” Dr. Karczmarski added, “It is not that there are more dolphins here. But overall Hong Kong environment is much more critical for the entire Pearl River Estuary. And the numbers, in fact, even though the dolphins that use Hong Kong waters are more than what we thought, the overall number of the population is dramatically less than we thought”.
Dr. Karczmarski also added that, “population of Chinese White Dolphins is declining by 2.5% annually. Maintaining the current rate would be an optimistic scenario as it means there would be no further degradation of habitats which is highly unlikely to happen. If the rate remains constant, the population will drop by 70% or even more in three generations of these animals, which is around 60 to 70 years.”
Additional factors: acoustic pollution and boat collisions
Another ramification of reclamation, besides pollutant emission, is acoustic pollution, which influence the dolphin population negatively. “Dolphins’ vision is considerably low” Dr. Karczmarski explained, “thus they hear the environment by producing ultrasound. Also, their communication and social interactions largely depend on sound”. What’s even worse is the behavior of medium-to-large size high speed vessels and small boats.
“The ships and boats are also suspected to have crashed into dolphins, causing scars in their fins. We had never seen this dolphin after finding it injured” said Chang. Dr. Karczmarski added that badly-behaving small boats are actually the most problematic as the area where the traffic is mostly concentrated is the inshore area. “Chinese White Dolphins are extremely shallow water species. That is where majority of their daily activities, such as foraging, is concentrated. And this is where all these noisy fast moving vessels interfere.”
Private dolphin tours operated by individuals mainly from Tai O is a significant example of small-sized vessels violating habitats of Chinese White Dolphins. Charging $20 to $30 per person, these small boats can serve up to 4 to 5 tours per hour, each tour lasts for around an hour. In order to maximize their profits, the boatmen tend to steer boats faster, often exceeding speed limits, and getting too close to the dolphins. However, these limits and controls are not legally binding, so violation of the guidelines seldom leads to legal penalty.
Government officials’ lack of understanding
2017 is the year marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong handover, but Chinese White Dolphins no longer represent the celebration. “I am not sure whether there will be a mascot. I won’t eliminate the possibility of having, but we don’t have any plans right now. For other information on the 20th anniversary celebration, they can be found on the official website” said Jo Chu, Information Officer of Celebrations Coordination Office.
Even though Chinese White Dolphin is listed as the “Grade 1 National Key Protected Species” in mainland China, and are protected under Wild Animals Protection Ordinance and Protection of Endangered Species of Animals and Plant Ordinance in Hong Kong, the government lacks attention on protection of the species.
In the official Facebook page of Hong Kong government, a photo of Carrie Lam standing on a painting of a Chinese White Dolphin is uploaded. Netizens criticized Lam’s behavior as a destructive step on the endangered species, as the government was about to kickstart the construction of the third airport runway. After winning the Chief Executive Election, the Chief Executive-elect has not yet announced any specific plans about conserving the Hong Kong’s iconic dolphins. When the reporters emailed Lam for her opinion on the issue, Bond Yu, the Private Secretary to the Chief Executive-elect replied, “We have relayed the matter raised to the Environment Bureau.”
According to Apple Daily, during an interview with the Commercial Radio Hong Kong, Fanny Law Fan Chiu Fun, member of the Executive Council, said “I think that creatures (Chinese White Dolphins) are sometimes quite smart; they will leave the reclamation sites and find another place which is more suitable for living. Then they will come back when the project is finished”.
Chang pointed out that the authority lacks understanding on the issue. “Some experts from airport authority may tell you the dolphins are smart enough to come back again after constructions. But we believe that the habitat will be so polluted that the dolphins will not come back”. Dr. Karczmarski agreed. “It is a wishful thinking. It is more of a statement that may sound good to calm down the public nerves. It is a hypothetical scenario based on no evidence which is highly unlikely to happen”.
Dr. Karczmarski added “what should be highlighted here is the limitation of the habitat available in Hong Kong, which is a very important part for the dolphins, in terms of the entire Pearl River Estuary ecosystem. Any activity in Hong Kong waters, the bridge development and the third runway construction, land reclamations and anything else, has direct impacts on the coastal habitat overall. These developments are right in the core areas which the dolphins to a great extent depend on because that is where their food and shelter is. Further shrinking in the size of their core areas will cause, the dolphins eventually losing their only home.”
“And the problem is that there is no alternative in Pearl River Estuary. Even though they are forced out of Hong Kong because their home is being degraded, they don’t have a place to go because there isn’t anything else of that quality and with that nature within the Pearl River Estuary. Hong Kong waters represent the largest foraging ground for Chinese White Dolphins” said Dr. Karczmarski.
Further actions to save Chinese White Dolphins
Measures beyond marine parks should be taken for conservation. “We suggest to have a some core areas set as reserves” said Carmen Or, a researcher at the Swire Institute of Marine Science. “as proper closed reserves where, perhaps some licensed activities could be allowed but very minimal, and where we could ensure that these areas are non-development zones.” “And we need to ensure some form of connectivity between those very critical areas, so the reserves should be interconnected by the boundary of marine parks.” Dr. Karczmarski added.
Dr. Karczmarski and his team said they were lucky enough to coincidentally accumulate data two years prior to the commencement of Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. He stressed the importance of proper planning. “An important point is that conservation in Hong Kong will not be enough. It has to go across the border. It has to involve a network of protected areas within Pearl River Estuary. And it has to involve all the other impacts that come from inland – pollutants, fishery management, etc. Also proper planning of our development projects is much needed. We have to have proper data prior to, during and after projects to actually provide better predictions and better guidance for developments”. He also warned that, “If we don’t address these problems now, Chinese White Dolphins will be doomed to extinction!”
Chang emphasized the power of education, ‘We still believe that education can change people’s mentality. We want more people to join us, so we have a bigger bargaining power with the government!’
Article, photos, video and infographics by Lauren Yoon & Joy Chung
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